From a windowless room in a Bangkok suburb, computer technicians scour thousands of Web sites, Facebook pages and tweets night and day. Their mission: to suppress what is regarded as one of Thailand’s most heinous crimes — insulting the monarchy.
The government calls this its “war room,” part of a zero-tolerance campaign that uses the world’s most draconian lese-majeste laws to stamp out even the faintest criticism of 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch.
Critics call it a “witch hunt” and few are spared if they fall foul of the process.
Sixty-one-year-old cancer sufferer Amphon Tangnoppaku, dubbed “Uncle SMS,” was jailed for 20 years last month for sending text messages deemed to have disparaged Queen Sirikit. The ruling prompted outrage. Last Saturday, Human Rights Watch criticized the “shocking” severity of recent penalties for lese-majeste and urged Thailand to amend the law.
The offense is punishable by up to 15 years in prison, possibly more if there is violation of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act, which has been used to block more than 70,000 Web sites, many for lese-majeste, others for pornography or cyberfraud.
Washington-based pro-democracy group Freedom House says the two laws give Thai authorities “carte blanche to clamp down on any form of expression.”
Some had hoped Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose party members are among those accused of lese-majeste, would reform the law, but she is treading carefully, aware her opponents in the military and in the royalist establishment could seize on any hint of disloyalty to the monarchy to bring her down.
Independent analysts say the use of lese-majeste could undermine those it was designed to protect if the backlash against the law grows, but the tough-sounding Cybersecurity Operation Center remains focused.
“We don’t have any impressive equipment to track suspicious Internet activity,” said Nut Payongsri, an official in the vast government complex. “In most cases, we hear about misuse via calls to our hotline. We check each case and report them to the police.”
The king is in poor health and has spent the past two years in hospital. He made a rare public appearance in a wheelchair on Monday at celebrations to mark his birthday.
His health and the succession are sensitive topics. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has yet to command the same respect as his father, who is seen as almost divine.
Lese-majeste shields the king, queen, crown prince or regent from criticism. In the latest case, the exact content of the messages Amphon was accused of sending is unclear — disclosing it could also mean prison. He denied the charges and wept in court.
Undeterred by the outcry, Thai Minister of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Anudit Nakorntab warned people they could face similar punishment if they clicked “like” or “share” next to Facebook postings about the case that were considered offensive to the throne.
An ICT ministry official said that Thais who received anti-monarchy messages by e-mail or on their personal Facebook walls and failed to delete them were also in violation.
“We would take them to court and prosecute them,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “It is against the law to do such a thing and as a result, they will be fined and jailed.”