On a Saturday night in mid-September 2013 I was sat at table in a deserted restaurant in an exclusive beachside resort in Phuket. My companions were graduate students and researchers from Chulalongkorn University and Japan’s prestigious Kyoto University.
It was the final day of a small Southeast Asian Studies conference. There was also one professor at our table who - despite it being Saturday night - was busy fielding calls and replying to volleys of emails, which he explained were mostly coming from students and professors in Europe. He was attempting to assist Thais pursuing degrees in the west.
The professor was Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University, who at that time was still allowed to travel freely to and from his homeland. Following an announcement by the ruling junta last week, any online contact with or sharing information from Pavin and two other persona non grata is forbidden.
Amnesty International described the orders as “…extreme measures that brazenly flout international human rights law.”
The others named in the order were historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul formerly a professor at Thammasat University, currently living in exile in France and British journalist Andrew Macgregor Marshall who lives in Britain. All three have repeatedly irritated the junta by mocking them on social media and through their articles and interviews given to media throughout the world.
But, more than that the trio are deemed to have committed lese majeste: Insulting the monarchy, hence the order.
Does the ban apply to all?
This is an important question, not covered by the junta edict issued last week. Are there to be any exceptions to the rule?
I am not friends with any of the trio on Facebook, nor do I ‘follow’ or ‘like’ any of the controversial accounts. However, I have mutual friends with each of the trio and a number of my friends follow one or more of their accounts.
Of course this doesn’t mean that any of my friends are supportive of the material shared by the terrible trio. My friends on Facebook include journalists and academics, a number of whom have worked with one of the controversial figures in the past. They may have interacted, perhaps only once or twice many moons ago on social media and forgotten all about it and never thought to ‘unfriend’ or ‘unfollow.’
Do the rules apply to journalists? How about current or former colleagues of the three? How about distant relatives related by marriage, will they be liable for arrest?
It’s also important to note that not all people who interacted with the lese majeste suspects recently have been supportive. Some well-intentioned supporters of the monarchy have left comments attacking the controversial Facebook content in the past week. Intentions aside that is very clearly breaking the recent order, but as far as I know no one has faced any charges for doing so.
This echoes the real world where for example public lectures held overseas by professor Pavin have been disrupted by Thais who disagree with the content. Is this now also considered a dangerous course of action?
Is the ban effective?
Since overthrowing the Yingluck administration in a coup almost three years ago, the junta has tried many methods both in an attempt to prevent the public getting information from Marshall, Pavin and Somsak via social media and by hoping to dissuade the trio from continuing to comment on controversial issues.
This has included harassing family members of the three, banning books, cancelling passports, issuing extradition orders and putting pressure on social media platforms.
So far this has failed to prevent them from writing and sharing content online, and more importantly for the junta it has failed to deter people from looking.
When working in Myanmar late last year a senior university professor - with limited interest in Thailand – when asked what he thought about his neighbouring country, described controversial content he had seen shared on social media by his fellow citizens. If a middle-aged man residing in a country with poor internet connectivity and daily power cuts has seen taboo images on Facebook, then you can safely assume much of Thailand has too.
Marshall recently claimed that his Facebook account actually has several hundred extra followers since the recent order. This should not come as a great surprise since many humans are naturally attracted to forbidden fruit, aka the Streisand effect.
As China, North Korea and other countries that attempt to block certain opinions, ideas and images from reaching their citizens know it’s a Herculean task. A number of escapees from North Korea have written accounts of watching forbidden movies on laptops using USBs illegally obtained, even at the risk of imprisonment if discovered.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the recent order banning online contact with Marshall, Pavin and Somsak is that someone could easily violate this edict by accident.
Say, for example that you were at an academic event in Phuket in 2013 to present a paper on colonial Burma and the staff at a Thai university snapped a picture of you, tagged you on Facebook and that picture amongst other people had a controversial professor in it.
Must everybody living in Thailand, who has at any stage of their life had contact with the three persona non grata carefully comb through ten years of social media and retroactively delete any content? If this is not done, there is a possibility that said images could reappear on their Facebook timeline as an anniversary memory shared innocently by someone else.
Even more chilling is the prospect, not so unlikely, of accidentally ‘liking’ controversial content. If your child is playing games on your smartphone or even if you happen to sit on your phone and accidentally like something shared by someone. How would you prove that you didn’t really like the content and simply ‘butt dialled’?
Rather than hunt down and arrest all of the tens of thousands of people that are still following, liking or having any online contact with any or all of Marshall, Pavin and Somsak, there is I believe a far greater possibility that this latest order will simply be used arbitrarily to make an example of one or two people.
This was the case several months ago when Jatuphat “Pai” Boonpattaraksa was the only person among thousands to be arrested for sharing a BBC article on Facebook deemed insulting to King Rama X.
Simon Duncan completed an MA in Southeast Asian Studies at Chulalongkorn University and is a former deputy editor at Khaosod English. He currently resides in Tokyo, Japan.