Thais test taboos as war on royal slurs heats up

Thursday, 8 December 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

BANGKOK (Reuters): From a windowless room in a Bangkok suburb, computer technicians scour thousands of websites, Facebook pages and tweets night and day. Their mission: to suppress what is regarded as one of Thailand’s most heinous crimes -- insulting the monarchy.

The government calls this its “war room”, part of a zero-tolerance campaign that uses the world’s most draconian lese-majeste laws to stamp out even the faintest criticism of 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch.

Critics call it a “witch hunt” and few are spared if they fall foul of the process. Sixty-one-year-old cancer sufferer Amphon Tangnoppaku, dubbed “Uncle SMS”, was jailed for 20 years last month for sending text messages deemed to have disparaged Queen Sirikit.

The ruling prompted outrage. On Saturday, Human Rights Watch criticised the “shocking” severity of recent penalties for lese-majeste and urged Thailand to amend the law.

The offence is punishable by up to 15 years in prison, possibly more if there is violation of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act, which has been used to block more than 70,000 websites, many for lese-majeste, others for pornography or cyber fraud.

Washington-based pro-democracy group Freedom House says the two laws give Thai authorities “carte blanche to clamp down on any form of expression”.

Some Thais had hoped Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose party members are among those accused of lese-majeste, would reform the law. But she is treading carefully, aware her opponents in the military and royalist establishment could seize on any hint of disloyalty to the monarchy to bring her down.

Independent analysts say the use of lese-majeste could undermine those it was designed to protect if the backlash against the law grows.

The tough-sounding Cyber Security Operation Centre remains focused, however.

“We don’t have any impressive equipment to track suspicious Internet activity,” said Nut Payongsri, an official in the vast government complex. “In most cases, we hear about misuse via calls to our hotline. We check each case and report them to the police.”

The king is in poor health and has spent the past two years in hospital. He made a rare public appearance in a wheelchair on Monday at celebrations to mark his birthday.

His health and the succession are sensitive topics. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has yet to command the same respect as his father, who is seen as almost divine in the majority Buddhist country.

Lese-majeste shields the king, queen, crown prince or regent from criticism.

In the latest case, the exact content of the messages Amphon was accused of sending is unclear -- disclosing it could also mean prison. He denied the charges and wept in court.

Undeterred by the outcry, Information and Communications Technology Minister Anudit Nakorntab warned Thais they could face similar punishment if they clicked “like” or “share” next to Facebook postings about the case that were considered offensive to the throne.

An ICT Ministry official told Reuters that Thais who received anti-monarchy messages by email or on their personal Facebook walls and failed to delete them were also in violation.

“We would take them to court and prosecute them,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorised to speak to the media. “It is against the law to do such a thing and as a result, they will be fined and jailed.”

The ICT Ministry said it was in talks with Facebook to block pages hosted outside Thailand carrying offensive content its cyber police were powerless to block. The U.S.-based social networking site did not respond to questions from Reuters.

Some cases are overtly political, others just bizarre, such as that of a Swiss man jailed for spray-painting a portrait of the king because he could not buy alcohol on the monarch’s birthday under Thai law. He was pardoned and deported after a short prison stint.

Lese-majeste complaints can be made by any citizen and, because of the sensitivity of the allegations, police usually feel compelled to probe them.