Thai ban on online contact with 3 critics 'may backfire'

It could trigger more searches on dissidents

Don't follow, don't like, don't share.

Thailand has banned its citizens from making any online contact with three vocal critics of the monarchy, but analysts said the measure could be counterproductive.

Citizens can be held liable under the Computer Crimes Act if they follow historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul, political scholar Pavin Chachavalpongpun or Scottish writer Andrew MacGregor Marshall online, or if they like or share the critics' social media posts.

"Members of the public are asked to refrain from following, contacting, spreading or engaging in any activity that results in spreading content and information of the persons mentioned in its announcement on the Internet system, social media, either directly or indirectly," the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society said in a statement on Wednesday.

It did not elaborate on what had triggered the order.

Mr Eugene Mark, a senior analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said that the measure could have the "unintended consequence instead of leading more Thais to search for what the critics had written on social media".

"As we move closer to a possible election in 2018, the military government should realise that it needs to loosen its grip slowly but gradually. A sudden release of the grip could be far more dangerous," Mr Mark told The Straits Times in an e-mail.

Mr Kan Yuenyong, who is executive director of the Siam Intelligence Unit, a think-thank based in Bangkok, doubts that the measure will be effective.

"I don't think it will work in a digital era, but it might send a signal especially to mainstream media to stop referring to these people," he told The Straits Times.

Dr Pavin, who is active mostly on Facebook, is an associate professor at Kyoto University's Centre for South-east Asian Studies.

The junta revoked his passport in 2014 after he refused to return to Thailand to report to the authorities as instructed.

Mr Somsak, who has almost 50,000 followers on Twitter, has been living in exile in France since 2014, after the junta issued an arrest warrant for him over lese majeste charges. He was granted refugee status by the French government in 2015.

Mr Marshall, a former Reuters reporter who wrote the 2014 book, A Kingdom In Crisis, has more than 18,000 followers on Twitter.

He wrote on Facebook that people have "un-followed" him, but many more continue to send "friend" requests. "I really appreciate your support, but please be careful, everybody," he said.

The ministry said that the trio write content that violates the Computer Crimes Act, but did not specify which part of the law they had violated.

Under the lese majeste law, an individual who "defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent" can be jailed for three to 15 years.

Student activist Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, who shared a BBC article on Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun in December, was indicted in February for violating lese majeste and cybercrime laws. He has pleaded innocence, but the Thai authorities had previously warned that Facebook "shares" could be considered a violation of the lese majeste law.

Global human rights group Amnesty International has criticised the order, and reminded the government about concerns raised by the United Nations Human Rights Committee about repressive tactics.

"The move doesn't reveal strength, but weakness and fear of criticism," Mr Josef Benedict, who is the rights group's deputy director for South-east Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement.

"In its determination to silence all dissent, the Thai authorities are resorting to extreme measures that brazenly flout international human rights law," he noted.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2017, with the headline 'Thai ban on online contact with 3 critics 'may backfire''. Print Edition | Subscribe