China’s Internet Suppression Tactics Diffuse into Southeast Asia

Tougher laws are curbing free speech on social media, and look very similar to restrictions in China.

In an excellent new piece on Voice of America (VOA) news, Steve Herman analyzes how several nations in Southeast Asia appear to be moving to “emulate China” in the way that these countries, like China, regulate and harshly restrict social media. In Thailand, for example, which has one of the harshest climates for Internet speech in the world—despite being theoretically a democracy—the government is now moving to crack down on Facebook users who just post or “like” any articles that could be deemed insulting to the Thai monarchy. Unlike in most other countries that still have such laws on the books, Thailand actually enforces its  lèse-majesté laws, and anyone—not just the king, queen, and other royals—can file a lèse-majesté charge against anyone else in Thailand. As a result, the  lèse-majesté law has become an oppressive tool of political repression by all sides in Thailand’s never ending political drama.

As VOA notes, a well-known Thai journalist, Sermsuk Kasitipradit, is now being questioned by police for some of his Facebook postings. Senior Thai officials also have publicly warned that simply “liking” something on Facebook that could be deemed offensive to the monarchy will result in potential prosecutions under lèse-majesté and computer crimes laws.

Similarly, Vietnam just passed a  new law, Decree 72, which apparently prohibits people from posting news articles on social media or blogs. Vietnam’s new law requires any posts on social media to be related only to personal information. There is little doubt that the Vietnamese authorities will enforce the new laws on social media; over the past four years, Vietnam already has been engaged in one of the harshest crackdowns in the world on bloggers posting items on politics, land grabbing, or other sensitive issues.

Are Thailand, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian countries just emulating China’s restrictions on social media? Or is there a more direct connection? Vietnam routinely sends senior officials to China to learn about many aspects of Chinese governance, including Internet monitoring and control. So, it is not unreasonable to assume that officials in Vietnam have modeled their social media strategy directly on tactics learned in China. Similarly, Thai officials have traveled on several occasions to China to study the way China monitors and controls social media and microblogging, so—again— it’s not unreasonable to think that Thailand is modeling its policy on tactics Thai officials have personally seen in China.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared. You can follow him on Twitter: @JoshKurlantzick