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Six anti-constitutional referendum activists walk out of the Bangkok Remand Prison in July 2016.   © Reuters

Thai junta clamps down on social media ahead of promised election

Three years after its coup, nation's calm is deceptive

BANGKOK -- With Thailand marking on Monday the third anniversary of the coup that brought the current military junta to power, the kingdom's two largest political forces remain deeply split.

This has prompted the government to clamp down on speech as it tries to nip unrest in the bud before a general election that has been promised by the second half of 2018 at the latest under the new, quasi-democratic constitution.

The junta's attempt to rein in news organizations and social media has thrown a damper on open discussion. Critics say the measures will simply build up tensions before the election.

Pressure on Facebook

The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission demanded that Facebook delete 309 posts on May 4. The authorities called on the U.S. social media company to respect Thailand's "sacred" laws, threatening to ban it from operating in Thailand if it fails to comply.

Most of the messages are thought to have been posted by anti-junta scholars and activists. The authorities claim the posts violate Thailand's lese-majesty law, which bans expression of contempt for the royal family.

More than 100 people have been arrested for alleged violations of the lese-majesty law since the military took power in Thailand, according to the International Federation for Human Rights. At the time of the putsch, there were six people in jail for violating the law; at least 64 are serving time now. Most are pro-democracy activists and critics of the military government, the federation said.

Facebook, for its part, questioned the legal basis of the order, continuing its tug-of-war with the telecommunications regulator.

For about 10 years before the coup, Thailand was divided between supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, many of whom are farmers in the northeast and other rural areas. Most of Thaksin's opponents are relatively wealthy city dwellers. In 2014, the military toppled the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thakshin's sister, to tamp down the confrontation between the two groups.

Appearances and reality

The junta has succeeded in bringing quiet to the streets by banning political activity and limiting freedom of expression. Thailand's business community, including the Japanese companies that are the country's largest foreign investors, generally praise the military government for maintaining security.

But while the coup and subsequent clampdown have brought surface calm, they have done little to resolve the underlying political conflict, which rears its head periodically.

The junta convened a meeting of political parties in February, but the "reconciliation talks," the first of their kind, had the appearance of a ceremony, rather than an open political exchange, said Phumtham Wechchayachai, secretary-general of the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai ("for Thais") Party. Thaksin-backed political parties, including Pheu Thai, have won every election in Thailand since 2001.

The military government is clearly against the pro-Thaksin forces and their populist program. The new constitution, which took effect earlier this year, is designed to weaken the Pheu Thai Party through a voting system that makes it difficult for a single party to win a majority in parliament.

The new constitution also defines the first five years after the upcoming election as a transitional period, in which a government formed by popularly elected parties in the House of Representatives are subject to supervision by a powerful Senate whose members are hand-picked by the junta. It is possible that a military figure, rather than an elected member of the lower house, will become prime minister.

In any case, the election should be held to provide opportunities for debate, Phumtham said.

Despite Thailand's military-flavored, limited democracy, the general election will move the country away from outright military rule. Political parties will begin gearing up for the election, including selection of candidates, after the promulgation of election-related laws, which is expected by mid-2018 at the latest.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, warns that the military should not underestimate the people's expectations for the country's first election in seven years. "If the election is manipulated and the post-election government is orchestrated by the military," he said, "more tensions and some turmoil can be expected."

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