A London-based group has published a report detailing the extent of social media surveillance conducted by the military-backed government of Thailand.
According to Privacy International, the surveillance operations of the military and police are aimed mainly against critics of the junta such as opposition leaders, journalists, activists, and academics.
Since grabbing power in 2014, the army continues to control the government by appointing some civilians in the bureaucracy. It has outlawed protests and imposed a strict regulation of mainstream media. Those who criticize authorities, particularly former army chief and now Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha are “invited” by the military to undergo an “attitude-adjustment” session.
The government has also invoked Section 112 of the Criminal Code to arrest hundreds of individuals who are suspected of insulting the monarchy. Thailand’s lèse majesté law is considered one of the harshest in the world; those found guilty of violating the law can face a minimum prison term of 15 years. Furthermore, the law empowers ordinary citizens to report individuals who are alleged to be disrespecting the monarchy.
State forces are also using the repressive provisions of the Computer Crimes Act to arbitrarily detain individuals whose online activities allegedly threaten the security of the country.
Privacy International researcher Eva Blum-Dumontet affirmed the observations of many human rights groups about how the government has been malicious filing lèse-majesté cases against activists, opposition politicians, and those accused of subverting the public interest.
“By condemning as lèse-majesté a wide range of dissenting opinion, the Thai government has been instigating a climate of fear that has affected the right to privacy of citizens. Individuals have been arrested for expressing their opinions on social media, a personal space many expect to be safe from government interference,” she wrote.
Her report also underscored the widespread use of social media surveillance techniques to identify and hunt Thai netizens who are spreading “offensive speech.”
“The government has fomented a climate where citizens feel justified in policing each other,” she noted.
Her report mentioned several online platforms that specialize in monitoring suspicious behavior.
Among the state-backed Internet initiatives is Cyber Scouts, a program which was first conceptualized in 2010 to promote the responsible use of the Internet. It was subsequently discontinued but was revived after the coup to enlist the support of teenagers to “monitor behavior that is a threat to national security.” Student volunteers who performed well were featured on the Cyber Scouts website.
For journalist Saksith Saiyasombut, the program is akin to the Village Scouts of the 1970s, which were established to wipe out communists in communities. This time, the scouts are looking for “troublemakers” on Facebook and other social media sites.
Aside from Cyber Scouts, there are other citizen-led programs identified by Privacy International that search the Internet for netizens who are defaming the king and other members of the royal family.
The Rubbish Collection Organization, an ultra-royalist group founded in 2014, has more than 200,000 Facebook “likes.” Social Sanction, another ultra-royalist group established in 2010, has an avowed goal of increasing “public awareness of corruption and create pressure to combat it, and to stop the crime of lèse majesté.”
In recent years, these groups have been involved in some high-profile lèse majesté cases, where they aggressively pushed for the prosecution and even public shaming of individuals accused of insulting the monarchy.
The report of Privacy International is a troubling reminder of the continuing deterioration of the human rights situation in Thailand. Free speech is undermined if journalists and netizens are intimidated by groups affiliated with the state. The Internet is supposed to provide a safe space for those who want to express their views but this is no longer possible because of the government’s intricate social surveillance operations.
Thailand’s normalization process will be rendered meaningless if draconian laws and police measures continue to exist.