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Thai junta cracks down harder on free speech

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Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks to the media after riding his bicycle before a cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok, Sept. 15.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Despite criticism from the international community, Thailand's military government appears to be stepping up its clampdown on its critics, detaining journalists as well as politicians sympathetic to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Monitoring of the Internet is also a high priority. As the military administration comes in for increasing criticism for delaying a return to civilian rule, it appears to be seeking to prevent any gains by opposition forces.  

     In what is referred to as "attitude adjustment," the Thai military junta, also known as the National Council for Peace and Order, which is tasked with maintaining security, has been behind a string of high-profile arrests. Without going through established legal procedures, individuals have been taken into custody, at military facilities. Upon release, they are forced to pledge in writing not to get involved in further anti-government activity and warned that a sedition charge awaits anyone who does.

     In September, the NCPO detained high-profile junta critic Pravit Rojanaphruk, then a reporter for the English-language newspaper The Nation, for three days. In response to a call for his release, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said, "Some newspaper reporters devote themselves to finding faults with the military regime. They lack ethics." The junta has also temporarily detained politicians, including pro-Thaksin former Energy Minister Pichai Naripthaphan, and a political cartoonist.

     The junta appears increasingly nervous of the wave of criticism spreading to the general public. With a pro-Thaksin camp, which seeks early restoration of civilian rule, constantly critical of the military regime, little or no progress has been made in "reconciliation" between pro- and anti-Thaksin groups, something that the military has promoted.

     In an effort to keep a lid on political unrest, the junta issued an order based on Article 44 of the interim constitution in April, cracking down on political gatherings and demonstrations.

     Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at international human rights group Human Rights Watch, pointed out that both sides have work to do in accepting each other's opinions before reconciliation can take place, but the junta suppresses the expression of opinions itself. Sunai said his behavior has also come under the scrutiny of the security authorities.

Tightening online control

In late September, it was revealed that the junta was working on a "single gateway" plan to control the flow of online information into the country, designed to make it easier for the government to block information it deems undesirable. Prayuth has openly denounced criticism of the Thai military rule on the Internet from opposition members living abroad.

     As Thais came to learn of the single gateway plan, Internet users, who see it as the Thai version of China's "Great Firewall," began slamming it as a breach of privacy. The move eventually led to large-scale cyberattacks targeting government servers.

     While the junta has curbed political activity on the streets, it has been unable to stem the online protest movement. Faced with the situation, the military government toned down its stance on the plan, scrambling to calm the public outcry.

     Certain other important issues that the junta has struggled with may be behind the clampdown. Having placed such a heavy emphasis on maintaining security, the junta was dealt a heavy blow by the Aug. 17 bombing in central Bangkok, which claimed 20 lives. Additionally, a government council nominated by the junta voted down a draft of a new constitution in early September, delaying the next general election and a return to civilian rule by more than six months.

     The international community has voiced concerns about the human rights situation in Thailand. On Oct. 8, the European Parliament adopted a resolution urging the Thai government not to impede the exercise of human rights. On Oct. 15, Amnesty International called on the junta to stop arresting anti-Thaksin politicians, describing it as "persecution."

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