Thailand’s ruling regime, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), looks ready to set aside its whistle and zebra stripes amid chatter that the country is about to take tentative steps towards limited democracy, with an election looming as early as next February.
Former Royal Thai Army General and Thailand’s current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has publicly expressed willingness to shed his military uniform and don a business suit for the campaign trail. Critics have speculated that the election might be pushed back—after all, it’s already been postponed four times—but the government insists that Thais will go to the polls in 2019.
Prayut came to power following a coup against Yingluck Shinawatra’s caretaker government in 2014. He repealed the country’s constitution and established the NCPO with himself in the top spot. Now, as the country appears to be on its way to its first election in five years, Prayut, who retired from his army chief post in October 2014, seems ready to pivot towards partisan politics. He has yet to be nominated by any political party, but the newly-formed Palang Pracharat Party has already attracted four of his cabinet members, and is actively recruiting a leader. It’s been widely speculated that the prime minister will join the party and run in the next election to legitimise his four-year iron-fisted rule with a mandate from the Thai people.
But not, perhaps, without certain advantages or levers of control in his pocket.
The Computer Crimes Act in a social media era
Anybody bold enough to criticise Prayut’s calculated move online could be charged, not with defamation, but under Thailand’s repurposed Computer Crimes Act.
The Act first became law in 2007. Its original intent was to deal with computer forgery and fraud, but the law was almost exclusively used as a stiffer punishment for criminal defamation. Amendments were made in 2017, but not everything was an improvement: the changes also included a clause stating that anybody entering false data into a computer, which could cause panic or harm to the public, national or economic security of Thailand, can face a maximum of five years in jail or a THB100,000 fine.
Legal experts say that this vague wording allows the authorities plenty of leeway in interpretation. It’s essentially a way for the NCPO to combat what it claims is “fake news”, allowing the powerful to decide what is or isn’t “false” information deemed harmful to national security or strict public order and morality laws.
Legal experts say that this vague wording allows the authorities plenty of leeway in interpretation. It’s essentially a way for the NCPO to combat what it claims is “fake news”, allowing the powerful to decide what is or isn’t “false” information
It’s especially useful for a government seeking to exercise some form of control over the otherwise freewheeling social media landscape. According to We Are Social, the kingdom’s social media penetration rate is at 67%, with Facebook and Line claiming the most subscribers. With 51 million users, Thailand is ranked eighth globally for active Facebook users. Bangkok alone has 22 million active Facebook accounts—the most of any city in the world. Over seven million Thai first-time voters are expected in the next election. The role of Facebook, in facilitating political discussions and influencing decisions, will likely be significant.
Opposition party members have found themselves on the receiving end of the law. Future Forward Party co-founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was targeted in August for a Facebook Live video he made June 29 called “Giving Friday Back to the People”. In this weekly broadcast, Thanathorn attempts to counter Prayut’s Thai television media blitzes.
Thanathorn and two other senior Future Forward Party members are accused of spreading false information. In their video episode, they mentioned that Palang Pracharat Party’s close relationship to the ruling NCPO was allowing it to cherry pick high-profile politicians. They were charged under the Computer Crimes Act.
They aren’t the only ones. Members of the Pheu Thai Party—including a former energy minister under the Yingluck Shinawatra government—have also been charged with committing computer crimes for statements made against the NCPO.
A group of Thai hiphop artists released a music video for the song Rap Against Dictatorship. In it, they speak out against abuses committed by current and past military leaders. The Bangkok police mentioned they could use the Computer Crimes Act to prosecute the rap collective for uploading the video to YouTube, but no charges have been filed to date. (Ironically, the authorities’ response simply caused the video to go viral.) The comment section of the video was closed as human rights lawyers advised the collective they could be held responsible, and face charges, for comments made by others on the platform.
“If you look at the whole picture you can see the use of law to target political opponents,” says Anon Chawalawan, documentation officer at iLaw. “Computer crimes might be one thing but when we’re heading to [an] election you can see more political movement online. It just depends on the authorities which law [they want] to apply to any given action or statement.”
Convictions have been rare since the 2017 amendments to the Computer Crimes Act, but free speech advocates still say that the very existence and breadth of the law can have a chilling effect. This is because there doesn’t need to be a conviction for the Computer Crimes Act to have an impact on people’s lives.
“For any criminal offence that has a punishment of three years’ jail term, the process for getting bail will be more difficult,” says Arthit Suriyawongkul, digital security trainer at Thai Netizens Network.
“With criminal defamation most of the time a defendant can get bail quite easy. If you use the Computer Crimes Act it will be more difficult. I think this is the tactic of why it gets used in company with other charges.”
A political weapon
In the past, computer crimes charges were tacked on to more serious crimes like lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) or sedition, but observers now believe that the regime is beginning to use the Computer Crimes Act itself as a political weapon.
“There are politicians who make a comment online against the government or military junta [who] are now subject to Computer Crimes Section 14 that mentions national security,” Anon Chawalawan says.
The law can also be used selectively, targeting particular individuals. For example, Thai democracy activist Jatupat Boonpattararaksa (also known as Pai Dao Din) was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison in 2017 for sharing a BBC Thai article on Facebook that the authorities declared was critical of the new Thai King Vajiralongkorn. Two thousand others had shared the same BBC story on Facebook, but only Jatupat was charged and convicted of lese majeste and computer crimes for distributing the content online.
Observers now believe that the regime is beginning to use the Computer Crimes Act itself as a political weapon
Earlier this year, several democracy activists in Bangkok were charged with sedition and computer crimes for organising street protests on Facebook calling for an immediate election. According to the Democracy Restoration Group, 129 Thais were arrested during the May 2018 protests.
“I don’t think it was designed to be used as a political tool or as a tool to restrict people. Of course, when the law is written it is objective and everyone can interpret the words [used in the text],” says Thitirat Thipsamritkul, a law lecturer at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.
“I don’t think the drafter could imagine it would be used in this way.”
The Pheu Thai Party has promised that, if they win, they’ll bring in new amendments to the Computer Crimes Act to prevent it from being abused. But the charge of having committed an offence under the Act has a lasting impact.
“Whether the accusation is strong enough, it’s not about the results, it’s about the process during the pre-trial, trial and post-trial that will cost you a lot of time, money and opportunities,” says iLaw’s Anon Chawalawan.
Across the region
Thailand isn’t alone in its erosion of internet freedom. Other Southeast Asian governments have also moved towards increasing their powers to regulate online expression, and occasionally learn from one another. The regional trend is to use new cybercrime legislation with harsher punishments to deter people from sharing critical comments or opinions on popular social media platforms.
The Thai Netizens Network says that both Cambodia and Myanmar have copied some of the Computer Crimes Act text into their domestic laws against the distribution of news and information online, undermining freedom of expression in their countries as well.
The two countries appear to have been inspired in other ways, too. A new lese majeste law introduced this year in Cambodia has already seen one conviction of an opposition party member. Meanwhile, Myanmar uses Section 66D of its telecommunications law to silence critical reporting or comments against the government and military online.
Vietnam has also passed a controversial cybersecurity law, pressuring tech companies like Facebook and Google to set up shop within the country, where the government can demand they hand over user data. The Vietnamese government has also claimed to set up a web monitoring unit to scan news items for “false information”.
Malaysia’s former government passed the Anti-Fake News Act before its general election in May this year. Although the new government has sought to repeal the law, the process has been stalled by the opposition-led Senate. The Singapore government is also looking into new legislation to deal with “deliberate online falsehoods”.
Other ways to oversee the virtual space have also been implemented. Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society has set up a computer data screening committee; some argue this could be a cybersecurity team used to monitor people’s online activity.
In a recent editorial, the Bangkok Post reported that the new Chief of the Defence Forces, General Pornpipat Benyasri, has called for a cyber army to tackle online crime in Thailand with the capability to “solve counter-terrorism problems within 30 minutes.”
This is a frightening scenario for Thais, who use social media to speak out against the monarchy and military alliance, oftentimes anonymously.
Last year, Thailand’s government threatened to shut down Facebook for failing to remove content deemed insulting to the king, claiming that the platform violated its strict lese majeste law and could be complicit in computer crimes.
Many civil society groups believe that Facebook does work with the Thai government to remove certain content deemed offensive to the monarchy, but are unsure if this extends to content critical of the military.
Elections and accountability
Laws like the Computer Crimes Act aren’t the only issue that’s triggered concern about politics and democracy in Thailand. Although the country’s deputy premier and Minister for Defence, Prawit Wongsuwan, has committed to an election date of 24 February, there are still conflicting messages from the government. Thailand’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2019 has also led to speculation that it could be used as a reason to postpone the election until at least 2020.
The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights has demanded Thailand lift all restrictions on political parties. The NCPO eased the ban allowing parties to register earlier this year. But the ban on public assembly of five or more people remains in place, effectively outlawing political meetings or campaigns. Parties are allowed to meet and discuss politics but not in public, and they still are unable to mention their platforms.
The ASEAN parliamentarians have also urged an immediate return to democracy. They even question the NCPO’s motives behind a 2017 constitution, calling it an attempt to replicate Myanmar’s Tatmadaw and continue its rule under a democratic façade.
Thailand’s new constitution stipulates that an unelected 250-seat upper house will be determined by the Thai military—with six seats automatically reserved for the police and military chiefs—making them the ultimate power brokers at Government House in Bangkok.
This means that elected Thai politicians would need three-quarters of the seats in the lower house to effect any change. But this Myanmar military-style model may be what the NCPO hopes to have in place to deter future military coups in Bangkok.
“We have to make sure our elected politicians will hold the military accountable”
Any talk of an amnesty bill, or abuses of power committed by the junta, in Thailand could open a rift and lead to street protests as it did in 2013.
But for those who’ve been targeted with “attitude adjustment” sessions or kangaroo court convictions under the NCPO regime, the time to heal the rift is now.
“We have to talk about free and fair elections. The military government said it would open some space to allow human rights activists to organise,” says Chonthicha Jangrew, a founding member of Democracy Restoration Group. “We need all of the charges against us to be dropped. We have to make sure our elected politicians will hold the military accountable.”
Adam Bemma is a Canadian journalist, media trainer and media development advisor based in Bangkok, Thailand.