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Thai regime ramps up efforts to silence critics

More Thais are openly criticizing the government for its mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Published: July 23, 2021 06:19 AM GMT

Updated: July 23, 2021 06:20 AM GMT

Thai regime ramps up efforts to silence critics

Elderly people and their carers queue for walk-in Covid-19 vaccinations at Bang Sue Central Railway Station in Bangkok on July 22 as Thailand struggles to inoculate its population due to vaccine shortages. (Photo: AFP)

Thailand’s military-allied conservative government continues to lose its grip on a spiraling Covid-19 crisis. Yet that hasn’t made it any more open to criticism.

In fact, the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha appears to be ratcheting up its efforts to silence its critics.

In one of the latest cases, Prayut’s office filed a police complaint against an 18-year-old rapper, who reported to a police station on July 22 to hear the charges.

Danupha Kanatheerakul was reported to police for defamation by Apiwat Kangthong, assistant to the Prime Minister’s Office, over some tweets in which she had criticized Prayut’s handling of the crisis, which has seen infection and mortality rates soar with a new record of 13,655 new cases and 87 deaths on July 22.

Most of Thailand's 450,000 documented infections and 3,697 deaths from the coronavirus have occurred in the past few months. The government’s frequently changing lockdown measures in Bangkok and elsewhere have done little to stem the tide of new infections, which have been rising almost daily for weeks.

The rapper, who goes by the name Milli as an artist, was fined 2,000 baht (US$61) for defamation according to Article 393 of the Criminal Code. She said she had been exercising her right to freedom of speech and would continue to criticize Prayut despite the defamation suit.

What if she praised the gov’t instead? [Would] that be considered spreading false information? The more they try to silence opposing views, the more people will revolt against it

According to a senior police official in Bangkok, police were reviewing similar charges of defamation launched by Apiwat and other allies of Prayut against 25 other celebrities who have openly criticized the government’s performance during the pandemic.

Some prominent Thai jurists criticized the prime minister for his prosecution of his critics. ”A government is not a juristic person. It therefore cannot be the damaged party in a criminal case,” Tongthong Chandransu, a former dean of the faculty of law at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, stressed in a Facebook post.

The rapper’s stance appears to be emblematic of a growing spirit of defiance among many young Thais against their repressive government, which they frequently excoriate, lambast and ridicule on social media and during regular flash mob-style street rallies.

The case against the teenager, which came as part of an ongoing crackdown by Thai authorities on critical voices, has triggered widespread outrage online. 

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“What if she praised the gov’t instead? [Would] that be considered spreading false information? The more they try to silence opposing views, the more people will revolt against it,” a young woman commented online.

An increasing majority of Thais appear to see the unfolding crisis in their country as largely self-inflicted because of ineffective government policies that have severely damaged the second-largest economy of Southeast Asia but have failed to stem the spread of the disease.

In May, Prayut, a former army chief who has been in power for seven years after spearheading a coup in 2014 against an elected government, promised that by the end of July as many as 70 percent of residents in Bangkok, by far the largest hotspot of the outbreak, would be vaccinated.

By September, 70 percent of the country’s population was to be vaccinated. “We will focus on the first shots of vaccination to meet the target of 70 percent of the population by September,” Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said the same month.

To date, however, the rate of vaccination has been falling well short of target, with slightly more than 15 percent of people having received at least one jab nationwide and just 5 percent having been fully vaccinated.

The cause for the slow rate of vaccination despite various promises by Prayut’s administration, whose health minister is a construction magnate with no prior experience in medicine, has been a chronic shortage of doses. The shortage has resulted from bungled attempts by the government to secure or produce enough doses of quality vaccines over the past months.

“We ordered vaccines too slowly,” Prasit Watanpana, the dean of the faculty of medicine at Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital who has been partly responsible for securing vaccines, conceded last week in a social media chat room. “We thought we had everything under control.”

Such belated admissions have done little to appease increasingly vocal citizens in their criticisms of their government.

“If Prayut will continue in power, all of us Thai people will die. Die from his lies, die from his threats, die from famine and die from Covid,” one citizen in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand, lamented online.

Prayut and his regime have destroyed the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, but they will never give up their power even if they ruin the country

It hasn’t helped the government’s image that it has been seeking to silence its most vocal and prominent critics like Danupha, the teenage rapper, by charging them with a variety of crimes from sedition to royal defamation to breaking emergency decrees.

Scores of young Thais, including numerous teenagers, have been charged with serious crimes such as royal defamation, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison per count, over their role in youth-led pro-democracy rallies that have taken place regularly since July last year.

One of the latest rallies took place this week outside an arts center in the heart of Bangkok, which has been a regular site of anti-government protests for months. Gathered at the venue, despite a prohibition on all gatherings of more than five people, were some 200 young Thais who ignored the threat of two years in prison for defying an emergency decree.

They listened to speeches calling on Prayut to resign and displayed signs with anti-establishment messages before dispersing peacefully at sunset as police officers looked on.

“This government was born of an illegal act [the military coup of 2014] and now we live in a dictatorship where we have no rights,” a university student who was one of the participants told UCA News.

“Prayut and his regime have destroyed the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, but they will never give up their power even if they ruin the country.” 

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