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'Like communist China': Thai PM seeks to gag critics

Prayut's move to censor any negative comments made online will serve to further curtail freedom of speech

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Published: August 02, 2021 05:04 AM GMT

Updated: September 02, 2021 05:32 AM GMT

'Like communist China': Thai PM seeks to gag critics

Anti-government protesters flash the three-finger salute as they take part in a 'car mob' rally in Bangkok on Aug. 1. (Photo: AFP)

As criticism over his mishandling of a devastating Covid-19 outbreak mounts, Thailand’s mercurial prime minister has done what all autocrats do when they are feeling the pinch: crack down on critics.

Prayut Chan-o-cha has set out to censor any negative comments made online in a move that will serve to further curtail the country’s freedom of speech, which has not been robust to begin with. Prayut has done this by instructing internet service providers in Thailand to automatically block the access of any user who posts “information that may frighten people or intentionally distorting information to cause a misunderstanding about the [Covid-19] situation.”

Criticism, in other words.

Prayut, who has ruled unchallenged with the military’s backing since he seized power in a coup in 2014 as the army’s then chief, issued the order late last week so as to try and stem the online tide of disapproval and mockery directed at him and his administration during an outbreak of Covid-19 that shows no sign of slowing down.

It remains to be seen how effective such government-mandated censorship will be as Thailand’s cyberspace is rife with criticism of his government, yet the intent to strongarm critical voices into silence is there.

One wishes that the Thai prime minister had devoted this much energy to tackling a crisis that has become a full-blown health emergency and a simultaneous economic catastrophe that has seen millions plunged into poverty.

Supporters of the government, through vastly outnumbered by critics, have claimed without any evidence that such images have been faked

Most notably, a shambolic mass vaccination drive, launched in early June, has been mired in controversy over chronic shortages of doses and questionable distribution priorities even as reported cases of infections and deaths continue to increase.

Prayut promised back in May that 70 percent of residents in Bangkok would be vaccinated by the end of July. The date came and went, but only a small minority of the city’s residents have been fully vaccinated so far. Meanwhile, as of Aug. 1, more than 615,000 Thais and migrant workers have tested positive and nearly 5,000 of them have died, the vast majority of them since April, according to official data.

Not surprisingly, numerous citizens have taken to social media platforms to vent in anger and lambast the government’s handling of the crisis. Images posted online of apparently sickened people lying and dying unattended on streets with hospital beds unavailable for them have caused widespread outrage.

Supporters of the government, through vastly outnumbered by critics, have claimed without any evidence that such images have been faked.

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Prayut’s administration in turn has responded to criticisms by filing police complaints against some high-profile critics, including a teenage rapper, accusing them of defamation. At the same time, the government has set up an “anti-fake news committee” to “combat misinformation on social media via administrative, tax and social measures.”

Defamation suits, online censorship and attempts to influence media coverage could further dampen already limited freedom of speech in Thailand, according to experts and rights activists.

“The government has failed miserably in the face of the challenges [posed by Covid-19], but instead of tacking stock and apologizing, they go after people who criticize them. It’s communist China-style stuff,” a Thai journalist who asked not to be named told UCA News.

In a joint statement, six Thai media associations, alarmed by the stepped-up campaign against free speech and media freedom, have called on Prayut’s government to desist in its efforts to silence critics.

“The prime minister’s insistence on enforcing the new measures, along with the recent attempts by his government to intimidate and take legal action against members of the public who simply exercise their constitutional rights to criticize the administration during the Covid-19 pandemic, clearly reveal an intent to crack down on the freedom of expression enjoyed by the media and the public,” the media associations said in their statement.

This is Prayut now, defeated but still defiant (or perhaps oblivious) to the truth

“We call upon all professionals in the media and news agencies to stand in unison and oppose the government’s new measures,” they added.

Some prominent observers argue that with its latest decree against online critics Prayut’s government is grasping at straws as its popularity, already low before the pandemic, has plummeted even further.

“The public can see the decree for what it really is, the move of a desperate government that has lost much of its legitimacy and all of its trust with the people that it has failed,” Cod Satrusayang, editor-in-chief of the Thai Enquirer online newspaper, wrote in an op-ed.

“This is Prayut now, defeated but still defiant (or perhaps oblivious) to the truth. We should not expect any better because this was a government that seized power through a military coup. It is run by military men — incapable of any governance that relies on consent and not conscription. This latest move shows the Thai military is not one of strength but subjugation. We, the media and the people, can and must resist this latest proclamation.” 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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