With a secret military court again denying bail last week to Jatuphat Boonpattararaksa, a law student from Khon Kaen University in Northeast Thailand, the regime is adopting show trials targeting university students, human rights activists, and academics. In effect, it is engaging in cyberwarfare against its own people, cementing a surveillance state. In addition, the military state mentality presents a clear and present threat to Thailand’s overseas image and economy.
The scale of this dystopia is not just reflected in the adoption by some Thais of the three-fingered salute from the Hunger Games, but by the cold hard facts of foreign direct investment (FDI). FDI stood at 1.55 billion USD in 2016 according to UNCTAD, below Cambodia’s 1.92 billion USD and far behind serious regional competitors, with Vietnam achieving USD12.60 billion and Malaysia USD6.06 billion. For Thailand, this is the lowest level since the disastrous USD 1.37 billion of 2011 and far behind the country’s peak of USD14.56 billion of 2010.
Moreover, show trials resulting from mass cyber-surveillance cast Thailand in a dim light. Jatuphat ‘Pai’ Boonpattararaksa has now spent over seven months in jail on the charge of lèse majesté. Jatuphat is a key member of the Dao Din group of 14 university students seeking to promote community rights and of the umbrella New Democracy Movement. Jatuphat’s continued fight against his alleged crime, that of sharing via social media a BBC biography, led to him winning the 2017 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights.
Jatuphat is the first to be charged with lèse majesté under the new reign. Yet, while the BBC biography was shared by at least 2,000 Thai Facebook users, Jatuphat, an already embattled student fighting illegal assembly charges, has been targeted for special treatment. Clearly, equality under the law no longer exists.
Not just students are being show-trialed, but also their lawyers, with Sirikan Charoensiri, a lawyer from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights who is defending the 14 students, facing charges of sedition and illegal assembly for observing the students protesting and for asking police officers to produce a warrant to search her car. Both actions demonstrate the workings of a classic police state waging permanent warfare against its own people: rule via a culture of fear. This helps explain Thailand’s falling score relative to Myanmar and the Lao PDR in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
The bedrock of this growing dystopian nightmare is the 2007 Computer Crime Act, designed to help end the social and ethnic Red versus Yellow cleavages. A massive public campaign was waged in 2015-2016 against the military’s desire to strengthen the Act by measures such as criminalizing the sharing of Facebook posts. This campaign motivated disparate sectors, from Bangkok-based social campaigners to Northeastern community activists, but the revised Act was passed by the National Legislative Assembly in December 2016, the message from the regime being that there is nothing to fear if one is not breaking the law.
The result of the revised Act is that Thailand has become an absolute digital panopticon. In other words, every time a computer is used in Thailand, it is as if one is sitting in a room with a CCTV, at any time a member of the Army Cyber Centre or the Technology Crime Suppression Division viewing your actions. Further, recently adopted recommendations by the National Reform Steering Assembly’s Social Media Reform Subcommittee target a perceived ‘lack of understanding’ and ‘ethics’ in consuming and producing online media which could negatively affect the economy, society, or the monarchy.
The regime is exploiting this normalisation of surveillance to harvest citizens’ biometric data, including fingerprints and face scans. This is despite an inability to secure its own websites, as when Anonymous hacked over a dozen police and prison websites in January 2016, stealing databases and obtaining personal data on escaped prison inmates. Given that credit card, online payment, and encryption companies are moving towards biometric data, and that even Western banks are struggling to secure confidential data, the potential for abuse, including identity theft and industrial espionage, is alarming, especially considering members of the military now sit on the boards of most state enterprises.
The formula of targeting online media which could ‘negatively affect’ the economy or society is a ticking time-bomb. This is especially evident when combined with a state of denial. The Prime Minister routinely berates the media for disclosing facts, as in Myanmar workers pressed into modern-day slavery on fishing boats, of interest to ethical consumers, or in reports on torture and enforced disappearances by human rights groups, of interest to those assessing the security sector.
When the Prime Minister’s ‘rule by diktat’ Section 44 mechanism is included, it becomes extremely difficult to assess the state of the economy or to predict the business climate. Furthermore, state organs like the Social Media Reform Subcommittee are suggesting a proliferation of centers to monitor any actions which affect ‘peace’, ‘security’ or ‘the state’, even after elections next year.
The risk then is that Thailand’s military, casting around to justify massively inflated defence budgets geared towards acquiring submarines and main battle tanks absolutely useless in Thailand’s main conflict, the Deep South insurgency, will decide that each and every Thai citizen and foreign resident is a potential target and recruit not just hundreds but thousands to staff online surveillance centers, as in China. Also furthering the militarised surveillance state, all complaints against the military are now investigated at military bases under the Defence Ministry.
Thailand’s adoption of the Myanmar military’s 20 years of rule approach in the Digital Development Plan for Economy and Society is an embarrassment. Online, it heralds a digital dystopia, threatening to turn Thailand’s last forums for free speech and democracy into a battlefield as the state arbitrarily targets social media users who seek to bring to light abuses of power, and providers like Facebook. Concepts such as happiness and morality will continue to be abused to prevent any semblance of civil or political rights being enjoyed in an authoritarian state now tending towards total control.