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.