You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

The King and I: Thailand’s Royal Firewall

Five days ago, Reporters Without Borders reported that the Thai government is stepping up its efforts to censor pornographic, terrorist and anti-monarchy material on the web by installing a country-wide firewall overseen by MICT (Ministry of Internet and Communications Technology). Estimates for the cost of the project range from 3 to 15 million dollars and would presumably replace the secret process of blacklisting and selective filtering already in place. (YouTomb, an outfit of MIT Free Culture, discovered awhile back that YouTube was using special coding flags to filter Thai content geographically, especially content held to be offensive to the royal family.)

Internet censorship is nothing new in Thailand. What makes this new initiative alarming is the political climate Thailand currently finds itself in. After years of military coups and failed constitutions, Thais held their first reportedly free and legitimate election in 2001. This brought Thaksin Shinawatra and his populist Thai Rak Thai party to power by a landslide. After winning again in 2005, however, allegations of corruption and hostility to the free press fomented a series of highly visible anti-government protests by an opposition group and then, even more dramatically, a bloodless military coup on September 19, 2006.

The junta scrapped the 1997 Constitution, dissolved the Thai Rak Thai party and, last May, passed an expansive Cyber Crimes Bill. (The bill gives Thai police extraordinary latitude in data seizure and investigation into “illegal” access.) Then, when elections were finally held in December 2007, a reorganized People’s Power Party (made up mostly of ex-Thai Rak Thai folks) managed to take a near majority in the Thai House of Representatives, despite intimidation from the junta.

In this politically charged environment, the internet has become a battlefield. Arguments over free expression and the touchy issue of Thai beloved monarchy are fanning partisan flames. The chief anti-government party has repeated claimed that Thaksin, and now his successors in the People’s Power Party, are perpetrators of lèse majesté, that is, the offense of insulting or defaming the Royal Family. Lèse majesté is an offense punishable by three to fifteen years.

According to some, the current government’s proposed firewall to block content insulting the king (many of the controversial YouTube videos mock the monarch as an “ape king”) is a bid to win over the anti-government opposition. Controlling the internet also gives the government the sort of law and order credibility needed to stave off another coup by the brass.

Thailand’s aging constitutional monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, seems to be above the fray. In 2005, the king publicly distanced himself from lèse majesté laws, often pardoning those convicted. Still, the zeal with which the Thai police are allowed to investigate allegation of lèse majesté is frightening.

An Australian national, Harry Nicolaides, is currently being held in a detention center without bail for writing three sentences in a small self-published novel (it reportedly sold seven copies), which may or may not “suggest” that the crown prince has a torrid sex life.

This example, combined with the fervor the government showed in attacking puerile YouTube videos, leaves one unsettled as to the potential for further and more substantive internet censorship in Thailand. After all, Burma’s crackdown on “cyber dissidents” took place just across the border. Thailand’s current instability (anti-government forces occupied the parliament building again today) would be fertile ground for using and controlling the internet as a political weapon.

Be Sociable, Share!

6 Responses to “The King and I: Thailand’s Royal Firewall”

  1. R. Reese Says:

    The censorship in Thailand is one of the reasons I will be leaving here at the end of the year. I’ve lived here for 8 years but political instability, and censorship which is becoming dictatorial and frightening are some of the reasons why I’ll be moving to Japan to continue teaching there.

    Thailand is going downhill fast. As the rest of the world moves forward and much of Asia is becoming more and more modern, the Thai government(s) seem to think going backwards is going to help Thailand. Thailand’s economy is in decline, their education system is a disaster and worsening by the year, and now people’s access to things on the internet and in movies is being reduced every year.

    Chock dii (good luck) Thailand. But I’m finished here.

  2. » Thai Website Blacklist Leaked I&D Blog Says:

    […] to control the internet, especially supposed infractions of its severe lese majeste law (see my piece earlier this year, as well as this article for more background on Thai […]

  3. » Internet Boasts 1 Billion Users Globally I&D Blog Says:

    […] Importantly, however, the op-ed is quick to qualify by also stating some of the new problems which global internet usage represents: sexual exploitation, illegal downloads and the slow decline of traditional journalism. (Unfortunately, the article remains conspicuously silent about Thai internet censorship.) […]

  4. » China, Wikileaks and Democracy I&D Blog Says:

    […] as well as blacklists. This includes countries like Denmark and Australia, and to a lesser degree Thailand, where a presumption of free speech seems warranted. According to Wikileaks, the Danish blacklist […]

  5. Internet & Democracy Blog » Thai Gets Ten Years For YouTube Post Says:

    […] to ten years (reduced from twenty) for uploading content to YouTube that violated Thailand’s medieval lese majeste laws and a junta-era cybercrime law. The exact details of Thakhor’s alleged […]

  6. Talen Says:

    Politically Thailand has always been a quagmire but I would hardly categorize it as going down hill fast. The current government is gung ho on quelling any bad talk about the party.

    What the government has censored isn’t as scary as how they are currently using the Lese Majeste laws to quiet their detractors.