Facebook blocks group critical of Thai monarchy amid govt pressure

Thai human rights lawyer and pro-democracy activist Anon Nampa listening to a police officer reading charges from an arrest warrant issued by the courts, at Nangloeng Police Station in Bangkok yesterday. Anon was the first to call openly for changes
Thai human rights lawyer and pro-democracy activist Anon Nampa listening to a police officer reading charges from an arrest warrant issued by the courts, at Nangloeng Police Station in Bangkok yesterday. Anon was the first to call openly for changes to King Maha Vajiralongkorn's role, breaking a longstanding taboo. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK • Facebook has blocked access within Thailand to a group with one million members that has criticised the country's king, but said it was planning a legal challenge to the government's demand requiring it to block the group.

The move comes amid near daily youth-led protests against the government headed by the former military junta chief and unprecedented calls for reforms of the monarchy.

The "Royalist Marketplace" group was created in April by self-exiled academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a critic of the monarchy.

On Monday night, the group's page brought up a message: "Access to this group has been restricted within Thailand pursuant to a legal request from the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society."

Mr Pavin, who lives in Japan, said Facebook had bowed to the military-dominated government's pressure.

"Our group is part of a democratisation process, it is a space for freedom of expression," Mr Pavin told Reuters.

"By doing this, Facebook is cooperating with the authoritarian regime to obstruct democracy and cultivating authoritarianism in Thailand."

Mr Pavin's new group of the same name already had over 500,000 members yesterday.

Facebook said yesterday it was planning to legally challenge the Thai government after being "compelled" to block access to the group.

"Requests like this are severe, contravene international human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people's ability to express themselves," a Facebook spokesman said.

Thailand's lese majeste laws, which forbid defaming the king with penalties of up to 15 years in prison, are often the basis for such requests to block or remove content on social media platforms.

Earlier this month, Thailand's digital minister accused Facebook of not complying with requests to restrict content, including insults to the monarchy.

On Aug 10, he gave Facebook 15 days to comply with court takedown orders or face charges under the country's Computer Crime Act, which carries a fine of up to 200,000 baht (S$8,685) and an additional 5,000 baht per day until each order is observed.

Digital ministry spokesman Putchapong Nodthaisong said on Monday that Facebook cooperated before the deadline because it understood the context of Thai society.

Separately, police said they had arrested human rights lawyer Anon Nampa yesterday - for a third time this month - to charge him with sedition over his role in a political rally where calls were made for reforms to the monarchy.

"The police brought Anon to the station to read him the charges for his protests on Aug 10, and will question him before bringing him to court to file for detention," Police Lieutenant-General Amphol Buarabporn told Reuters.

The rights lawyer will be held along with another political activist, Panupong Jadnok, who was arrested on Monday during a protest against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who first seized power in a 2014 coup.

Police said both Anon and Panupong face charges for violating Article 116, which covers sedition, and for breaching coronavirus restrictions on public gatherings.

Anon, 36, has been at the forefront of a movement that has staged protests almost daily for the past month in the South-east Asian country. He was the first to call openly for changes to King Maha Vajiralongkorn's role, breaking a longstanding taboo.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2020, with the headline 'Facebook blocks group critical of Thai monarchy amid govt pressure'. Print Edition | Subscribe