Did Canadian Firm Snitch over Lese-Majeste Charges?

Anthony Chai, a naturalized United States citizen from Thailand, is suing a Canadian internet firm for US$75,000 in damages over allegations that the company provided information to Thai authorities that was used to arrest him in 2006 on lèse-majesté charges.

As far as can be determined, it is the first time that that a foreign internet firm has actively assisted Thai authorities with the prosecution of alleged lèse-majesté offenders. Netfirms is based in Ontario, Canada. The story also demonstrates the reach of the Thai government in going after its critics, and the efficiency of the tools it uses to get at them – not only the country’s draconian lese-majeste law but its computer crimes act, passed in 2007 by the People’s Power Party headed by Samak Sundaravej, widely considered to be a proxy party for the ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

In May of 2006, according to the website Ars Technica, Chai flew back to Thailand from the United States to visit his family in the resort town of Hua Hin, 200 km. south of Bangkok. However, when Chai reportedly sought to return to California from Bangkok, five security agents from the Department of Special Investigation informed him that he was under arrest for allegedly filing statements on the internet that violated the dignity of Thailand’s ruler, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Chai said he was taken to an interrogation center and deprived of food, water and sleep until 3:30 a.m. while the authorities harangued him with accusations and threats. One policeman told him he knew where his relatives lived in both Bangkok and California, and that ““If you want them to live in peace, you must cooperate.”

Chai allegedly was forced to hand over passwords and email addresses so that the officials could pry into his laptop, which had been confiscated. He said he was presented at one point during the interrogation with a document that revealed the email addresses he and an associate had used to post comments on a Thai website.

Chai alleged he had never made statements against the Thai monarchy. Rather, using an anonymous email address, he posted comments critical of the lèse-majesté law, one of the strictest in the world, to the website www.manusaya.com . At the request of the Thai government, Netfirms eventually shut down the site, according to the Ars Technica website.

This shows the problem of the ambiguously worded lèse-majesté law, which states “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years” – without saying what actually constitutes defamation or insult. Criticizing the law itself doesn’t seem to fit it.

In addition, Section 17 of the Computer Crimes Act, passed by the Thai parliament in 2007 by the Thai parliament, says that “ Any person committing an offence against this Act outside the Kingdom and; (1) the offender is Thai and the government of the country where the offence has occurred or the injured party is required to be punished or; (2) the offender is a non-citizen and the Thai government or Thai person who is an injured p arty or the injured party is required to be punished; shall be penalized within the Kingdom.

That means anybody, anywhere, Thai or not, is liable to arrest if that person enters the kingdom after the authorities deem that he or she has insulted the monarchy. The law can be used against those who comment on the dead in the royal family as well.

“Sometime before May 2006, also at the request of Thai officials, Netfirms.com provided Mr. Chai’s IP address and the two e-mail addresses associated with that IP address,” Chai’s complaint charges, “without Mr. Chai’s knowledge or consent.” In addition, the Canadian company allegedly handed over this data without requesting a court order, subpoena, or warrant from Thai authorities, and without contacting the US State Department for guidance.

This procedure mirrors Yahoo’s outing of Chinese cyber-dissidents over the last several years. The difference in Chai’s case, however, is that Netfirms is not based in Thailand and did not need to appease the Thai government by making amends with their internet services – so it seems quite strange why this Canadian company was so willing to snitch him to Thai authorities without any kind of documentation.

Chai’s case is disturbing because it means essentially that the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology is threatening to expand its crackdown on cyber-dissidents beyond the borders of the Kingdom after a move to clamp down domestically when several authorities joined hands last year with a strong emphasis on protecting the monarchy and controlling the political narrative against a perceived threat. This goes even so far that recently volunteer ‘cyber scouts’ are being recruited to monitor the web. Even though the blocking of by now over 113,000 websites has proven to be ineffective, the authorities are still keen to keep a very close eye on the flood of information and opinions.

In another ominous note, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the executive director of Prachatai, a nonprofit news website which published political articles, is due to go back on trial Thursday in a Bangkok criminal court on charges of violating the computer crime act by allowing 10 comments made by members of the public that criticized the monarchy to remain on the site. Chiranuch removed the comments after she was told to do so. She faces up to 20 years in prison or a Bt1 million fine.

It had been hoped that the new government of Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of the ousted Thaksin, would let up on prosecutions under the act. That does not appear to be the case.

(With reporting from Asia Correspondent, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.)