- - Sunday, May 29, 2016

BANGKOK — Free speech advocates and democracy campaigners are shrinking their Facebook footprints, encrypting their text messages and watching their tweets as Thailand’s increasingly authoritarian government appears bent on creating its homegrown version of Beijing’s Great Firewall of China.

Two years after seizing power on May 22, 2014, the government of Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha says it must monitor and censor the Internet to stop illegal online activity — not just political criticism, including sites and networks used by thieves, counterfeiters, human smugglers and black marketeers dealing in weapons and drugs.

National security and keeping peace in the streets are also priorities for blocking online content, the junta says, pointing to political clashes in Bangkok during 2010 and 2014 that left more than 120 people dead.

China’s increasingly sophisticated state operation to monitor and muzzle “anti-government” Internet activity with a so-called Great Firewall is much more efficient than Thailand’s efforts to date to block against online news, opinions and other data. The U.S.-trained Thai military does not appear skilled enough to effectively silence the dissidents who are helped by local and foreign “script kiddies” and professional computer-savvy colleagues.

But the regime is getting better, and has proven able to monitor lots of anti-junta activity and make arrests.

One of the latest targets was a satiric Facebook page named “We Love Prayuth,” which mocked the prime minister, a former army chief before staging the 2014 coup.

Manipulated photographs on the Facebook page showed Mr. Prayuth and his military colleagues in ridiculous and insulting ways, similar to distorted photos of them elsewhere online. The images were accompanied by taunts, vulgarities and defiant comments.

Eight Thais allegedly linked to the Facebook page were arrested in their homes on April 25, a group quickly dubbed “The Facebook 8.” They face charges of incitement under the Criminal Code and violating the Computer Crime Act.

There has been a longstanding ban on insulting the Thai monarchy, and government officials have justified the latest crackdown as aimed at “those who stir up violence”, a Thai justice ministry representative told the Financial Times newspaper.

Even just “liking” content on Facebook could be grounds for prosecution, officials have warned.

The online offensive has even drawn U.S.-based Facebook into the fray. Many people suspected Facebook secretly allowed the regime to access the eight suspect accounts, including internal messages and lists of “friends.” The company contends it did not provide any private information to Thai authorities.

Facebook uses advanced systems to keep people’s information secure,” Facebook’s Asia-Pacific representative, Charlene Chian, told reporters after the arrests.

Nevertheless, paranoia spread, with some people advising users to cancel their Facebook accounts in favor of competing social media platforms.

Others chose software such as WhatsApp to encrypt their messaging and telephone conversations.

The regime has detained hundreds of people during the past two years for speech-related activity online or in public.

Many of them had to undergo “attitude adjustment” re-education at military camps for several days. Those targeted often have to sign documents promising never to engage in political activity against the junta or leave Thailand without permission. Civilian violators can face a military trial, have their financial assets seized and be imprisoned.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies met Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai earlier this month to hear Bangkok’s concern over the U.S. State Department’s criticism against the regime’s online crackdown of the Facebook 8 and others.

“We are troubled by the recent arrests of individuals in connection with online postings,” State Department spokeswoman for East Asia and the Pacific Katina Adams said on May 11. “The arrest and harassment of activists and their family members raise serious concerns about Thailand’s adherence to its international obligation to protect freedom of expression.”

Also this month, the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review heard several countries criticize Thailand in Geneva for opposing free speech and committing other violations.

Few protests so far

But despite complaints by Thais who oppose the regime’s restrictions, only a few symbolic protests involving a handful of people have appeared on the streets of Bangkok and other cities in recent months.

Pravit Rojanaphruk, an outspoken critic who twice underwent “attitude adjustment” during the past two years, said on his Twitter account on April 27 that the “junta managed to prevent large street demonstrations. Now it’s trying to instill fear on social media.”

Dissidents say the government’s monitoring is widespread and difficult to avoid. The tracking is made easier because all Thais and foreigners must register their names, addresses and other personal details when purchasing a cellphone here.

“Thai authorities are able to track your cellphone every moment when you walk,” said New Democracy Movement member Than Rittiphan, 24, in an email interview. “This is clearly impacting upon my personal life. I have to be aware that the Thai junta is after everyone in the New Democracy Movement.

“We cannot discuss or have any communication by calling each other, because we know that they are watching us,” Mr. Than said.

He compared the regime’s surveillance to the former East Germany’s Stasi internal security force, which used informants, listening devices and dossiers to control the population until 1989.

“We all know that those Stasi are trying to gain our information,” Mr. Than said.

Several dissidents acknowledge the government’s snooping is having a chilling effect.

“One fears being hauled in at any time for ‘attitude adjustment’ or other processes — they seem to be making up new offenses every day,” a Bangkok-based computer hardware and software analyst said in an email interview, asking to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject.

At the English-language Bangkok Post newspaper, some Thai and foreign staff are experimenting with ways to use the Internet with more freedom.

“People at the newspaper have become much more aware of their online security, including the use of encrypted programs for chatting, texting and the like,” said Bangkok Post political columnist Alan Dawson, who added more Thai netizens are using special software to frustrate government monitors.

But Mr. Dawson also said the Prayuth government is working to get better.

“The government clearly believes it can emerge in a fairly short time with Chinese-style control of the Internet,” Mr. Dawson said. “It is clear the military government is continuously tightening control and stepping up [online] monitoring and prosecutions,” Mr. Dawson said.

Creating or using a hashtag on Twitter can also result in arrest if the hashtag’s wordage is perceived to be against the junta, warned New York University digital media student Thitipol Panyalimpanun on his @thitipolp Twitter account last month.

The junta uses a vague but severe Computer-Related Crime Act, enacted in 2007, to jail online offenders.

Inserting into the Internet “false data that can damage another person or the public” or “undermine national security or public safety” is punishable by five years imprisonment. Anyone who “forwards or publishes” that data — including service providers who offer “intentional support” to such activity — can also be jailed for five years.

Uploading “altered photos that impair or damage another, cause hate, contempt, humiliation, etc. with malicious intent” can result in a three-year prison sentence.

Thais and “non-Thai citizens” — including Americans — anywhere in the world, are “subject to extradition and punishment if the injured person is Thai,” according to the law.

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