Frankly speaking, I did not expect to be writing about this topic so quickly following my blog post from yesterday, but here I am again further musing on the delicate art of international diplomacy.
What happened on Wednesday morning though can be regarded as an escalation of some sort by the Thai military junta. After already voicing its displeasure about the critical remarks made by Daniel R. Russel, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the junta seemingly doubled down as the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned W. Patrick Murphy, the US chargé d’affaires, to voice their displeasure again.
We reported yesterday in detail about Russel’s visit and his remarks about the political situation in Thailand, so I won’t repeat them here. What does bear repeating though is that it was so far the highest-ranking US diplomat to come to Thailand since the military coup of May 2014 and the subsequent departure of former Ambassador Kristie Kenney. And it was this significance that gave Russel’s remarks considerable weight.
Apparently, two whole days and a tantrum by junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha (in which he called himself a “soldier with a democratic heart”!) later, the Thai powers-that-be threw the diplomatic equivalent of a hissy fit with the summoning of the US Chargé d’affaires – a relatively normal procedure for any country wanting to give another country’s diplomats a high-level earful.
While both sides insist that it was not a summoning but rather an ”invitation” (more on that later), the public remarks by Thai Deputy Foreign Minister Don Paramatwinai were as blunt as they were contradictory:
According to the Thai Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Russel’s remarks caused many Thais to be “worried and disappointed.”
“Mr. Russel spoke about politics, instead of using the opportunity to speak about good things, especially topics that promote the relationship between Thailand and the United States,” said Don, who used to serve as Thailand’s ambassador to Washington DC.
“The aforementioned speech did not benefit anyone. It became news that negatively affected the reputation of the country. It is deeply disappointing. It is an interference in Thailand’s politics.” (…)
“(…) The United States does not understand Thailand’s political situation.”
“If we comply with the [US] and lift martial law and it leads to problems, how will those people who are asking for the lifting of martial law take responsibility?” Don said. “In reality, Thais don’t even know there is martial law. A majority of Thais accept it and are not worried by it. The people who are worried about it are the minority.” (…)
“I insist that the military takeover in Thailand is not a coup, theoretically speaking,” he said. “It was in fact a revolution to install stability.”
”Thai Military Govt Summons US Diplomat After “Disappointing Speech””, Khaosod English, January 28, 2015
So, apart from the fact that he claims that Thais both are unaware yet aware enough to be not bothered by the ongoing martial law and his rather curious definition of a hostile military takeover, he gives the impression that any criticism against the junta’s work is forbidden.
The junta Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth himself later beat the same old schtick as well:
“It saddens me that the United States does not understand the reason why I had to intervene and does not understand the way we work, even though we have been close allies for years,” Prayuth told reporters.
”Thailand warns U.S. to mind its own business over politics”, Reuters, January 28, 2015
Ah yes, ”they don’t understand Thailand!” That’s the old killer argument to discredit any rational debate on political
progress regression in recent years, no matter from where it comes from.
Of course it’s incredibly naive to still regard the United States as infallible world police considering its track record this past decade alone, but that does not and should not lessen the validity of their criticism nor does it or should it lessen the severity of the Thai junta’s repressive actions ever since the coup.
It is evident that the military junta responds to criticism with the only way the army knows best: resorting to assertive bullying tactics as a demonstration of absolute, undisputed power. But that is just a sign that the junta is overzealous yet very insecure, as simple silence might have been a better option in this case.
Also, a “summons” or “invitation” by the Thai military government is still something entirely different to a foreign ambassador than it is for any Thai citizen. And as if it were trying to prove it point, the junta has summoned Surapong Tovichakchaikul, former Thai foreign minister under Yingluck Shinawatra, for his recent criticism of the junta. A military officer was quoted nonchalantly saying that Surapong may be “let go home, or invited to stay overnight at our camp to adjust his attitude (…).”
To go back to my original point: a certain nuanced approach is required when dealing with international relations. US diplomat Russel opined that relations with Thailand ”have been challenged by the military coup”, not a surprise given the downgrade in diplomatic and military relations ever since.
It’s called ”diplomatic” for a reason when one tries to bring across a criticism in the least offensive way possible. But to respond to that with an indignant outburst of hurt national pride is quite the opposite of that and – given the junta’s ongoing quest got international approval – distances it from any serious endorsement whatsoever.
UPDATE: U.S. Charges d’Affaires W. Patrick Murphy was summoned by Thailand’s Foreign Ministry Wednesday following diplomat Daniel Russel’s call for Thailand to lift martial law (reported below). AP reports: “Thai Deputy Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said Russel’s comments had “hurt” many Thais and showed a lack of understanding of Thai politics.”
Thai junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has rebutted a top US diplomat’s calls for a more “inclusive” political reform process and the lifting of martial law. The general’s response yet again shows the impossible task to convince the world outside of Thailand that everything under the authoritarian rule is normal.
The art of international diplomacy requires a very particular set of skills. Skills that one acquires over a very long career. If both parties we’re highlighting in this story actually had them, that would be the end of it. But that’s not the case.
Last week we reported on the attempts by the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to proclaim a meeting by four foreign ambassadors with Foreign Minister and former Supreme Commander General Thanasak Patimaprakorn as supportive endorsements of the military’s juntas “reform” plans, which turned out to be neutral courtesy handshakes at best – and in some cases polite, yet assertive reminders of the junta’s ongoing repression of civil liberties, human rights and a generally exclusive political process.
In what can be considered as an addendum to last week’s story, the ‘Bangkok Post’ reported on the meeting between Thai junta Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan with the United States’ Chargé D’affaires Patrick Murphy, in which the latter is reported to have pledged that military cooperation with Thailand will continue.
That is especially noteworthy since shortly after the coup of May 22, 2014, the US suspended $3.5m in military aid (again, it bears repeating that it is still a drop in the ocean compared to the current military budget of $6.07bn). The coup also has casts doubt over the long-running annual regional military exercise “Cobra Gold”, which will likely be scaled down when it takes place in February. However what was not reported – and had to be later tweeted out by the US Chargé d’affaires himself – is that Mr. Murphy also told General Prawit that the “US-Thai relationship will not return to capacity until democracy restored.”
This week saw another round of bilateral back-and-forth when the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. Russel visited Thailand (among other countries in Southeast Asia), the highest ranking U.S. diplomat to travel to Thailand in an official capacity since the coup.
Apart from meeting Thai junta Foreign Minister Gen. Thanasak, former Prime Ministers Yingluck Shinawatra (her first semi-public appearance ever since she was retroactively impeached last Friday, thus banning her from politics for the next five years) and Abhisit Vejjajiva (
remember him? where he and his “Democrat” Party blamed “corruption and abuse of power” for last year’s political deadlock), Mr. Russel also made these remarks during an event at Chulalongkorn University:
The fact is, and it’s unfortunate, but our relationship with Thailand has been challenged by the military coup that removed a democratically-elected government eight months ago. (…)
The United States does not take sides in Thai politics. We believe it is for the Thai people to determine the legitimacy of their political and legal processes. But we are concerned about the significant restraints on freedoms since the coup, including restrictions on speech and on assembly, and I’ve been very straightforward about these concerns.
We’re also particularly concerned that the political process doesn’t seem to represent all elements of Thai society. Now (…), we’re not attempting to dictate (…) But an inclusive process promotes political reconciliation, which in turn is key to long-term stability. That’s where our interests lie. The alternative — a narrow, restricted process — carries the risk of leaving many Thai citizens feeling that they’ve been excluded from the political process. (…)
I’d add that the perception of fairness is also extremely important and although this is being pretty blunt, when an elected leader is removed from office, is deposed, then impeached by the authorities — the same authorities that conducted the coup — and then when a political leader is targeted with criminal charges at a time when the basic democratic processes and institutions in the country are interrupted, the international community is going to be left with the impression that these steps could in fact be politically driven. (…)
Ending martial law throughout the country and removing restrictions of speech and assembly – these would be important stepsas part of a generally inclusive reform process that reflects the broad diversity of views within the country.
Remarks by Daniel R. Russel at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University, January 26, 2015 via United States Department of State
These indeed are very critical, if not quite damning, words by the American diplomat towards the Thai military junta and the political situation in Thailand as a whole. It was just a matter of time until junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha responded to this in his usual manner – and while at first he shrugged it off, he didn’t disappoint:
“Thai democracy will never die, because I’m a soldier with a democratic heart. I have taken over the power because I want democracy to live on,” the junta-leader-cum-prime minister declared, adding that the situation in Thailand was unique, as nowhere else was a coup staged to restore democracy. “We are building democracy every day… I did not seize power to give money away to this or that person or take it as my own property.
“Although this government came from a seizure of power, it happened because there was no [effective] government [at the time]. Though there was a government, it was as good as not having one. Where was Yingluck [Shinawatra]? She couldn’t perform her duty” because she had been removed by the Constitution Court, Prayut said.
He added that people should recognise the fact that Thailand is still free.
“Prayut rebuts US snub“, The Nation, January 28, 2015
Apart from being spouting what can only be described as an early contender for the most bafflingly preposterous thing said by the junta this year already (compare with last year’s entries), Gen. Prayuth also claimed that “as many as 21 envoys had met with the current administration and understood the situation in Thailand.”
And there lies the crux of this whole issue: Not only does the military junta – willingly or not – confuse acknowledgment of their rule with approval, but also doesn’t seem to care whether or not it actually further damages their credibility, which leads to the question who the military court is actually pandering to with their dizzying spin on the narrative?
The Thai junta’s foreign minister claims that his military government is getting more and more approval from the international community. But is there any truth to it?
One of the most difficult challenges for Thailand’s military government in its attempts to legitimize last year’s coup and the ongoing authoritarian rule is to get any international approval. As we have previously reported before, condemnations from abroad came in quickly after the coup, as did some (in hindsight more symbolical) sanctions by the West. But nothing much has happened since. While diplomatic relations with many countries – especially with the United States and the countries of the European Union – remain cold, any minimal engagement from elsewhere is being warmly received by the junta.
In other words: Anytime a foreign dignitary meets with representatives of the Thai military junta (even if it’s just a courtesy handshake), it will be positively spun by the latter as a sign of international approval of the regime. And that’s exactly what has happened recently.
The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) published a press release last Thursday about the meeting of four foreign ambassadors with former Supreme Commander and current Thai junta Foreign Minister (as well as one of a few deputy prime ministers) General Thanasak Patimaprakorn.
Here’s how the state-owned media organization MCOT
repeated rehashed rewrote reported it:
Russian ambassador to Thailand Kirill Barsky said he welcomed the emphasis on reform and was pleased with results of the official visit to Thailand of Russian Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov last Friday. He said that it was agreed to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Thai-Russian diplomatic relations beginning next year. The anniversary falls in 2017. (…)
Paul Robilliard, Australian ambassador, said he followed Thai politics and admired the Thai government for allowing all parties to have their say in national reform. Thailand is at the center of Southeast Asia and his country’s most important trading partner. (…)
Gen Tanasak quoted Swiss ambassador Christine Burgener as praising the government for listening to all parties on national reform. She promised that Switzerland was ready to share its experience in election organisation and suppressing corruption with Thailand.
Canadian ambassador Philip Calvert said that Thailand had progressed in its reform as planned in the government’s reform roadmap, Gen Tanasak said. Ambassador Calvert hoped Thailand would successfully introduce true democracy.
“Ambassadors praise Thailand for implementing national reform roadmap“, MCOT, January 15, 2015
By the looks of it, it all sounds pretty good for the Thai junta and it seems that the four foreign ambassadors are full of praise of the Thai military government’s work, right? Well, not quite if you ask the foreign embassies and ambassadors themselves.
Let’s start off with the Russian ambassador Kirill Barsky, who supposedly said he “welcomed” the junta’s “emphasis on reform,” which is not mentioned at all in the press release from the Russian Embassy in Bangkok. While it can be argued that it wasn’t important enough to include that in the statement, it seems more oddly baffling that it wasn’t even mentioned in the Thai MFA’s press release – probably also because it wasn’t deemed important enough.
Next is the Australian ambassador Paul Robilliard, who took up the post just in last October, but already allegedly “admires the Thai government for allowing all parties to have their say in national reform,” which is far from the truth as we have previously reported that while the military junta claims it would listen to all sides for input, the “reform” process is ultimately an exclusive affair, as it is left in the hands of a few hand-picked men – not to mention that a free press currently doesn’t exist and open dissent is not tolerated, an ongoing martial law ensures that.
Asian Correspondent asked Mr. Robilliard on Twitter if he was actually quoted correctly. Here’s his reply:
— Paul Robilliard (@AusAmbBKK) January 16, 2015
Again, what was emphasized by the Thai MFA is in contrast to the ambassador’s words.
H.E. Philip Calvert, Ambassador of Canada to the Kingdom of Thailand, met with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tanasak Patimapragorn on January 14, 2015 to discuss the multi-faceted bilateral relationship between Canada and Thailand, recent developments in Thailand and the ASEAN region.
Ambassador Calvert underlined Canada’s expectation that the Thai military return Thailand to civilian and democratic government as soon as possible through free and fair elections, and in accordance with the Roadmap; that the political reform process be transparent and inclusive and that it reflect the will of the majority; and urged Thai authorities to meet Thailand’s international human rights obligations.
Facebook post of the Embassy of Canada to Thailand, January 16, 2015
Judging by the contents and the tone, you might get the impression Mr. Calvert attended an entirely different meeting than the Thai Foreign Minister. Granted, the art of international diplomacy is a very delicate one that relies heavily on the choice of words (or in this case entire passages), among other factors.
So far, many Western countries are treating the authoritarian military government with caution, yet maintain some degree of engagement. A diplomatic source told Asian Correspondent last October that while this is the best way to “pressure the government on certain issues,” many within the diplomatic community are “aware what impressions this might give.”
Indeed, with the junta’s almost desperate search for international legitimization in mind (and so far only finding it in countries like Cambodia and Burma – and apparently North Korea) it is grasping for every little straw and is thankful for every photo-op to claim as evidence – regardless of whom they’re shaking hands with.
Or how else could Foreign Minister Gen. Thanasak Patimaprakorn make one of the most spectacularly baffling claims by the junta last year, when he said that “out of 6bn people on this world [!], 4.7bn people already support [the junta] 100 per cent” and thus “of all the countries worldwide, 85 per cent are confident [with us]”?!
*Note: Since there was no public statement available at the time of writing, Asian Correspondent has reached out to the Swiss Embassy in Bangkok for one. It has not replied as of now, but we will update this post accordingly.
UPDATE [January 20, 2015]: The Swiss Embassy in Bangkok replied after an inquiry by Asian Correspondent as following:
The Ambassador did underline Switzerland’s readiness to support the Thai authorities on various issues the current government is tackling in the current transition phase, for example on anti-corruption, governance and human rights issues. She encouraged to continue reconciliation efforts in parallel with the reform process and said she was pleased to see that these efforts developed into a more inclusive approach.
Several other issues were discussed where Switzerland stands ready to provide expertise.
The hunt for people suspected of breaking Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté law continues, with the military junta even looking to extradite those who have fled abroad while ultra-royalist vigilantism at home reaches a new absurd low.
After months on the run, Ekapop Luara seems have to found asylum, but it is a long way from home and it remains to be seen if he will ever return to Thailand. Nevertheless, he uploaded a picture on his Facebook account showing his and his girlfriend’s new New Zealand passports.
The military coup of May 22, 2014 caused the 23-year-old Thai student, also known as Tang Acheewa, and his partner to flee Thailand, as the military junta rounded up many people associated with the former government and those perceived to be supporters. Hundreds were summoned and temporarily detained, and many have been charged in the intervening months, over 20 of them with the draconian lèse majesté law.
Article 112 of the Criminal Code punishes defamation of the King, Queen, Heir Apparent and Regent with a maximum 15 years prison sentence, but the law has been used more vigorously, practically silencing any debate on the Thai monarchy. One of the first orders during the coup was to transfer jurisdiction of these cases to a military court. Ekapop’s alleged offense dates back to late 2013, when he allegedly insulted the monarchy at a red shirt rally and was subject of an arrest warrant shortly after that.
Ekapop and his girlfriend fled to Cambodia first and stayed for months, under the protection of the United Nation’s refugee agency UNHCR. They regularly changed location as the neighboring country isn’t entirely a safe haven, especially after the apparent rapprochement of Phnom Penh with the Thai military junta and rumors to forcefully return Ekapop to Thailand. That has not stopped him from constantly mocking the Thai authorities on his Facebook account, which is currently deactivated.
The fact that the fugitive couple suddenly popped up in New Zealand has resulted in some diplomatic tensions back in Bangkok:
Thailand’s Foreign Affairs Ministry summoned the charge d’affaires at New Zealand’s Bangkok Embassy on Tuesday to “express its concerns”.
Thai spokesman Sek Wannamethee said Thailand had asked New Zealand officials to clarify Mr Ekaphop’s refugee status.
“Mr Ekaphop is exploiting his status granted by the New Zealand Government to conduct political activities which have reverse impact on Thailand’s security,” he said.
“Such a movement is considered an obstacle to the peace-building process and the good relationship between both countries. Therefore, Thailand requested New Zealand to revoke his status in order to stop his actions against the law.”
”Thailand wants refugee returned”, New Zealand Herald, January 8, 2015
As of writing, New Zealand officials remain tight-lipped on the matter.
The junta’s reaction is just the latest in a series of increased efforts to extradite numerous Thais accused of lèse majesté that have fled abroad. Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan looks to be leading the hunt:
Gen Prawit, who is in charge of security affairs, said Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha wants all fugitives in lese majeste cases who have fled abroad, including Thammasat University history lecturer Somsak Jeamteerasakul, to return and fight the cases.
He declined to reveal how many suspects are on the government’s wanted list and in which countries these suspects are believed to be hiding.
Gen Prawit, who is also defence minister and deputy chairman of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), said some of those countries do not have an extradition treaty with Thailand, or a lese majeste law, which causes problems.
What Thailand can do is ask for cooperation from those countries. Interpol has also been asked for help in extraditing these suspects, he added.
”Govt pursues lese majeste suspects overseas”, Bangkok Post, December 28, 2014
Somsak Jeamteerasakul has been a vocal critic against the lèse majesté law and for that has been attacked both verbally and physically by ultra-royalists and in 2013 was hit with a lèse majesté complaint filed by none other than the army itself. In late November 2014, after months of silence and not responding to an army summons, he reappeared on Facebook with a message hinting that he had left Thailand.
The junta leader, former army chief and current Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has promised a ”fair trial” for those coming home voluntarily. However, use (or rather abuse) of the lèse majesté law has been rampant since the coup, utilized to silence dissidents (not to mention the online surveillance and media censorship), as evident by a recent pledge of the Thai police to speed up the investigations of such cases.
The recent establishment of an inter-departmental and inter-ministerial committee to find every possible way to extradite lèse majesté suspects from abroad shows a certain frustration among the Thai authorities who are not only unable to get them back to Thailand within certain legal boundaries, but are also struggling also to convince other countries that the junta is justified to hunting them down.
It must be clear to everybody involved – especially those in the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs – that it is futile to pursue lèse majesté suspects that have already left the country, no matter what explanation they use. So, why are Thai officials are going about everything involving lèse majesté so overzealously? One simple and short answer would be that it shows to the public that the authorities are working hard to ensure the law is upheld and the suspects are being hunted – regardless of yielding any actual tangible results. Whether or not the intentions behind those efforts are sincere is a different matter.
However, this doesn’t prevent ultra-royalists from rampaging against their perceived enemies and anybody who helps them:
After the report on the New Zealand Herald spread across social media, aided by a translation to Thai that appeared on the right-wing Thai newspaper Naew Na, a number of royalists in Thailand have started calling for a “boycott” of the UNHCR for allegedly helping the “anti-monarchy” suspect.
The campaign, which appears to be coordinated by several Facebook pages, has also urged all Thais to refrain from donating to the UN agency.
”Thai Royalists Call For Boycott of UN Refugee Agency”, Khaosod English, January 10, 2015
This kind of extreme Thai royalist witch hunt is nothing new. This week the Facebook page of the UNHCR’s Thailand office was bombarded with profanity-filled threats of boycott and even violence (i.e. one angry user pledged to “destroy the [UNHCR] donation booths and slap the staff! **** UNHCR Thailand!”), so much so that the social media profiles of UNHCR Thailand have been offline since Wednesday morning. Sources have independently told Siam Voices that the accounts were taken down for ”maintenance,” but don’t know when they will return and also could not answer if this was scheduled.
Thailand’s military has denied killing two Cambodians citizens by “burning them alive” after they allegedly crossed the border into Thailand illegally last week, following accusations by Cambodian authorities quoted by The Phnom Penh Post:
Cambodian officers said their Thai counterparts informed them that on the night of January 7, four Cambodians illegally crossed the border with intentions of evading taxes on a smuggled motorbike.
“While they were dragging [the motorcycle] across the border, the soldiers shot at them, firing about 10 bullets. But all of the bullets missed so they deployed more soldiers and arrested two Cambodians while the other two escaped. The soldiers then burnt the two men alive in car tires,” said Anh Kamal, deputy military commander in Battambang’s Sampov Loun district.
Since the incident, Cambodian military and police have reported being denied access to the site of the killings. Cellphone photos posted by locals claiming to have seen the spot show two ash-covered indentations side by side.
The charred remains were sent to Bangkok for a biopsy to confirm identities, authorities said. Thailand has not yet officially confirmed the nationality of the deceased men. Its Foreign Affairs Ministry could not be reached.
“Thais ‘admit’ to burn deaths“, Phnom Penh Post, January 12, 2015
The article went on to report that a man claiming to be the brother of one of the missing men, saying that they are migrant workers, suspects that his relatives are among the deceased. Furthermore, officials from the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok are working with Thai authorities to identify the bodies, according to an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Phnom Penh, warning that they will “file a complaint” should the remains be indeed from Cambodian citizens.
Meanwhile, Thai officials have denied these allegations in the Bangkok Post:
“We beg the Cambodian side not to speak like this. Making such comments (causes) damage because (Thai-Cambodian) relations, at present, are going well,” said a highly placed source in the Burapha Force, which supervises the Thai-Cambodian border. “Use reason and talk. Don’t make allegation and then give such information.”
“Army denies Thai soliders [sic] confessed to burning 2 Cambodians alive“, Bangkok Post, January 12, 2015
The border region between Cambodia and Thailand remains a source of tensions for both countries. It is also the scene of the Thai-Cambodian border dispute over the ancient Hindu temple Preah Vihear – a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008 – which sparked sporadic exchanges of fire between both armies, but deteriorated into several days of fighting in 2011 when at least eight people were killed. In November 2013, the International Courts of Justice upheld a ruling originally made in 1962, awarding Cambodia the sovereignty of the Preach Vihear promontory.
Apart from that, other numerous incidents have resulted in deadly gunfire as well as alleged cases of illegal border crossings, as they involve land encroachment and illegal logging and smuggling of rosewood. The Cambodian human rights organization ADHOC says that 33 Cambodian illegal loggers were killed in 2013 and 45 in 2012 (source). The Cambodian Ministry of Interior on the other hand claims that 69 Cambodians were killed crossing the border illegally in 2013. Thai authorities regularly deny opening fire on illegal border-crossers. The most recent incident last December involved Thai soldiers reportedly shooting on five Cambodian women crossing into Thai territory, killing one.
UPDATE (January 19, 2015): The Phnom Penh Post reported over the weekend that Thai Foreign Minister General Tanasak Patimapragorn told his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong that the Thai authorities still haven’t identified the bodies, thus acknowledging the incident officially for the first time.
A series of new orders and proposals suggests that Thailand’s military government has taken further steps to monitor and censor online content in continued efforts to curtail criticism of itself and the country’s monarchy.
Ever since the coup of May 22, 2014, the military junta has tightened its grip on the media by putting it under close watch and threatening those that are not criticizing the military rulers ”in good faith”. The official attitude of the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), as the junta is formally called, towards the media is encapsulated by a junta media watchdog representative who stated that it doesn’t limit media freedom, but that the media ”must stay within limits”.
Despite this, the junta was apparently still not happy with its control over the public narrative. This is evident from the junta leader, former army chief and current Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, after a series of gaffes, verbosities and apparently tired facing the same questions (like when elections will be held, eventually?) from the press, accusing some media of “inciting conflict” and ”personally attacking him” and threatening to shut those offending outlets down under the still existing martial law. That sentiment has been echoed later by his hawkish deputy prime minister and former army chief General Prawit Wongsuwan.
One major headache for the military junta’s urge to control the media is the Internet, and especially social media. We have previously reported on the heightened measures, which reportedly includes the implementation of a mass online surveillance capabilities.
The main thrust of this crackdown on the media is not only the claim over the narrative in post-coup Thailand, but also the military’s junta self-proclaimed duty to hunt everyone defaming the monarchy (something this and previous governments see as a threat to national security), thus banning content it perceives to be lèse majesté, an offense that can carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in jail. Since the coup, all cases that fall under this are handled by a military court and so far more than 20 people have been charged.
In recent weeks, two major developments in Thailand during the last days of 2014 suggest the further curtailing of online traffic.
First, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) issued this:
Thakorn Tantasith, a member of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission (NBTC), said today that all Internet Service Providers (ISP) based in the Kingdom have been instructed to monitor the websites under their watch and close down any sites that contain libelous remarks toward the monarchy. (…)
“They can shut down any page with content that threatens the national security or violates Section 112 immediately. They don’t need to seek any approval from the NBTC or any agency,” Thakorn said, “If they have doubt about whether some websites are guilty of the crime, they can contact a five-person special working group of the NBTC.” If the committee deem the website to be in violation of lese majeste laws, it will shut down the site in 30 seconds, Thakorn explained.
He added that the new measure is a response to the spike in lese majeste violations in the past several months. “We have to tighten the screw to prevent any further offences, or at least reduce them,” Thakorn said.
“Thai Govt Aims To Shut Down Anti-Monarchy Sites ‘In 30 Seconds’“, Khaosod English, December 29, 2014
Apart from the obvious reasoning on this measure by the authorities, it also creates yet another problematic precedent as ISPs are being asked to use their own judgement to filter content and block URLs. In the past, such pre-emptive strikes have caused certain websites to be inaccessible on one provider, while they would still work on another one. And since the lines as to what constitutes lèse majesté are pretty blurry themselves, placing this responsibility with somebody else only leads to even more arbitrary application of this law.
In related news from late December, Thai authorities reportedly sought talks with representatives of the social network platform Facebook over ways to ”to identify Facebook users who post messages” deemed lèse majesté – similar to their attempts to reach out to the company behind the mobile chat application LINE after the junta claimed it could monitor personal chats on the app. Facebook reportedly declined to join the meeting, saying that no one was available.
Then this happened:
According to Thai Netizen Network, the cabinet on Tuesday gave the green light to the proposed Cyber Security bill to establish a National Committee for Cyber Security, under the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (MDES), whose former title was the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT). The Cyber Security Bill was one of eight proposed bills on telecommunications which are aimed at restructuring and tightening control of telecommunications in Thailand.
In the draft, the National Committee for Cyber Security will be operated under the supervision of the Minister of Digital Economy and Society to oversee threats to national cyber security, which is defined as cyber threats related to national security, military security, stability, economic security, and interference on internet, satellite, and telecommunications networks. (…)
Most importantly, the committee is authorized to access all communication traffic via all communication devices, such as post, telephone, mobile phone, internet, and other electronic devices. The committee will also have the authority to order all public and private organizations to cooperate against any perceived threats to national cyber security. (…)
In addition to this, the junta cabinet has also previously approved a proposal from the Royal Thai Police to amend the 1934 Criminal Procedure Code to allow the police to intercept communication devices of criminal suspects.
“Thai junta gives green light to bill on mass surveillance“, Prachatai English, January 8, 2015
It clearly shows that Thailand’s military junta will seek more and more avenues to monitor, block, filter and censor online content on a larger scale – and ultimately take control of its own narrative.
UPDATE: Prachatai English has more details on the proposed changes to the 1934 Criminal Procedure Code to intercept communications of suspects, while Bangkok Post reports on the criticism of the proposed “cyber law” drafts.