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Thailands2Faces - Let there be light, but not too much…

This was a  busy week on the frontlines of personal freedom, particularly in regards to free speech. Tying together several key events were government’s increasingly sophisticated restrictions on our human rights, and the efforts to push them back. For obvious reasons, freedom of speech is dear to this writer, and this week’s post addresses the past week’s developments.

Week of January 22

Recently, Thailand’s PM Abhisit Vejjajiva took part in the first meeting of a newly-appointed governmental advisory committee regarding the enforcement of the Kingdom’s lese majeste law. A government spokesman said after the meeting that the prime minister had told the committee, headed by the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Justice, Kittipong Kittayarak, that its main task would be providing "academic advice" to relevant law enforcement agencies. It remains unclear what constitutes "academic advice" or whether or not such advice will be heeded. It seems the move is intended to pacify the increasingly vocal critics of Thailand’s recent crackdown on free speech, rather than lead to actual legal reforms or the release of those some consider to be prisoners of conscience. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York based human rights advocacy group, joined Amnesty International in criticizing Thailand’s harsh polices affecting human rights. Asia Director at HRW, Brad Adams commented that "A climate of fear looms over civil discourse and in cyberspace as a result of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression under the Abhisit government." He added that the Thai government has exploited both the lese majeste laws and the new Computer Crimes Act to suppress political critics and persecute perceived government enemies. HRW noted that Thai authorities also increased Internet surveillance, leading to the arrests of bloggers and web board participants, shutting down more than 18,000 websites. In a separate public event, HRW director, Kenneth Roth, warned of sovereign government’s cynical use of the “rule of law” to suppress and undermine human rights. It would seem that despite PM Abhisit Vejjajiva’s eloquent arguments to the contrary, Thailand is no exception.

Thailand’s Defense Minister Gen. Pravit Wongsuwan, former Army Commander and member of the 2006 coup, recently instructed all military units to “monitor and subdue any subversive actions against the monarchy in cyber space and at political rallies.”  Col. Thanathip Sawangsang, spokesperson of the Ministry of Defense, added that military personnel should “monitor public rallies” for any illegal activity. An odd task for the military to be engaged in, since last I checked, law enforcement is the purview of the civilian police force. Even in Thailand.

Also this week, Bangkok Post reported with great enthusiasm on DSI’s efforts to increase cyber-policing, celebrating the cooperation of “government agencies, research agencies and educational institutions” in building digital forensic resources in Thailand. According to the Post, DSI signed an agreement with two Thai universities in which they will train students to assist government cyber investigations. While this sounds all well and good, it is hard to ignore the role academia is being asked to play in cyber-censorship. As legitimate as Thailand’s lese majeste laws may be, even the Deputy Executive Director at the National Electronics and Computer Technology Center (Nectec), Asanee Kawtrakul, acknowledged that in the past year many of the big computer crime cases related to lese majeste  “which caused damage to national security” and alarmed the public. If, rather then eliminating child pornography or on-line bomb making instructions, DSI’s policing efforts are being focused on censorship, Thai academics should ask themselves if they should really be part of that. 

If Thai authorities can’t get the help they need to suppress internet freedom from academia, surely they can rely on the help of Uncle Sam? Apparently not. On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initiated the State Department’s new campaign to preserve and expand Internet freedom around the world. She criticized governments who “expunged words, names, and phrases from search engine results” noting that “they have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech.” The U.S. views such web-censorship as contrary to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (to which Thailand is a signatory), which states that all people have the right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” With the global spread of Internet restrictions, Clinton warned of a new information curtain descending upon much of the world, the 21st centuries’ Iron Firewall.

Buried within her hour-long address, Clinton revealed that the U.S. State Department funds technology development that would help local activists thwart their censors’ attempts to restrict access to information on the Internet. “We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship” Clinton said, adding “Both the American people and nations that censor the internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote internet freedom.” Huh, so no help from the Americans then…