Grief over King's death keeps critics in check

Thai mourners waiting yesterday to enter the Grand Palace to pay their respects to the late King Bhumibol, a demigod figure who endeared himself to the masses through his efforts to alleviate rural poverty. He was the only king that most Thais have e
Thai mourners waiting yesterday to enter the Grand Palace to pay their respects to the late King Bhumibol, a demigod figure who endeared himself to the masses through his efforts to alleviate rural poverty. He was the only king that most Thais have ever known, and his death on Oct 13, at the age of 88, has temporarily cooled political temperatures in the divided country.PHOTO: ROUTERS

Thai authorities seek to rein in dissent on social media during sensitive transition period

In the inner sanctum of the Grand Palace in Bangkok yesterday, the public had to adhere to strict dress codes when paying their respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. For men, it was black shirts, trousers and shoes, and for women, black dresses or black shirt-and- skirt ensembles.

In the social media world, Thailand's military government is similarly trying to keep things in line amid uncertainty over when Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn will ascend the throne.

The authorities are investigating at least 22 people for insulting the royal family since King Bhumibol died, and trying to extradite 19 alleged offenders from overseas.

Former air force commander Prajin Juntong, who helms the newly created Ministry of Digital Economy and Society, declared that the authorities would work around the clock and coordinate with Internet giant Google to scour the online world for content offensive to the monarchy. He also plans to meet representatives from Facebook and Twitter this week.

Google, which owns the video- sharing platform YouTube, denies any such special treatment. "We have always had clear and consistent policies for removal requests from governments around the world," a spokesman told The Sunday Times. "We have not changed those policies in Thailand."

The most recent Thai governmental request for removal of online content reported by Google is for the period between July and December 2013. Then, Bangkok requested the removal of 298 YouTube videos for allegedly insulting the Thai royal family. Google did not accede "because the request was for global removals", the company wrote.

King Bhumibol was a demigod figure who endeared himself to the masses through his efforts to alleviate rural poverty. He was the only king that most Thais have ever known. His death on Oct 13, at the age of 88, has temporarily cooled political temperatures in the sharply divided country. Opponents of the ruling junta, for example, are holding off on contentious activities or comments in deference to the late monarch.

The massive grief over the King's death is keeping royal insults in check. Also keeping things in check is increased media scrutiny. Some newscasters on mainstream television are urging the public to call a hotline whenever they see insulting comments on social media.

But Thailand's leaders acknowledge they face an uphill task trying to rein in the monarchy's critics beyond the kingdom. Lese majeste, while a serious crime in Thailand, is not so in many other countries. For extradition to take place, the alleged crime usually needs to be an offence in both countries.

Meanwhile, Google's transparency report shows it rejected all five requests by Thai law enforcement agencies for user data on Google and YouTube between January and June. The most recent official Thai request for removal of online content reported by Google is for the period between July and December 2013. Then, Bangkok requested the removal of 298 YouTube videos for allegedly insulting the Thai royal family. Google did not accede "because the request was for global removals", the company wrote.

On its own, the Thai government censors thousands of web pages annually for a range of infringements. Data from the Digital Economy Ministry website shows the government blocked 9,027 inappropriate URLs between Sept 12 last year and Sept 30 this year with court orders.

Internet freedom advocate Arthit Suriyawongkul thinks the question about the likelihood of Thailand getting external cooperation in its pursuit of royal critics is beside the point.

"Even if these companies do not cooperate, people who hear the news will be scared about discussing these things in public," he told The Sunday Times. "That's what the government wants for this sensitive period."

The Crown Prince, 64, has asked for time to mourn before ascending the throne, so former privy council chief Prem Tinsulanonda, 96, is standing in as regent.

Drafters of Thailand's new Constitution, which needs to be submitted for royal endorsement, are trying to work around this awkward interregnum by leaving a blank space in the part of its preamble referring to the official name of the monarch.

In the delicate months ahead, say analysts, critics of the monarchy can expect even more scrutiny.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 30, 2016, with the headline 'Grief over King's death keeps critics in check'. Print Edition | Subscribe