Thailand Blocks Overseas Opposition Voice

Thai authorities, acting on complaints from a state-sponsored “Rubbish Collection Organization" that seeks to discredit opponents of the junta, have persuaded Facebook to close down Thai access to Thai Voice Media, founded by the respected Thai journalist Jom Petchpradub, former assistant editor of the television station TITV.

The shutdown of Jom’s site is an indication of the reach Thai authorities have against overseas dissidents. The journalist escaped from the country and is seeking asylum in the United States after refusing to report to the military in the wake of the May 22 coup that brought former Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha to power. The journalist had used his Facebook page to broadcast his views through interviews with democracy activists living abroad and in Thailand via Skype.

The Rubbish Collection Organization came into being in April, at the height of political chaos by opponents of the democratically elected Pheu Thai government and was designed to quell dissent. The order to create it is said to have come from Lt. Gen. Surayud Chulanont, who headed one of the military governments in the wake of the 2006 coup that ousted former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra and who now sits on the Privy Council, which advises the ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Despite blockages, Thais have continued to be able to seek some information from the outside world, causing headaches for the monarchy and their network of royalists and elites. At the early stage of the Internet in Thailand 10 or so years ago, those in power were not prepared for the impact of the free flow of information. Royalists underestimated the impact and influence of the medium.

At one point, the government ordered the complete shutdown of YouTube for 90 days although such an action may breach the Internet Protocol, the international body governing the Internet. The shutdown caused an uproar among the diplomatic and foreign business communities and forced an eventual a rethink of their hard-line stance. YouTube was released from captivity. With the country awaiting the eventual death of the 87-year-old king and the passage of the throne to his 62 year-old son Vajiralongkorn, who is detested by many in the privy council who don’t know what to do about him, the Thai government has created one of the world’s tightest restrictive nets on the Internet, rivaling North Korea’s. An unknown number of bloggers have been arrested on lèse majesté charges and the Computer Crimes Act of June 2007 in order to make it easier to charge people with cyber-crimes.

Further, through the help of businessmen both in Thailand and the US, authorities reportedly ordered elaborate blocking and monitoring equipment from US companies, possibly illegal under US laws that specify that equipment will not be put in the hands of countries to be used to obstruct freedom of speech and expression.

It appears that the Thai government also broke a good-faith agreement with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for sophisticated internet monitoring devices to be furnished to the Thai police by the DEA to combat the flow of illegal drugs and narcotics. Instead, the equipment appears to have been used later in detecting IP addresses of those who may post unfriendly and/or unflattering comments about the royal family. Thousands of websites, blogs and Facebook pages have been blocked by authorities.

Thus as much as a year ago, Suarayud asked his associate, a physician and retired major-general named Dr. Rientong Nan-nah, to form the Rubbish Collection Unit, which gets its funding from royalists and the Army to hunt down people who may be violating the lèse majesté law in the cyber world and to root out those who criticize members of the royal family. That included a Facebook account to recruit pro-royalists as “witch-hunters” to root out “witches” – dissenters who criticize the monarchy and junta. In an effort to intimidate the opposition and democratic movement, some RCO followers have posted horrific photos from the massacre and violence against unarmed students who were maimed and killed on Oct. 6, 1976 at Thammasat University. They have also posted nude or offensive photos in the comment spaces of Facebook pages, then immediately notified authorities to charge the pages violate government rules, and shut them down. T

Surayanond and Rientong have offered rewards for any “Mah-Mod แม่มด ” or witches they expose. The Yellow Shirts – royalists who have adopted yellow as their color, collect evidence such as messages posted on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, to find out where the “witches” live and work, They then have circulated the information among their networks and report “offenders” to the police.

The mainstream Thai media regard the Rubbish Collection Organisation as a harmless political faction. Yingluck Shinawatra, the former PM, did nothing to stop its activities. Chatwadee Rose Amornpat, a London-based blogger and virulent opponent of the royalty, told Asia Sentinel her own parents had reported her to the police and filed lèse majesté charges against her.

Others reported by the president of the “Protect the Nation, Religion and Monarchy Network” are Aum Neko and friends for supposedly “destroying the Buddhist religion.” Aum Neko was a Thammasat university student, a transgender and pro-democracy activist who later fled to France for asylum. Ironically, there have been no such accusations against Putta-Isara, the monk closely tied to Suthep Thaugsuban, whose mob brought down the Yingluck government, for instance, and who condoned violence against democracy advocates.

Red shirt activist and anti-lèse majesté campaigner Dr. Suda Rangukan was victimized by Chulalongkorn University, which refused to renew her contract. She is believed to be in Cambodia and is seeking asylum.

Meanwhile the deans and vice chancellor of the university actively supported Suthep’s mob and the destruction of the pro-democracy movement. No one dared to criticize him. Such an organization is illegal and anti-human rights in the eyes of any civilized people except Thai royalists.

The Royal Thai Army and Navy have also got involved to show their loyalty. A battalion of cyber squads from the two branches of the armed forces set up shops with expensive computer desktops and/or laptops whose sole function is to collect data, block unfriendly messages and monitor activities at various popular websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and 24/7 on Thailand. They know how to shut down Facebook accounts repeatedly. Chatwadee said her Facebook account has been bombed by the RCO more than 10 times this year. Among Thai people, the word,"bomb" is a euphemism for shutting down an internet account by state-sponsored from Thai authorities.

Chatwadee said she has written to Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, for help and informed him of such state-sponsored acts, to no avail. At times, she said, “we are discouraged and in a state of despair that we are fighting a hopeless fight, but we have no choice but to continue to tell the world about the truth about Thailand – that Thai people are being held hostage by the military junta, the monarchy and its network.”