A LETTER appearing to be an invitation by European Union parliamentarians to former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to talk at the EU is being circulated in Thailand, sparking speculation about her future whereabouts amidst criminal charges at home and implications for the relations between the EU and the Thai military.
Signed by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) Elmar Brok and Werner Langen, the letter (see below) recalls Yingluck’s visit to the EU in March 2013, before addressing the current political situation in Thailand under the military junta “with concern”. The letter concludes with an invitation to the former prime minister for an ”exchange of views … either in Brussels or in Strasbourg.”
Yingluck invited to talk Thai politics at European Parliament. But will junta let her go?http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/politics/773944/yingluck-invited-to-talk-thai-politics-at-european-parliament
Yingluck and her Pheu Thai Party-led government were toppled in a military coup on May 22, 2014 following over half a year of sustained anti-government protests. She and hundreds of Thais, including her cabinet ministers and party colleagues, were detained for several days by the military at various places in the country, before being released under the condition that they not rally against the Thai junta.
Since then, she has been impeached by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), an ersatz-parliament fully appointed by the military junta, and is now facing criminal charges at the Supreme Court for alleged negligence over her government’s rice subsidy program.
The policy – in which the government bought the rice from farmers at roughly 50 per cent more than the market price – was hugely popular among her party’s rural electorate and is credited to have helped her secure a landslide election victory in 2011. But the rice scheme program was slammed by critics for alleged cases of corruption, a huge financial loss of reportedly 500 billion baht ($14 billion) and millions of tonnes of rice rotting away in stockpiles while still waiting for a buyer. The latest reports suggests that 2 million tonnes of rotten rice have been approved for sale, which then can be used for industrial purposes such as the production of ethanol.
Amidst that, the letter from Europe comes at a peculiar time. Thai-language daily Khaosod reported on Monday that it received word from the Pheu Thai Party about the letter, a copy of which was later circulated by its sister publication Matichon. Other media outlets reported, based on sources close to Yingluck, that she hasn’t decided yet whether to accept the invitation.
Since the coup last year, several Western countries have downgraded their relations with the Thai military government, including the European Union. Not only has it banned any state visits on and above ministerial levels, it also suspended talks over a potential free trade agreement in the immediate aftermath of the coup (much to the annoyance of European business lobbyists in Bangkok). The likelihood of a resumption of talks is “probably zero”, according to Miguel Ceballos Baron, a top aide to EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström. He added that ”it’ll be never ratified” as long as the junta stays at the helm.
In light of the deteriorating human rights situation under the Thai military junta and the deep revamp of the political system under the guidance of the generals, several European parliamentarians across the political spectrum criticized the current regime in October. The European Parliament as a whole passed a non-binding resolution condemning the ”illegal coup of May 2014” and demand to ”overturn convictions and sentences, to withdraw charges and to release individuals and media operators who have been sentenced or charged for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression or assembly.” (Full text here)
The letter to Yingluck is dated October 7, a day before the vote in the EU parliament. The signatures are apparently those of MEPs Elmar Brok and Werner Langen, both from Germany and members of the European People’s Party (EPP), consisting of national Christian democratic and conservative parties. Mr. Brok is the longest-serving member of the EU parliament and has served as the chairman of the EU foreign affairs committee since 2012, a position he held previously between 1999 to 2008. Mr. Langen, an MEP veteran of over 20 years, is the chairman of the EU parliamentary delegation to ASEAN. Both men are also co-signatories of the aforementioned resolution condemning the Thai junta (full voters’ list).
Whether Yingluck will travel to Europe is entirely up to the junta. While it allowed her to travel to Paris in July 2014 for the birthday of her exiled brother and former PM Thaksin, the generals banned her from traveling abroad without prior consent immediately after last year’s coup, and again earlier this year, in order to prevent her from fleeing into exile (like her brother), shortly before her indictment over the aforementioned criminal charges for the rice scheme policy.
Asian Correspondent has reached out to MEPs Elmar Brok and Werner Langen for comments.
+++UPDATE 20.30h – Nov 24, 2015 +++
One of the co-signatories of the invitation to former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has confirmed the letter’s authenticity. “Yes, the letter is by me and Mr. Brok,” says Werner Langen, MEP, in reply to an email by Asian Correspondent. He hopes that “the military government will allow” Yingluck to travel to Brussels or Strasbourg. Furthermore, Mr. Langen says that the European Union wants to assist Thailand with “a return to democratic structures contribute a reconciliation between the rivaling factions.”
Thailand’s military government is becoming increasingly blatant about its intentions to stay in power
THAILAND’S Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has never been shy about letting everybody know his opinions. The junta leader also expects everybody to listen. Nobody knows that better than the local journalists who have endured the daily press briefings by the PM that have more often than not turned into prolonged tirades (as we have reported previously). The rest of the country might have caught some nuggets of his wisdom during his weekly TV addresses while waiting for their nightly fix of local television’s ubiquitous and hugely popular soap operas.
It’s one and a half years into the rule of Thailand’s military after it took power in the coup of May 22, 2014. Its reign has been authoritarian, dominating nearly the entire political discourse, censoring the flow of information and intolerant of criticism and dissent – even if it’s something as innocuous as an old man giving flowers to anti-junta protesters.
The junta has its hands in almost every institution that is currently re-writing the constitution, thus re-defining the rules for any future elected government – that is IF there is going to be an election any time soon. With a new timeframe for democratic elections in mid 2017 – instead of initially late 2015 – the military junta has postponed the date at least three times already. First the constitutional drafting process was blamed to be taking too long, then the generals granted a public referendum on the next constitution in exchange for another delay, and eventually the rejection of said draft constitution by a fully-appointed government body pushed it further back even further, since the whole process of writing a new constitution has to start over again.
But even when the rules for the currently sidelined politicans are set and the veneer of democratic normalcy is being prepared to be raised, there is no guarantee that that’s actually going to happen.
While Gen. Prayuth himself has decided to reduce his daily press briefings, he didn’t keep it short during a meeting of the self-titled “five rivers”, which includes the military junta, the cabinet, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) and the newly established National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA), this week.
In his speech Wednesday morning, a hot-headed Prayuth went on an extensive tirade clocking in at two hours and 15 minutes, attacking his opponents and ultimately culminating in this threat:
“Politicians do not have to be suspicious of me. [The media] writes every day that I intend to cling on to power. I must make it clear. If there is no peace and order, I must stay on.”
In other words, if there are any political groups or individuals are attempting to stage anything large-scale that the military government sees as a threat, it has a very convenient excuse to shut the country down.
Even though his Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan tried to downplay Gen. Prayuth’s threat, saying that the prime minister ”didn’t mean it literally” and people ”shouldn’t read too much into it”, it becomes increasingly obvious that this wasn’t just yet another slip of the tongue by Gen. Prayuth and what the military junta is doing to ensure its grip on power, no matter how the political landscape looks in the foreseeable future.
As a return to democracy becomes more and more elusive, Thailand’s military rulers are turning the twindow for the next election into a time horizon: always visible, but never reachable.
“We will not talk about this any more. If we say we won’t do it, we won’t do it,” said Thai Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak at an economic forum in Bangkok last week. His decisive words were in response to the ongoing controversy over the Thai military government’s plans to introduce an online single gateway.
Last month, Thai internet users discovered a cabinet resolution surveying the implementation of a single online gateway ”to be used as a device to control inappropriate websites and flow of news and information from overseas through the internet system.” Subsequent resolutions ordered the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) and related agencies to speed up their preliminary work.
If realized, Thailand’s internet traffic would be bottlenecked through a single gateway, making it possible for officials to filter and block undesirable content. This is in line with the military junta’s ongoing efforts to monitor and censor dissenting voices, both in real life and online, ever since it launched a military coup in May 2014.
Amidst widespread criticism and a coordinated mass-click-and-refresh bombardment that briefly knocked several government websites offline, Thai officials were scrambling to calm public opinion, only then to contradict themselves justifying why the junta wants to have a single gateway in the first place. The explanations varied from economic reasons, cybersecurity concerns and ultimately ending at Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha being initially ”worried” about the ”youth addiction to online games and access to inappropriate media”.
A week later, the government was hoping that the debate had died down. However, despite repeated statements insisting that it won’t pursue the single gateway plan anymore, not everyone is convinced by their declaration. And it seems there is more trouble coming the junta’s way:
Online activists have announced they will launch attacks against the government beginning Thursday after the prime minister said the project to route all internet traffic through a single point of control is still alive.
The coalition of anonymous internet users known as Citizens Against Single Gateway last night warned private sector operations with IT systems linked to government servers to transfer them to safe places before the assault on government systems begins at 10am on Thursday.
Those behind a crippling attack earlier this month, the Thailand F5 Cyber Army, issued the announcement yesterday after Prime Minister and junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha said agencies are still studying the project (…).
”First Chapter of ‘Cyber War’ to Begin Thursday”, Khaosod English, October 21, 2015
The little detail that the government is “still studying” the single gateway plan is enough reason for opponents to distrust the Thai military government. But there are several more signs that justifies the continuous skepticism by many online users.
CAT TELECOM has announced that it will proceed with the plan to build a national Internet gateway, which it claims would help make Thailand a digital hub in Asean.
The aim of the project is not to control the flow of information into the country over the Internet as some fear, said CAT acting chief executive officer Colonel Sanpachai Huvanandana. He said a working committee for the project would be set up. Whether that committee is under the Information and Communications Technology Ministry or under the Digital Economy Committee is up to the ICT minister.
The national Internet gateway is one of two priorities for making Thailand a digital hub for the region by expanding capacity and reducing costs. The other is to have large content providers such as Facebook, Google and YouTube establish servers in Thailand.
”Net gateway for digital hub”, The Nation, October 21, 2015
The other part of the plan to have internet tech giants like Google and Facebook setting up shop in Thailand (the latter already did) seems ambitious to say the least, given a potentially significant infrastructural disadvantage and previous persistent, but unsuccessful attempts by the military government seeking cooperation of these companies to censor posts deemed insulting to the monarchy and also identify their authors.
At the same time it is being reported that General Thaweep Netrniyom, the secretary-general of the Office of the National Security Council (NSC), could be appointed the head of the aforementioned CAT Telecom. It would be the first time that somebody from the NSC would take up that position at the state-owned telecommunication company and unsurprisingly his focus is expected be on cyber security – just as CAT’s current CEO (a Colonel nonetheless) announced they are still not giving up on the single online gateway.
However, as mentioned before, that is not the only measure by the military junta to control the flow of online information in Thailand. It already has blocked more than 200 websites deemed a threat to national security (source), ordered internet providers to censor on sight, reportedly also procured software to intercept encrypted SSL-connections and additional hacking and surveillance software, it is also in process of passing its so-called cyber laws, a set of bills aimed officially at “preparing Thailand for the digital economy”. But it also includes passages that enables widespread online surveillance, prosecution against intermediaries (e.g. website owners) and more legal uncertainty, benefitting the state more than Thai online users.
Most recently, Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan announced on Tuesday the creation of a new ”Army Cyber Center” specifically to ”protect” the Thai monarchy and to ”keep track of information on media and social media and to sort them out systematically,” essentially underlining their priorities. In August this year, two people were sentenced to a record 28 and 30 years in prison respectively for allegedly posting Facebook messages deemed insulting to the monarchy.
Thailand has to wait for a new constitution as the drafting process is being sent back to the drawing board with an entirely new Committee taking office last week.
Writing constitutions can be a very costly venture. How costly? In the past 10 months, Thailand’s Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) was busy creating the country’s 20th constitution. The Committee members convened 158 times and accumulated a bill of 85 million Baht ($2.35 million), according to Thai media estimates– the catering alone cost 23.7 million Baht ($655,000). Was it worth it? Probably not. The constitutional draft did not survive the vote in the National Reform Council (NRC) on September 6, as the fully-appointed chamberrejected it with 134 votes to 105 and 7 abstentions. However, that didn’t really hurt Thailand’s military junta. Ruling since the Kingdom’s 12th successful coup in May 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta officially calls itself, have had a tight grip on the political process. With heightened media monitoring, censorship and arbitrary detainment of dissidents – euphemistically called ”attitude adjustment” – the junta also tries to control the official narrative.
Much Ado About Nothing?
Throughout the constitution drafting exercise, the stakes were incredibly low for the military government. As the Chairman of the NRC’s Legal and Justice Reform Committee has recently summed up: “The CDC is like a cook preparing food for the NRC. The NRC tasted the food and it was found to be not delicious.” On the one hand, a passed draft would have constitutionally enshrined the junta’s ‘reforms’ to the political system, which would have ended up severely restricting the powers of elected officials, be it through a new voting system, a fully appointed senate or several non-elected bodies that could usurp a co-existing, democratically elected government. On the other hand, a failed process buys another six months for the junta to cement its position and develop a draft constitution more to its liking – a win-win for prime minister and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha.
From among several reasons, two stand out why the draft was struck down – sending back the constitution drafting process to its very beginning. First is the controversial late addition of the Committee for Reform Strategy and National Reconciliation to the draft constitution. Dubbed by the media as the ‘Crisis Committee’, it would have established a military-dominated, extra-parliamentary executive panel shadowing the cabinet of ministers that would have intervened during a yet-to-be defined “crisis situation”. The other reason for the rejection is, as with nearly all government bodies since the coup, the NRC had 29 members from either the military or the police force. CDC Chairman Borwornsak Uwanno hinted that all these members voted against the draft because of orders from their superiors – regardless that the whole process was initiated and dominated by the military junta in the first place. Whatever the reasons for orders were, it has definitely played into the hands of the generals. The failed draft vote has now conveniently extended the junta’s rule for at least another half year, as democratic elections are postponed yet again to mid-2017, since the entire constitution drafting process had to be restarted. According to the interim constitution, the drafting process would not only take another six months, but would also require the establishment of an entirely new CDC and National Reform Council.
Junta backtracks on plans to bottleneck Thailand’s internet traffic through a single gateway after online backlash
Imagine this: you are being awarded for something you haven’t done but you go to the reception gala anyway because it’s too tempting to miss the limelight. That’s what happened last Tuesday in New York, when Thai military Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha – during his week at the United Nations’ General Assembly – received the “ICTs in Sustainable Development Award” by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN’s IT and telecommunication agency.
Alongside nine other countries, the ITU awarded ”Thailand’s ICT Policy Framework” as ”an exemplary model for the development of an effective telecommunications/ICT Regulatory environment,” according to a statement on the ITU website, listing off several ICT policies that have happened over the past 15 years under various governments – in other words, well before then-army chief Gen. Prayuth launched the military coup of May 22, 2014, toppling the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The statement also highlighted the ”National ICT Master Plan”, a policy blueprint introduced in 2002 by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (Yingluck’s brother) that also saw the creation of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT). It’s that same MICT plus the current cabinet that made headlines for all the wrong reasons again in the past few weeks, as a proposal to control Thailand’s internet traffic by introducing a single gateway was made public.
The public response was unsurprisingly negative. Thailand’s internet-savvy population feared not only even more online censorship and content filtering under military rule, but also a decrease in the speed and stability of Thailand’s internet infrastructure, since all traffic would be squeezed through said single gateway.
And in a rare display of civil disobedience and dissent against the military junta, internet users hit back on Wednesday evening:
To express dissent – and highlight the vulnerability of government systems – a community of online gamers opposed the government’s plan to police all internet traffic knocked offline websites of several state agencies, including the telecommunication ministry.
No sophisticated hacking seemed involved. Instead it was conducted using a simple yet reliable method to cripple targeted web servers. Activists circulated messages on Facebook last night urging supporters to mass-click and refresh the websites of specific government agencies at 10pm in what proved a successful bid to bring down services – a common method known as a distributed denial of service attack, or DDoS.
“Today after 10pm, people who are united to oppose the single gateway system will launch a symbolic attack by method of DDoS, which is a symbolic method [of expression], since it is a method that everyone with a mobile phone and internet can do,” the post reads. “It is a demonstration of the power of the people.”
“Cyber Activists Bring Down Govt Sites to Protest ‘Single Gateway’“, Khaosod English, October 1, 2015
During the night from Wednesday to Thursday, practically every website ending with a ”.go.th”-domain was targeted and at least seven government websites went offline amidst the constant barrage of mass refreshes, among them the MICT itself, the Ministry of Defense, the Government House, the military’s Internal Security Operations Command and the state-owned telecommunication companies TOT and CAT Telecom.
Thai government websites are comparatively easy targets, loaded with malware, generally unstable and using a form-over-function-approach to design (read: copious amounts to crude flash animations). The MICT website was reportedly accessed 100,000 times on Wednesday night alone compared to the daily average of 6,000 – the takedowns were a clear warning shot not to mess with a population that’s not only very active online, but also seems to have better IT capabilities.
— Kaewmala (@Thai_Talk) October 1, 2015
Nevertheless, as the websites slowly came back online Thursday, officials were scrambling to control the damage, both virtually and publicity-wise. And this is where things got even muddier. Newly-appointed ICT minister Uttama Savanayana reiterated that the single gateway is still just an idea at this point and the government will ”never restrict or interfere” with the internet access and freedom of its citizens. Furthermore he called the public to stop calling the proposal ”single gateway”, despite the fact that that word showed up several times in the original cabinet orders.
Apart from Uttama, other officials cited more, often contradictory reasons for the Thai military government to look into a ”single gateway”. The whole range goes from…
…”filtering and blocking unwanted content”…
The plan to reduce internet gateways was initially proposed by Pol Gen Somyos Pumpanmuang, the chief of the Royal Thai Police, in June 2015. He reasoned that through a single gateway system, it will be much easier for the state authorities to monitor, filter, delete, and intercept information on the internet that could be deemed inappropriate.
”Thai authorities to step up surveillance via ‘single internet gateway’”, Prachatai English, September 23, 2015
…to ”improving IT business”…
(…) Gen Settapong Malisuwan, the president of CAT telecom (…) and the vice president of the NBTC (…) admitted one of the purposes of implementing the single internet gateway system is to filter information and ‘inappropriate’ online materials from overseas.
The general, however, said that the primary purpose is actually increase the competitiveness of the IT sector in Thailand (…)
”Single internet gateway increases IT capacity and national security: Thai authorities”, Prachatai English, September 24, 2015
…to “saving costs”…
ICT Minister Uttama Savanayaya told reporters that it was a misunderstanding that the project was about national security; rather he said it was purely an economic measure simply to reduce Internet access costs and ISPs could use the single gateway or not as they choose. It would also free up ISPs from security costs as the government would take care of IT security on their behalf.
”Thai ICT minister defends single gateway initiative”, TelecomAsia, September 25, 2015
…”anticipating cyber threats”…
[PM’s Office Minister Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana] said the measure was being studied because the government anticipated several types of cyber threats, including hacking of government’s websites and spreading of rumors and false information to discredit various institutions.
”Suwaphan says govt studies single Internet gateway to prevent cyber threats”, The Nation, October 1, 2015
…and finally to ”won’t somebody please think about the children?!”
“The prime minister is worried about children and young people who use technologies and the internet without an appropriate framework or scope, and he has asked related agencies to come up with measures,” he said.
”ICT minister vows to ‘never curb rights’”, Bangkok Post, October 1, 2015
No matter what the reasons are and even if the officials eventually get their stories straight, the Thai military government seemingly has underestimated the public’s response to the single gateway plans. However, this won’t stop the junta’s efforts to monitor, filter and censor any online content it sees as a threat to its narrative. As highlighted last week, this is not the only measure or proposal concerning IT policies and the biggest of them all, the Cyber Law bills, are not yet even passed.
As the United Nations have declared unrestricted access to the internet and freedom of expression online a human right in a 2011 resolution, the Thai military government is already running afoul of this principle and would do so even more if it actually realizes all of its proposals.
h/t to several readers
Thai police are confident that they have arrested the main suspect in the deadly Erawan Shrine bombing – just in time for a certain official…
IT’S an equation with many unknown variables that the Thai police have been dealing with since August 17, when the deadly bomb attack at Bangkok’s popular Erawan Shrine killed 20 and injured over 100 people, followed the next day by a similar attempted bomb attack at Sathorn pier in which nobody was harmed.
The investigation started off slowly and the authorities were caught as much off-guard as most observers, since the scale and severity of the attack didn’t fit with any domestic groups that oppose the Thai military government. With only some grainy CCTV footage, dozens of witness accounts and many arrest warrants against unknown men, Thai authorities often contradicted themselves in their hunt for the perpetrators.
Two weeks after the bombing, the police arrested Mohammed Bilal (aka ”Adem Karadag”, the name in a fake Turkish passport he was carrying), and Yusufu Mieraili, identified as a Chinese Uighur from Xinjiang province. Despite initial reluctance, the focus was swiftly put on the Uighur angle. Members of the ethnic minority from western China often have to flee abroad from state persecution. In July the Thai military government deported about 100 Uighur refugees to China amidst international protest and in what is being widely regarded as the military junta cozying up to Beijing.
After several weeks of more contradictory police statements, from more fruitless accusations (the police implicated 17 suspects in total), suspects having already fled the country, to the Turkish embassy strongly denying having been ever been contacted by Thai police, the police suddenly turned to their first arrest Mohammed Bilal (aka Adem Karadag) as their main suspect after reviewing CCTV footage, again. Despite initially denying the allegations (his lawyer says that he came to Thailand days after the bomb attack), it was reported that both he and Mieraili confessed to involvement, with the former being the one who planted the bomb at the shrine.
Following the weekend, as both prime suspects have been paraded around in public crime re-enactments (again!), Thai national police chief Somyot Poompanmoung concluded with certainty on Monday that Mohammed Bilal is the main suspect behind the deadly Bangkok bombing of August 17, 2015. As for the motives, Thai police said this:
“This case is conclusive,” said Royal Thai Police commissioner-general Somyot Poompanmoung. “The perpetrators are part of a human smuggling network” in retribution for the Thai government’s crackdown on a human trafficking network.
However, Somyot and other top officials clarified the group was likely hired by others and links to vested political interests could not be ruled out. Authorities have given few clues about other political motivations for the attack, however outside analysts have suggested it could be linked to the country’s internal political divisions.
Detonators, ball bearings and other evidence recovered from the debris around the shrine and an alleged second bombing attack at a pier match materials found in two raided apartments, police told reporters at a Monday briefing.
“Thai Police: Foreign Suspects Confess to Bombings“, Voice of America, September 28, 2015
Not only are Thai authorities blaming human traffickers for the attack, but are also introducing a domestic angle by implicating a militant member of the red shirts, the group aligned with the former Prime Ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, both toppled in military coups in 2006 and 2014, respectively.
Min Buri is also where a bomb exploded in 2014 during the height of anti-government street protests, killing two men transporting it by motorcycle. Police said that bomb was partly made by Yongyuth Pobkaew, who was previously given a suspended, one-year sentence for a 2010 bombing which killed four people northwest of Bangkok in Nonthaburi province.
Thai authorities have alleged a radical cell of the Redshirt movement was behind both incidents. Police said Yongyuth purchased materials used for the Erawan Shrine bombing. A warrant for his arrest was issued on Friday but police said his whereabouts were unknown. (…)
Speaking at today’s televised press conference, police chief Somyot also told reporters that domestic Thai politics could not be ruled out as a motive. “We cannot rule out politics,” he said. “We are not falsely accusing anyone here. My words are based on evidence.”
“Police Link Bomb Attack to Uighurs, Deep South and Thai Politics“, Khaosod English, September 28, 2015
Evidence that we still have yet to see, as Somyot is about to retire later this week as National Police Chief, handing over the job to his successor Pol.-Gen. Chakthip Chaijinda (rumored to have been chosen by the even-more-hawkish Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan).
Thai police are patting themselves on the back – since they are also cashing 3m Thai Baht ($84,000) in reward money meant for the public following the arrest of Karadag – just days before their chief’s retirement, considering the case to be solved while still leaving lingering doubts unanswered. The authorities have consistently avoided calling the deadly attack an act of terrorism, partly so as not to scare away even more tourists, as many foreign nationals are among the victims. And whether or not criminals – who mostly operate well hidden from the public – were behind the bombings as a direct “revenge” on the military government’s crackdown on human traffickers (triggered by a discovery of a mass grave earlier this year) also remains to be seen.
In a country under military rule and a notoriously corrupt police force, the investigation of the worst attack in the history of Bangkok was largely undermined by constant contradictions being spouted and the lack of transparency displayed by the authorities (and then harrying the media for highlighting their discrepancies). Public confidence is unlikely to increase after the latest developments, as the Thai police are seemingly trying to square the circle with their suspicion on the perpetrators behind the bomb attack. The equation remains with many variables, waiting to be resolved.
Plans by the Thai military government to restrict the country’s internet traffic through a single gateway has raised concerns not only in the IT community, but among a public who fear authorities will easily be able to control what they can see and what they can not.
It seems that outages of major online platforms have had some unfortunate timing lately. Shortly after the Thai military launched last year’s coup – the country’s 12th – Facebook was suddenly not accessible for anyone in Thailand. While the period offline was no longer than a hour, the outcry by its over 30 million users nationwide was loud, suspecting an online shutdown by the new rulers in order to clamp down on dissenting voices.
Fast forward this past Thursday night: another Facebook outage, and similar outcry – only this time those were heard around the world as the site itself was down for a couple of minutes for everybody. But again some Thai users might have been startled by this incident, as it happened shortly after news emerged that the Thai military government wants to siphon all incoming internet traffic through a single gateway – effectively emulating China’s ”Great Firewall” in order to filter unwanted content.
The idea was conceived by the military government right after it took over power last year (among other ideas like a national social network), but it wasn’t until August this year that things were set in motion:
On 4 Aug. the military government approved the plan, and on 27 Aug. issued an order to the ministry tasked with regulating the internet to make it happen, according to cabinet meeting records.
“The Ministry of Information Communication Technology is hereby instructed to speed up the aforementioned issue and report any progress to the prime minister by September 2015,” read the 27 Aug. cabinet minutes of the gateway project.
”Junta Readies ‘Great Firewall of Thailand’”, Khaosod English, September 24, 2015
Furthermore, Thai netizens recently discovered a related cabinet resolution from June 30, ordering the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) to report what laws need to amended in order to realize a single gateway and report back by September 4.
Amidst these revelations, Thai authorities were forced to justify these plans and ultimately revealed the primary purpose of the gateway:
According to BBC Thai Service, Gen Settapong Malisuwan, the president of CAT telecom under the National Broadcasting Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) and the vice president of the NBTC, on Thursday, 24 September 2015, admitted one of the purposes of implementing the single internet gateway system is to filter information and ‘inappropriate’ online materials from overseas.
(…) the CAT president added that national security is also one of the underlying reasons to the plan in order to make it easier for the state to crackdown on cyber crimes, saying that even the US has implemented such system.
”Single internet gateway increases IT capacity and national security: Thai authorities”, Prachatai English, September 24, 2015
The NTBC vice president further defended in the same interview with BBC Thai the proposal, saying that it would actually ”increase” the competitiveness of Thailand’s IT sector against its neighbors, providing ”incentives” for private internet operators to log onto what it euphemistically calls a ”digital hub”, seeing itself as the center of Southeast Asia’s online connectivity.
From a business standpoint, it’s doubtful how you could increase competitiveness by bottlenecking all of Thailand’s online traffic, effectively risking to cripple broadband speed, and also making state-owned CAT Telecom the sole monopolizing gatekeeper again, harkening back to the early days of Thailand’s internet connections.
Though, what dominates in the arguments by the authorities is the emphasis on ”national security”, the need to monitor internet content and to censor it when they feel it’s necessary. While that mentality has often been expressed by several MICT officials under different governments (see here, here, here and here) in the past, this has become the leading doctrine in the Thai military government’s IT policy.
Under the military junta, the media are under its watch (especially online), it has blocked more than 200 websites deemed a threat to national security (source) – and has ordered internet providers to censor on sight – and reportedly also procured software to intercept encrypted SSL-connections and additional hacking and surveillance software – all that solely to go after Thais that are dissenting against the junta. Last week, the outspoken journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk was detained by the military for a second ‘attitude adjustment’ reportedly for a critical Facebook post (shortly after his release, he has been forced out at The Nation newspaper). In August, a military court sentenced two Thai Facebook users to a record 30 and 28 years in prison respectively for allegedly insulting the monarchy online.
Furthermore, the Thai military government is in process of passing its so-called cyber laws, a set of bills aimed officially at “preparing Thailand for the digital economy”. But it also includes passages that enables widespread online surveillance, prosecution against intermediaries (e.g. website owners) and more legal uncertainty, benefitting the state more than Thai online users. The single internet gateway is very much in line with the Thai military government’s hawkish policies, as it also wants to conquer the cyberspace as well.