RUNNING A COUNTRY is much easier if you can silence naysayers. Just ask Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha. Having seized the job after leading a coup in 2014, he clung to it through an unfair election last year. One of the secrets to his success has been the severe restrictions on what Thais can say about both their government and the monarchy. More than 900 people endured “attitude adjustment” in the years after Mr Prayuth came to power, according to iLaw, a Thai NGO. Approval of a new constitution in a referendum in 2016 was eased by a ban on criticising the draft. As of 2017 at least 100 people were either detained awaiting trial or serving prison sentences for lèse-majesté. But the authorities are not content with the same old gags. They are always coming up with new ways to silence dissent.
The lèse-majesté law, for example, has fallen from favour. It attracted censure from abroad, as anachronistic and repressive. Since last year those writing rude things about King Maha Vajiralongkorn (pictured) or criticising the government have been targeted instead under laws on sedition, computer crimes or defamation. In November the government also inaugurated an anti-fake news centre. An emergency decree passed in March gives the authorities power to prosecute those deemed to be spreading misinformation about covid-19. At the time Mr Prayuth warned Thais against “abuse of social media”.
Online rabble-rousers are sometimes summoned by police or other officials, but not prosecuted for any crime. The intimidating process is often enough to shut them up. One Thai student describes how local authorities contacted his university last month to complain about his Facebook posts querying government spending, before asking him to visit the police and eventually hand over his iPad and Facebook account details. He doesn’t yet know whether he will face charges. But he believes he attracted attention for helping to lead student protests on his campus earlier this year. “If the most active figures are suppressed by the government then this might also result in the ending of the student movement,” he says.
Even as the government’s approach evolves, disgruntled Thais are also changing how they use social media. Frustration over the miserable state of the economy, the king’s antics and the handling of the coronavirus are boiling over online. In recent months netizens have expressed views that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. “We have never seen this level of open defiance, towards the monarchy in particular, before,” reckons Andrew MacGregor Marshall of Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland.
Notable outbursts include rage on Twitter over traffic jams in Bangkok caused by road closures linked to the movements of royal motorcades. So vehement was the criticism that in January a government spokeswoman announced that the king “has acknowledged the traffic problem and is concerned for the people”. Roads are no longer fully shut for royal motorcades. Another bold move was the creation in April of the “Royalists Marketplace” on Facebook. Its members advertise satirical services to lampoon the monarchy. Its founder, Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University, offered pet grooming with a picture of the king’s late poodle, Foo Foo. (In life the animal was made an Air Chief Marshal.) The marketplace has attracted 500,000 members in less than two months. Mr Pavin says at least two of them have lost their jobs for being in the group.
Other Thais are cautious almost to paranoia. Fears last month that Twitter might in some way be sharing information with the Thai government led tens of thousands to switch to an alternative social platform called Minds. “The assertion we’re in co-ordination with any government to suppress speech has no basis in fact whatsoever,” says Kathleen Reen, who works for Twitter in the region.
That will come as a relief to the many Thais who have been using such hashtags as #WhyDoWeNeedAKing and #RIPThailand. “[Thais] have the platforms to release their frustrations,” explains Titipol Phakdeewanich of Ubon Ratchathani University, “but it is not easy to translate that to a real movement.” That suits Mr Prayuth. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Voice of treason”