Censorship and madness in Thailand


Last month a campaign group in Thailand opposing Internet censorship released a list of 1,303 new website addresses that, it claims, are among those a government ministry has blocked.

Freedom Against Censorship Thailand notes with concern that most of the pages on the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology blacklist are being kept under wraps with the aid of the courts and a new cybercrime law.

The list includes chat pages on the sites of local independent media agencies like Prachatai and Fah Diew Kan, which are both subject to constant monitoring and police harassment, and a couple from The Economist. But by far the largest number of pages is from YouTube and other video sharing sites.

What the banned addresses have in common is that, predominantly, their subject matter is the royal family.

The Economist articles, for instance, both blamed the royalty and antiquated laws protecting it from head to foot for much of Thailand’s current turmoil. “It cannot be good for a country to subscribe to a fairy-tale version of its own history in which the king never does wrong,” one said.

Although the magazine has not been banned in Thailand, the edition with the two offending pieces was not available on the stands after distributors reportedly declined to import or release it.

Even then, the Bangkok Post printed a bland rejoinder from a former foreign minister who unsuccessfully bid for the top job in the United Nations, without publishing any part of the article to which he was responding. Perhaps it expected readers to find their way around the online barricade so as to read what all the fuss was about anyway.

The list accounts for only some of the total number of sites in the ministry’s bad books. The newest minister has been quoted as saying that so far 2,300 such web addresses have been sealed off from the Internet-using public of Thailand, and that at least 400 more will soon get the same treatment.

The ministry has been devoting increasing energy to the blocking of sites for a number of years, and it was in October last year that a former minister announced the new firewall to stop content deemed critical of the royal family, which apparently takes precedence to pornography or material inciting religious or racial hatred.

But this latest round of censoring comes amid high uncertainty about the country’s future, and together with a flurry of other reports about attempts to curtail free speech in Thailand.

Within the last few weeks, the chief privy councilor reportedly asked the military to monitor and act against websites offensive to the monarchy, which the army chief had already ordered be done anyway; supporters of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra were accused of committing an offence by placing the royal couple’s image against an inappropriate slogan, and a new criminal complaint has been lodged against a British Broadcasting Corporation correspondent for a report suggesting links between the palace and the crowds that barricaded themselves into Government House and the airports last year.

Then there are opinion pieces like the one in Matichon daily last month urging friends or relatives of someone showing signs of listening to the king’s critics to take the person promptly for psychological treatment.

The suggestion that people showing less than undying gratitude to His Majesty might be deranged would be funny were the author – a former police general – not serious, not writing in a major newspaper and not speaking to deeply entrenched prejudices.

Whereas to people in the West the implication that critics of orthodoxy may be mentally unsound recalls the sinister practices of past decades in the Soviet Union and earlier periods of religious zealotry in Europe and the New World, in Asia it has its origins in ancient India.

Old tales with their genesis in some of the most stratified and hierarchical societies the world has known reiterate how ordinary persons who challenge the established order, who attempt to rise above or move outside the place assigned to them, go crazy in their folly (like the unfortunate character in the cartoon shown above).

These stories and their values continue to weigh heavily on people in countries that have inherited and interpreted them, including Thailand. After all, its king is still the great caste-assigned ruler the Maha Kasatriya, even if millions of his subjects would prefer to live in a country plugged into Sanook.com rather than one anchored to the Indus shoreline.

Bangkok’s blocking of YouTube, Prachatai and The Economist is as much about ancient madness as modern censorship. To get past the latter requires only a little ingenuity and any of the growing number of computer programs designed to befuddle the Net police.

To get over the former requires a rejection of the idea that there remains anyone anywhere who is wholly above criticism. This, surely, is an idea whose time has come and gone.

Source: Censorship and madness in Thailand


4 responses to “Censorship and madness in Thailand

  1. Pingback: THAILAND-Australian writer gets three years in prison for lese majeste « democracy for burma

  2. Thailand: criminalising dissent
    26Jan09, Index on Censorship

    The crackdown on lèse majesté is intensifying as politics becomes polarised around the monarchy, says Sinfah Tunsarawuth

    Years ago when this writer was a mass communication student at a Bangkok university, a senior editor of the English-language Bangkok Post was invited to speak about the editorial management of the daily.

    The editor said the paper had once published a picture of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej with a caption saying the king was ‘on vacation’. The next day, he received a phone call. The caller told him the caption was inaccurate: the king was never on vacation.

    The Bangkok Post editor was not under any threat of being charged with defaming the king, but the incident explicitly demonstrates how sensitive a subject the monarchy is among Thai people.

    The constitution states: ‘The king shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the king to any sort of accusation or action.’ The king is, legally, above even the slightest criticism.

    Defamation of the king or members of his family had not been a public issue for some time. Most Thais — as well as foreigners living in Thailand — know how to stay out of trouble. But since last year, the issue of lèse majesté has been taken up by the media like never before in modern Thai history.

    In the past two weeks alone, Australian writer Harry Nicolaides was convicted of lèse majesté and started his three-year jail sentence in Bangkok, Thai political scientist Giles Ji Ungpakorn was charged with the same offence, and oil-rig engineer Suwicha Thakhor was detained without bail on similar charges.

    Thai authorities have intensified their crackdown on individuals defaming the monarchy as loyalty to the king now polarises the political inclination of two opposing, confrontational blocs.

    ‘There really has been a large number of websites containing materials that could be seen as defaming the monarchy,’ Natthaphong Luangnaruedom, a regular blogger, told Index on Censorship. ‘But most of them use language that prevents them from being caught.’

    Natthaphong was speaking at a panel discussion on ‘politics and the online world’ in Bangkok yesterday (25 January), where he publicly declared he is with the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), whose supporters wear yellow shirts — a colour that is associated with the king. In Thailand, yellow is the colour of people born on Monday — the day of the week on which the king was born.

    PAD supporters, seen as royalists, are also known to oppose former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Critics consider Thaksin, in exile since his government was toppled by a military coup in September 2006, an anti-royalist.

    His supporters have formed the red-clad Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD), which is currently moving against the Democrat Party-led government.

    In addition to the three recent cases, many other Thais are either being charged with or prosecuted for defaming the monarchy.

    The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology has said it has shut down more than 2,000 websites alleged to have contained lèse majesté material. And the minister has made the crackdown a policy priority.

    The senate, on Friday 23 January, set up a committee tasked with addressing the issue, warning that over 10,000 websites could be the target of the campaign.

    Lèse majesté is classified under ‘Offences Relating to the Security of the Kingdom’ in Thailand’s Penal Code. It has been part of the code and rarely subjected to change since its promulgation in 1957. Thai authorities treat lèse majesté as a matter of national security.

    The offence carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

    The Democrat Party, whose coalition government was formed in December 2008 with support from the royalist army, has legislation pending in parliament that will raise prison sentences for lèse majesté to a maximum of 25 years. The amendment will also add a maximum fine of one million baht (about USD $28,500). Currently, lèse majesté carries no fine.

    The prescribed penalty and the recent intensification of suppression by Thai authorities have made the Thai public nervous. Many companies are known to have created firewalls to block suspicious websites or messages that might sneak into their computer systems, getting them and their employees in trouble.

    The way in which the Thai police arrest lèse majesté suspects also adds to the current state of panic. They are known to have raided suspects’ homes at night, seizing computers and other assets. Many suspects have been detained with no prospect of bail.

    The latest Thai to be accused of lèse majesté, oil-rig engineer Suwicha Thakhor, was arrested on 14 January by police as he and his wife were shopping in his hometown in the northeastern Nakhon Phanom province. The police also raided his other home in Bangkok, which he was accused of using as a base for spreading material defaming the monarchy.

    He was interrogated by police without a lawyer present as he was persuaded that his cooperation would lead to his release. However, he has been detained by police since his arrest.

    Suwicha, who has three children, has now been sacked by his employer without any severance, a direct result of having been charged with a serious crime.

    ‘What I want to know is: “Did I kill someone?”’ he has said. ‘I have seen suspects who killed people or raped young children released on bail. Some prominent individuals who faced charges similar to mine were released on bail. But I have not been granted bail. What is the standard on this issue?’

    In an interview, he told a local website: ‘All my email messages have been read. They have set up a task force with a most wanted list, whose members they are trying to link into a network. I never thought Thailand would turn into this.’

  3. Thai website to protect the king
    (BBC, 5 February 2009)

    The government in Thailand has set up a special website urging people to inform on anyone criticising the monarchy.

    It has also established an internet security centre to co-ordinate the blocking of websites deemed offensive to the monarchy.

    On its first day of operation the centre banned nearly 5,000 websites.

    The Ministry of Information had already blocked many thousands of sites, but that work is now being accelerated by the new centre.

    Loyalty to the king

    For all the many other challenges confronting the new government in Thailand, it has made protecting the image of the monarchy one of its highest priorities, according to the BBC correspondent in Bangkok, Jonathan Head.

    Internet users are being urged to show their loyalty to the king by contributing to a new website called protecttheking.net, which has been set up by a parliamentary committee.

    On the site’s front page it is described as a means for Thai people to show their loyalty to the king by protecting him from what it calls misunderstandings about him.

    It calls on all citizens to inform on anyone suspected of insulting or criticising the monarchy.

    The site has managed to block 4,818 websites in its first 24 hours of operation.

    Sources in the military have told the BBC that top generals are concerned about growing anti-monarchy sentiment, particularly among supporters of the ousted prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, many of whom believe that members of the royal family have backed anti-Thaksin movements.

    The new website appears to be part of a concerted effort by the government and its conservative supporters to stifle any debate on the future of the monarchy, before it can gather momentum, our correspondent says.

  4. Memory is often a wonderful and terrible thing. The initiation and use of the protecttheking.net websight has nudged that memory. I remember during the Hitler/Nazi era, they also used the people to reveal any protesters/dissidents. This same practice was used in Russia during the time of the USSR. I am a devout Buddhist, but let me pray to someone above to not let this bear fruit. It could lead to hideous results.

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