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No laughing matter: Thai junta leader’s renewed threat to media

27 March 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 26, 2015

Thai junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha this week warned that he has power to ‘execute’ critical reporters. Maybe this time he wasn’t joking, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

THE allegations against the four men are severe: they are accused of being in connection to an alleged ”terrorism network” plotting to launch bomb attacks in Bangkok. A blast on March 7 at the Criminal Court (where no one was injured) is being pinned on them. They were held in military barracks for almost a week without charges, in accordance with martial law that is still in force since the military coup almost a year ago.

During the detention these four men were also allegedly tortured into making false confessions, according to human rights lawyers. One suspect said he was punched, kicked and even electrocuted ”30-40 times” by soldiers during interrogations.

Unsurprisingly, the Thai military disputes these allegations as a ”distortion of facts” and army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr has threatened legal action after the accusations.

That is in essence an example of how Thailand’s military junta deals with accusations and criticism leveled against them: denial and rejection – so far, so common. But that also comes with a heavy dose of self-righteous zeal to claim the ultimate sovereignty over what they constitute as the truth.

And no one defends this “truth” more vigorously than Gen. Udomdej’s army chief predecessor: General Prayuth Chan-ocha, current military junta leader and also prime minister.

Even the most casual Thai political observer is aware of Gen. Prayuth’s frequent contentious exchanges, especially with the press, in which he is at best sardonic and at worst goes on a tirades mostly ending with threats – and coming from a military man in charge of a government with wide-reaching powers, and with no one seemingly stopping him, this makes it very problematic, to say the least.

Case in point, from earlier this week:

“Our country has seen so much trouble because we have had too much democracy, unlike other countries where the government has more power to restrict freedoms,” Gen. Prayuth (…) told investors and businessmen at a conference in Bangkok today. “Even the media can’t criticize [those leaders], like they do here. I insist that today, we are 99 percent democratic, because I didn’t overthrow democracy at all.”

Gen. Prayuth continued, “I can’t even stop people from opposing me at this moment. If I genuinely had complete power, I would have imprisoned [critics] or handed them to a firing squad. It would be over, I wouldn’t have to wake up at night like this. Today there are some people who love me, but there are also many people who hate me. But please know that I am not doing this for myself. I am here to work for the country.”

Junta Leader Blames Thai Crisis on ‘Too Much Democracy’”, Khaosod English, March 23, 2015

It gets even worse later this week, when Gen. Prayuth had yet another episode in which he scolded reporters for a particularly (from his perspective) annoying question that quickly escalated into a rant accusing everyone not thankful enough for the “freedoms” he permits to criticize him and the junta. But then it deteriorated even more after reporters asked what would happened to media outlets stepping out of line, to which he said this:

“We’ll probably just execute them,” said Prayuth, without a trace of a smile, when asked by reporters how the government would deal with those that do not adhere to the official line.

“You don’t have to support the government, but you should report the truth,” the former army chief said, telling reporters to write in a way that bolsters national reconciliation in the kingdom.

Thai PM Prayuth warns media, says has power to execute reporters”, Reuters, March 25, 2015

He went on to target specific outlets like Matichon by literally pointing at copies of their newspapers and lambasting their coverage (which you can read here in a transcript of the whole tirade by Khaosod English that is – for a lack of a better word – just amazingly mind-boggling).

If there’s still any doubt about what kind of man and what kind of mentality we are dealing with here, then there’s your answer! This is a man ruling a regime under which dissent is outlawed and the media is under constant surveillance.

In an ironically tone-deaf incident, earlier on the same day, Gen. Prayuth he blasted Channel 3 journalist Thapanee Ietsrichai for her investigative report into the inhumane slave-like conditions on Thai fishing boats (coinciding with a similar investigation by the Associated Press following similar reports by The Guardian and Global Post in recent years) for the damaging the country’s reputation and summoned to explain herself to the authorities.

As amusing (and admittedly cathartic) as it is to laugh and ridicule the general’s verbal outbursts and this junta’s ineptitude to deal with criticism (as we have extensively chronicled it), it’s no laughing matter and perhaps we should stop treating it as such.

Maybe we should stop portraying Prayuth’s outbursts as amusing one-note anecdotes about somebody’s public anger issues, but rather as the dangerously misguided delusions of somebody who knows no other way to exert power than by abusive force – and more worryingly, is in a situation and position powerful enough to actually do it.

Gen. Prayuth’s mere mention of considering the use of execution against critical journalists – twice, no less! – crosses yet another line after so many other lines have been already crossed. Maybe it is time for others to take Thailand’s plight under the military junta more seriously.

ThaiMiniCult’s newest puritan crusade targets underboob selfies

20 March 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 19, 2015

The "appropriate" display of female breasts, according to an actual banner on the Thai Ministry of Culture in 2010.

The far more “appropriate” display of female breasts, according to a banner on the Thai Ministry of Culture’s website in 2010.

Thailand’s overzealous cultural watchdogs made international headlines again this week, and as usual for entirely the wrong reasons. This time, they have targeted yet another apparent online phenomenon:

Thailand’s military government warned women on Monday against posting ‘selfie’ photos of the lower half of their breasts – a social media trend that has gone viral – saying their actions could violate the country’s computer crime laws.

Thailand’s 2007 Computer Crimes Act bans any material that causes “damage to the country’s security or causes public panic” or “any obscene computer data which is accessible to the public”.

The culture ministry said offenders faced up to five years in jail, but did not say how they would identify the culprits.

“When people take these ‘underboob selfies’ no one can see their faces,” ministry spokesman Anandha Chouchoti told Reuters. “So it’s like, we don’t know who these belong to, and it encourages others to do the same.

“We can only warn people to not take it up. They are inappropriate actions.”

Thais warned against taking ‘underboss selfies’“, Reuters, March 16, 2015

Yes, (regular readers know what’s coming next) the self-proclaimed cultural heralds of everything “Thainess” we usually call ThaiMiniCult are once again setting out on their puritan crusade again to safeguard sanctimonious sanctity of what’s appropriate and what’s not.

And even though there’s no concrete evidence that the “underboob” selfies have gotten ahold in the Thai online community, as Yupa Taweewattanakijbaworn admitted to Thai Rath, the director of the ThaiMiniCult’s Culture Surveillance Center nevertheless insisted almost step-motherly that, “Thai culture [as a whole] doesn’t approve public display of scantily clothed [people] anyways.”

Predictably, this (non-)incident was picked up by the international media rather quickly (and due to the fact that an international news agency like Reuters actually wrote about it), further making a mockery of the ruling authoritarian military junta, which has already a tough time to promote itself and its “values” – let alone to foreigners. However, this open vigor by the ThaiMiniCult is not a new occurrence and popped up even before the current military government.

As previously with Buddhist tattoos on foreign skins, mediocre foreign TV-sketches, and whatever that short-lived ‘planking’-meme was, Thai authorities – and especially their colleagues at the Ministry of Culture – always see the need to combat these with a threat to use the law to their fullest possible punishment. It doesn’t make it any better when the law they are citing to clamp down possible offenders with – when these acts of perceived cultural indecencies are made online (and, much to the apparent annoyance of the Thai authorities, anonymously) – is the Computer Crimes Act, which we’ve lambasted in its current and very likely future form.

Also, long-time Siam Voices readers will have noticed by now, most episodes of ThaiMiniCult’s outrage involve the public display of female breasts one way or the other. The most infamous case goes back as far as 2011 when the then-Culture Minister called for a public witch hunt after an online video emerged showing women dancing topless in the streets during the Songkran new year holidays – only then to find out the women were underaged.

Back then, author and Siam Voices contributor “Kaewmala” said in an interview with this author that Thai society “needs to get real” with sexuality and stop hiding behind a “taboo only when it’s inconvenient or causes embarrassment.” In a later article on this blog, she said that the Thai cultural heralds have pathological “mammophobia”. The underlying theme of sexual hypocrisy in Thailand was also picked up by Siam Voices contributor Thitipol Panyalimpanun, who recently wrote that “Thailand put itself into this struggle by positioning itself as noble society.”

It is this holier-than-thou-attitude by the self-proclaimed Thai cultural heralds that leaves easily mockable, mostly because of their overzealousness in protecting whatever their one solid vision of “Thainess” entails, but also their argumentative inconsistency. In an online post that mercilessly mocks this brouhaha, while the ThaiMiniCult has an apparent problem with “underboob” selfies, it hasn’t gawked at Thai magazine and newspaper covers featuring otherwise barely covered female breasts – and never mind that infamous banner (see above) the ThaiMiniCult itself had on their website in 2011…

Tongue-Thai’ed! – When human rights are too “extreme”

05 March 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 4, 2015

This is part XXX of “Tongue-Thai’ed!”, an ongoing series where we collect the most baffling, ridiculous, confusing, outrageous and appalling quotes from Thai politicians and other public figures. Check out all past entries here.

It is hard to deny that the human rights situation in Thailand has sharply deteriorated since last year’s coup which brought in the authoritative military government and its repressive measures to curtail dissent and criticism against their rule.

We have extensively reported on heavy media censorship, hundreds of arbitrary detentions with some allegations of torture, the relentless prosecution of lèse majesté suspects at home and abroad (two young theater activists have been recently sentenced to jail), the junta’s increased efforts to spy online and its intolerance for any kind of protest or mere criticism, especially from abroad. And all that for the junta’s often-claimed maintenance of “peace and order”, while the country still is under martial law. Whoever isn’t keeping calm is being “invited” for “attitude adjustment”.

To say the situation is abysmal would be an understatement. Human Rights Watch said in its annual report that Thailand is in “free fall” and Amnesty International stated that the junta’s actions are creating “a climate of fear”. Meanwhile, the biggest worry of Thailand’s own National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) is not the human rights situation itself – even when student activists are being harassed almost right in front of its chairperson – or an impending major international downgrade, but rather they are more concerned about their own existence amidst proposals to merge it together with the Ombudsman’s Office.

With all that in mind, the Thai military junta’s foreign minister General Thanasak Patimaprakorn went to Geneva earlier this week to attend the annual regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Granted, its current member states are also not all what can be considered shining beacons of human rights, but nevertheless Gen. Thanasak didn’t have an easy task representing Thailand (which is not a council member at the moment) and its situation to the world.

Thus, his opening statement (which you can see a video of here and read the transcript here) was more on the safe side with commitments to contribute to the work of the UN Human Rights Council. It would have been a rather unremarkably insignificant speech weren’t it for these two excerpts:

Human rights exercised in the most extreme manner may come at a high price, especially in unstable or deeply divided societies. It may even lead such societies to the brink of collapse. And in such situations, it is the most vulnerable in societies who suffer the most.

What in the world is the “most extreme manner” of human rights, anyways?! Wouldn’t the most extreme form of human rights be that actually ALL people can enjoy the same level of respect, dignity and legal fairness, regardless whoever they are?! And how could that bring a society of collapse?!

It gets even better, when he said a couple of moments later:

Freedom of expression without responsibility, without respect for the rights of others, without respect for differences in faiths and beliefs, without recognising cultural diversity, can lead to division, and often, to conflict and hatred. Such is the prevailing situation of our world today. So we must all ask ourselves what we could and should do about it.

Yes, those are all valid points, wouldn’t it be for the pot calling the kettle back.

Thailand could, for example, introduce an official language policy that promotes the cultural diversity of its ethnic minorities, instead of just emphasizing the similarities.

Or it could also investigate a protest of roughly 1,000 Buddhists against the construction of a mosque in the Northern province of Nan earlier this week, while everybody’s claiming not be against it for religious reasons, but also showing concern about “noise pollution”, “different [read: incompatible] life styles” and potential “unrest and violence” once the mosque is built.

Or what about all those times when Thai junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha lashed out against the media for still being too critical again and again or otherwise be utterly cantankerous and highly sardonic towards members of the press (if the junta is not censoring it, of course)? And what about the things that the junta says in general?

You see, it is not “extreme” human rights or freedom of expression that is the problem here, it is the blatant disregard of it that brings societies to the brink. The “extreme” version is to have a population that is not afraid of prosecution or any invisible lines for whatever they are saying and where the responsibility lies with society as a whole and not few powerful ones dictating it.

But then again, what isn’t too “extreme” for the Thai military junta?

Thai junta’s lawmakers see ‘nothing wrong’ with hiring family members

03 March 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 2, 2015

Dozens of Thailand’s lawmakers have employed their family members with state money and see nothing wrong with that, while they claim to eradicate exactly that kind of behavior out of Thai politics.

The Thai military junta pledged to do everything better and cleaner than their politician counterparts when they executed their hostile takeover of powers in a coup last year. The mindset of them and their allies is that Thai politics is so tainted with corruption it is incapable of redeeming itself, hence the indefinite suspension of electoral democracy and an almost crusade-like campaign to “eradicate” corruption from Thai politics. In order to achieve this, the junta has created fully appointed government bodies that have been busy “reforming” the country and also claim to adhere to a very high ethical standard.

And then this happens:

report published by the investigative newsite Isra News revealed that 57 lawmakers in the 220-member National Legislative Assembly (NLA) have hired their own spouses, siblings, children, and cousins as staff.

Salaries for the aides range from 15,000 – 24,000 baht per month. The positions awarded to relatives include legislative specialists, who must hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, experts, who need at least three years of relevant work experience, and assistants, who must be at least 18 years old.

Thai Government Defends Hiring Relatives“, Khaosod English, February 28, 2015

For example, Nipon Narapitakkul has appointed his wife, daughter and son to help with his work while Adm Taratorn Kajitsuwan appointed his wife and daughter.

As the regulation states that one person can take only one position at a time, Adm Taratorn appointed his wife three times to different positions, with the latest one as personal specialist, effective on Jan 1, 2015.

57 lawmakers name kin as aides“, Bangkok Post, February 27, 2015

This is rather embarrassing for these people since they are supposed to be much, much better than your regular (elected) politicians. In fact, it is the same political camp – though a different government body (the Constitutional Drafting Committee) – that has recently floated the proposal to have an “indirectly elected” Senate that is essentially nothing but a fully appointed one, as we have deconstructed last week.

It is also the same political camp that have been vocally against the constitutional amendments by the government of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (ironically the younger sister of former Premier Thaksin) that would have not only made the Senate a fully elected one, but also done away with the one term-limits and (surprise!) direct relatives of politicians to run for office – a regulation previously set by the 2007 Constitution after the previous military coup of 2006! The opponents were that vocal, so much so that they dragged the case to the Constitutional Court and won.

So, how are the current military government and its lawmakers reacting? Like nothing has happened apparently:

National Legislative Assembly President Pornpetch Wichitcholchai said the regulations did not prohibit NLA members from appointing their spouses and children as their helpers, and thus making them eligible for salaries from the state.

When asked whether the practice was appropriate, Pornpetch said the NLA simply wanted to have helpers whom they could trust and the practice has been done earlier.

President says NLA members can hire spouses, children as helpers“, The Nation, February 27, 2015

Today [Saturday] a member of the ruling military junta also came out to defend the practice.

“I share the same view as Mr. Pornpetch. They didn’t break any laws,” said army chief and junta member Gen. Udomdet Sitabutr. “Your relatives have knowledge and expertise, and be qualified for the jobs. This is personal matter, and it is in accordance with the regulations about what is prohibited and what is not prohibited.”

Thai Government Defends Hiring Relatives“, Khaosod English, February 28, 2015

And of course, the junta leader and Prime Minister also chimed in on this as well, saying that

พล.อ.ประยุทธ์ จันทร์โอชา นายกรัฐมนตรี (…) ว่า (…) อย่าไปพันกันกับเรื่องสภาผัว-สภาเมีย เพราะมันคนละสมัย ครั้งนั้นก็บอกว่ากฎหมายไม่ได้ห้าม ครั้งนี้ก็เหมือนกัน (…)

Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha (…) said that (…) this shouldn’t be confused for the house-wife Senate [as mentioned above] because that was at a different time and back then it wasn’t illegal either, as it is this time (…).

มีเหตุผลความจำเป็นหรือไม่ หรืออาจจะเขียนกฎหมายในรัฐธรรมนูญหรือระเบียบเพื่อระบุว่ากลไกเหล่านี้จะต้องไม่มีครอบครัวซึ่งจะเขียนได้หรือไม่ตนก็ไม่ทราบ (…) เพราะทุกคนก็ต้องการประชาธิปไตยอีกทั้งเป็นเรื่องส่วนบุคคลด้วย เรื่องนี้คงต้องพูดด้วยกฎหมาย แต่ถ้าถามตนว่าถูกหรือไม่ ตนไม่ขอตอบ

“Whether or not it is necessary to write in the constitution or into law to specify that there can be no family members [being employed] I don’t know, (…) because everybody needs democracy, but it is also a personal matter. This matter has to be addressed by law but if you ask me if it’s right or wrong, I prefer not to answer.

นายกฯยันสนช.ตั้งลูก เมีย ญาติเป็นที่ปรึกษาได้ ไม่ผิดกม.“, Krungthep Turakij, March 1, 2015

The problem in this obvious case of nepotism is not so much whether or not it is illegal (it isn’t, but then again it’s the junta currently making up their own new rules), but rather that it is highly unethical, especially because this government and its fully-appointed bodies claims to adhere itself to a much higher ethical standard.

Thai junta’s constitution drafters propose ‘indirectly elected’ Senate

28 February 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 27, 2015

The Constitutional Drafting Committee are continuing to re-write the political rule book for a post-coup Thailand. But, like with all the military junta’s government bodies, the claim to “reform” and bring “true democracy” is questionable, as the most recent proposals for an unelected sorry, “indirectly elected” Senate shows.

One of the key elements of Thailand’s military government is the Constitutional Draft Committee (CDC), which is tasked to, well, write a new constitution that lays the legal groundwork for a new elected government (when we actually get there is another matter), the first one since the military coup last May that has temporarily indefinitely suspended electoral democracy. However, just like all other government bodies of the Thai junta – such as the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), the rubber-stamping ersatz-parliament, and the National Reform Council (NRC), a rather exclusive group suggesting wide-ranging reforms – the CDC is fully-appointed and of questionable political bias.

Since its nomination in November, the 36-member strong committee has 120 days to accomplish the herculean task to not only write a new charter, but also to have one that (appears to at least) curtail what they call “parliamentarian dictatorship”, which they and their allies accuse the past successfully elected governments associated to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of, including the last one of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra before it got toppled by the military that is running the country now.

Among the many changes the CDC is currently proposing is the make-up of the Senate, the Upper House next to the House of Representatives. In pre-2014 coup Thailand (and thus post-2006 coup), the 150-member Senate was half-elected and half-appointed. But now, the CDC is suggesting this model instead:

Thailand’s new 200-member Senate (…) will be chosen from pools of candidates, including former premiers, ex-military leaders and representatives of different professions, another committee spokesman, Lertrat Ratanavanich, said Wednesday. They can only serve one six-year term.

Thai constitution drafters say Senate to be unelected“, Associated Press, February 26, 2015

This doesn’t sound as straightforward as the previous system, so how will they be exactly chosen?

The Senate will consist of 200 members, half of whom will be chosen by the council of “experts,” which Bowornsak described as “a diverse group of individuals with expertise and morality about politics, national administration, the judicial system, society, ethnology, and folk wisdom.”

It remains unclear how the council of experts will be chosen.

The other Senators – also appointed – will be chosen from a pool of former high-level politicians and bureaucrats such as prime ministers, military commanders, parliament speakers, judicial leaders, and representatives from other civic organizations.

Junta’s Charter Drafter Clarifies ‘Unelected’ Senate“, Khaosod English, February 26, 2015

In case you’re wondering how this “pool” of candidates is being set up, here’s the complete list:

Senators will be selected from among five categories of people: former prime ministers, former Supreme Court presidents and former parliament presidents; former high-ranking state officials such as military leaders and permanent secreta­ries; heads of legally registered professional organisations; people’s organisations such as labour unions, agricultural co-operatives and academics; and other groups such as lawyers, environmental activists, poverty networks and healthcare experts.

Senators from the first four groups will be selected from among themselves, while those from the fifth will be nominated by a screening committee and selected by the National People’s Assembly and executives and members of local administrative bodies.

CDC agrees to indirect Senate pick“, Bangkok Post, February 26, 2015

So basically a bunch of yet-to-be-defined committees supposedly representing a broad spectrum of the population would be tasked to choose the candidates for the Senate, making it practically fully appointed.

However, the chairman of the CDC, Bowornsak Uwanno (pictured above), does not agree with this notion:

“Certain newspapers and TV channels have identified the new Senate as unelected,” CDC chairman Bowornsak Uwanno said at a press conference today. “It’s not lovely. It’s an inaccurate presentation of news.” (…)

However, the CDC chairman stressed today that elected members of local administrative organizations will be included in the process of selecting senators, because they will be responsible from choosing 100 senators from a list of 200 candidates approved by the panel of “experts.”

“Therefore, accusations that the new Senate is unelected are false,” Bowornsak said.

He also told reporters that some foreign countries have similar parliamentary models, citing France, though he failed to point out that French senators are indirectly elected by a “super-electorate” of elected local and regional officials, whose options are not screened by any unelected panel of professionals.

Junta’s Charter Drafter Clarifies ‘Unelected’ Senate“, Khaosod English, February 26, 2015

OK, so he is saying that it is still a democratic process because the people are voting the local officials, who then, alongside other officials, are going to pick 100 senators pre-selected from a yet-to-be-defined-but-very-likely-appointed “expert” vetting panel, which still leaves the other 100 senators to be chosen in a yet-to-be-defined-but-also-very-likely-appointed fashion.

And how large is that percentage of elected local officials who would be picking the senators? It doesn’t matter, because the military junta has suspended local elections anyways and replaced outgoing officials with – guess what? – appointed ones!

To say that CDC chairman Bowornsak’s argument that the Senate wouldn’t be unelected is shaky at best and at worst rather disingenuous, which makes the description of an “indirectly elected” upper House one hell of a political euphemism.

There’s a certain irony here when you compare this to the efforts during the Yingluck administration to amend the constitution to make the Senate fully-elected again. While the underlying motivations could still be questioned, the principle of a fully-elected Senate was enough of a reason for the Constitutional Court, in what many observers say a politically charged verdict, to outlaw these proposed amendments. Even worse, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) – which has recently impeached the already toppled former PM Yingluckwas going after most of the lawmakers involved and is thinking about doing it again.

And now (arguably) the same similarly politically-aligned camp that was against the previous amendments and is now running the country (one striking example is Rosana Tositrakul, back then an appointed senator who petitioned the Constitutional Court and now, surprise, a member of the National Reform Council), is now floating the proposal for a Senate that really isn’t elected at all.

Thailand’s new cyber laws – Part 5: Admin error

27 February 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 26, 2015

In the last part of our Siam Voices series examining the new cyber laws, we chronicle the criticism against and the defense for the controversial bills – and what’s behind the military junta’s motivation to push these into law.

In the past two weeks we have analyzed the cyber law bills for its potential impact on policies, censorship and also business. More often than not we found that the flaws outweigh the benefits and, if signed into law without large-scale amendments will have very serious implications of the civil liberties, free speech, personal privacy and even e-commerce of every Thai internet user – except for those in charge of the law.

So it is no wonder why there has been a significant amount of criticism against the cyber bills. Here’s just a small selection:

“Proposed cyber-security legislation in Thailand represents a clear and present danger to media freedoms,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “If Prime Minister Prayuth is sincere about returning the country to democracy, he should see that Parliament scraps this bill, which is reminiscent of a police state, and instead enact laws that uphold online freedoms.”

Cyber security bill threatens media freedom in Thailand”,  Committee to Protect Journalists, January 20, 2015

“The consumers will feel that they are being watched when they go online,” said Arthit Suriyawongkul, an expert on cyber and computer law from the Thai Netizen Network. (…)

“They’ll feel unsure about sharing their private information fearing that officials could abuse their privacy,” Mr Arthit said. “If consumers are not confident then online businesses will suffer.”

Fears over Thailand’s online freedom, as junta drives towards digital economy”, Channel NewsAsia, January 29, 2015

Six civil organizations [Thai Netizen NetworkFTA WatchFoundation for Community Education Media (FCEM)Green World FoundationPeople’s Media Development Institute, and Thailand Association for the Blind (TAB)] denounced the eight Digital Economy bills recently approved by the junta, saying they are national security bills in disguise and that the bill will pave the way for a state monopoly of the telecommunication business.

Thai junta’s Digital Economy bills are national security bills in disguise: rights groups”, Prachatai English, January 14, 2015

Also, almost 22,000 people have signed an online-petition against the bills, calling for them to be stopped.

At the moment the right cyber bills are in the military junta’s all-appointed ersatz-parliament, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) – dominated by active and former military officers – and are awaiting deliberation. It is not expected that the rubber-stamping body will be making any fundamental changes to the drafts.

Nevertheless, the military government’s response to the criticism is – like with any other criticism out there – aggravated and irritated. Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha responded in his usual style:

“We will develop software for goods and services. If there is private [online] content, no one would mess with it. But if [some people] commit crimes [such as lèse majesté], we have to investigate the matter. The accusation that the government is not taking care of Article 112 [of the Criminal Code, known as the lèse majesté law] is because those lèse majesté websites operate from overseas.

Junta leader admits controversial digital economy bills target lèse majesté”, Prachatai English, January 22, 2015

And when pressed by another reporter…

“Today, have I ever restricted anyone’s rights? Have I ever done that?” asked Gen. Prayuth, who imposed martial law after leading a military coup on 22 May 2014, and has banned any political protests or public criticism of his regime.

The reporter pressed Gen. Prayuth to justify the sweeping nature of the bill, prompting Gen. Prayuth to lose his temper and shout, “I don’t have to answer why! I will pass it. You have a problem with that? Otherwise, why the hell am I the Prime Minister? Why am I the Prime Minister?”

Gen. Prayuth then walked away from the reporters and said angrily, “I’m in a very bad mood.”

Thai Junta Leader Deflects Concern Over Mass Surveillance Bill”, Khaosod English, January 21, 2015

This incident at a small activist symposium shows how much the military government is trying to claim its narrative over the bills:

Also present at the Bangkok symposium was an Army Lieutenant who arrived uninvited with three other soldiers in an armoured Humvee and “asked” to be allowed to defend the draft bills. (…)

Army Lieutenant Kittiphob Tiensiriwong (…) urged the 35-strong crowd to accept the bills, saying that the NLA had good intentions but acknowledging that the bills must have more positive than negative aspects.

When asked to explain, Kittiphob, who did not remove his footwear like the other participants, said there were times when speedy access to the Internet was needed.

He said the bills aimed “to control those who think unlike others – those who have their own mind and are not considering the thinking of the collective.”

Calls to hold cyber bills until democracy is restored”, The Nation, February 2, 2015

While this should come as no surprise to anyone, that right there is actual main motivation of the military junta for the cyber law bills and for the way it was written! Ever since the military coup in last May, one of the key elements of its tight grip is the massive monitoring of the media, including online, to curtail any signs of criticism and dissent.

Even without the cyber laws and thanks to the still ongoing martial law, the military junta has already taken steps for wide-spread online surveillance as we have previously reported, as well as ordering Thai internet service providers to preemptively block websites. Since then, there have been further developments that are in line with the authorities’ efforts to scrutinize online traffic: the development of software to intercept secured SSL-connections, mandatory sim-card registrations (in a country that predominantly uses their phones with pre-paid subscriptions) as well as for free wifi and the reported creation of a “cyber warfare” unit by the Thai military.

The desire by Thai authorities to control the flow of information online is not new and was evident in past governments (see hereherehere and here), but under the authoritarian rule of the military junta, it can operate with no checks and balances – and thus also legalize its unprecedented powers to monitor, spy, filter, censor and collect anything online.

The main purpose of an army is to protect the country from external threats, but history has shown that the Thai army has mainly acted against the Thai people. Now with the new online surveillance measures and the cyber law bills, the Thai military and the junta is expanding its fields of operations (or rather battlespace) to the cyberspace – and thus not against an external force, but again against every Thai internet user.

THAILAND’S NEW CYBER LAWS: Part 1: Introduction – Part 2: Changes to Computer Crime Act – Part 3: Far-reaching and all-encompassing cyber security – Part 4: Bad for business, too! – Part 5: Admin error

Thai court jails theater activists for lese majeste

26 February 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 25, 2015

Thailand’s courts are continuing to jail people under the lèse majesté law, as two young students have been sentenced to two and a half years in prison for allegedly insulting the monarchy in a theater play. The conviction shows yet again the draconian law is still thriving and even more so under the current military junta.

Dozens of students outside the Criminal Court in Bangkok began to sing when Patiwat “Bank” Saraiyaem (23 years old) and Porntip “Golf” Mankong (26) were taken out of the building (see video below) in shackles and back into their prisons after the judges handed down their sentences: five years in prison, reduced to two and a half. Both students were found guilty of allegedly violating the lèse majesté law by seemingly insulting the monarchy with a theater production.

The draconian lèse majesté law, Article 112 of the Criminal Code, states that it is a criminal offense to “defame, insult or threaten” the king, queen, heir to the throne or regent. If convicted, the accused can face up to 15 years in prison. The law also prohibits media and anyone else from citing or quoting the details of the offense, as this also constitutes a violation of the law itself.

Use (or rather abuse) of the law has been constantly on the rise for most of the past decade, but has seen a sharp increase since the military coup last May. One of the first orders by the military junta was to transfer jurisdiction of such cases to a military court, as martial law remains since the coup.

Patiwat and Porntip – respectively, a student until his suspension at Khon Kaen University because of the trial, and a recent graduate – were part of the “Prakai Fai” (literally Sparking Fire) activist theater group and staged the play “The Wolf’s Bride” (“เจ้าสาวหมาป่า” in Thai) at Bangkok’s Thammasat University in 2013, which was the scene of the student-led pro-democracy rallies and its bloody military crackdown in 1973 and 1976.

The play itself is set in a fictional kingdom about a fictional king and his fictional advisor. Nevertheless, its contents (which we cannot elaborate further upon for the aforementioned reasons), were still deemed enough to defame the actual Thai monarchy. Patiwat (who acted in the play) and Porntip (who primarily co-ordinated the production) were arrested last August, while many others of the group have fled Thailand fearing they would be targeted as well.

The fact that a work of fiction is at the center of the offense shows not only the problematic flexible interpretation of the law by the authorities of what constitutes lèse majesté and what doesn’t, it also bears some similarities of the case of Somyot Prueksakasemsuk. The veteran labor activist was sentenced to 11 years for merely editing political essays – that were written by somebody else – which were at best vague allusions to the royal family. He has been incarcerated (including his detention before the trial) since April 2011 and has been denied bail 16 times so far.

The two accused students have been denied bail six times as well, as have most other lèse majesté suspects. Both defendants have previously pleaded guilty, which doesn’t necessarily mean they acknowledge the crime, as this is a standard procedure to reduce the sentence. Also, like many other sentenced lèse majesté prisoners, it seems unlikely that the two will be appealing the verdict, which would leave a royal pardon the only legal avenue to shorten the prison term.

The judges reasoned their verdict and sentencing as following:

“Although the defendants have never committed previous crimes, their action – performing the play in an auditorium at Thammasat University – was an act of defamation and insult in front of numerous people,” said a judge at Ratchada Criminal Court in Bangkok. “Moreover, it was disseminated on many websites, causing damage to the monarchy, which is revered by all Thais. Such action is a grave crime that warrants no suspension of the punishment.”

Theater Activists Jailed Over Satirical Play About Monarchy“, Khaosod English, February 23, 2015

The judge’s assumption that the offenses in that theater play were insulting to the monarchy despite being “revered by all Thais”, underlines “the contradictory task of trying to argue how inflammatory the slanderous remarks are (…) while at the same time maintaining that the words have no such effect on them,” as academic and lèse majesté expert David Streckfuss wrote once (read here).

In fact, this contradiction has reached new (and absurd, if it wasn’t so serious) lows under the current military government, which is hunting for lèse majesté suspects and dissidents alike with vigorous zeal – especially an estimated 40 suspects that have fled abroad.

A change for the better in Thailand is not in sight with the authoritarian military junta at the helm. But dissent is still alive, which is currently mostly upheld by student activists and public displays of resistance still do occur (as seen recently last Valentine’s Day), only to be immediately shut down by the skittish authorities.

Porntip’s and Patiwat’s family members broke down in tears after the verdict was read out, as the dozens of supporters were waiting downstairs at the exit of the Criminal Court in Bangkok and started singing “The Faith Of Starlight” (“แสงดาวแห่งศรัทธา” in Thai), a song written by Thai leftist intellectual Chit Phumisak and popularized as a protest anthem by the pro-democracy student activists in the 1970s, which ended with the words:

ขอเยาะเย้ย ทุกข์ยากขวากหนามลำเค็ญ / คนยังคง ยืนเด่นโดยท้าทาย / แม้นผืนฟ้า มืดดับเดือนลับมลาย / ดาวยังพราย ศรัทธาเย้ยฟ้าดิน / ดาวยังพราย อยู่จนฟ้ารุ่งราง

May I mock the miserable thorns of poverty / the people are still standing defiantly / and even the skies turn dark and the moon vanishes forever / the stars are still shining, the faith of the starlight / the stars are still shining, until heaven is obscured

As the choir kept chanting, the pair were put in a transport van. Patiwat “Bank” Saraiyaem and Porntip “Golf” Mankong – the two thespians, now prisoners – calmly and defiantly flashed the three-finger-salute from “The Hunger Games” movies (and declared illegal by the military junta) as the van darted out of the garage to drive them to their prisons.

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