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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand to block 2,000 websites ahead of pro-democracy protests

Clampdown targets Facebook and demonstrators' key communication network

BANGKOK -- Thailand's government is preparing to block more than 2,200 websites, including Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, that have "illegal" content ahead of rallies by the student-led pro-democracy movement this weekend.

Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta said Monday the ministry had ordered operators of URLs and pages that were believed to have breached Thai law to remove illegal content within 15 days, he said.

So far, 1,276 URLs and pages have been blocked and another 1,024 pages and URLs are due to be barred access over the next few weeks, according to the ministry.

"All are done through the process of Thai law and without any discrimination," said Buddhipongse. "We will continue this policy to block pages and URLs that contain illegal contents."

"Most of the websites that were closed contained inappropriate content that could harm the country's security, including the content that harassed the monarch," an official at the Technology Crime Suppression Division, the kingdom's law enforcement agency told the Nikkei Asian Review.

His comments came four days before protests planned by student activist group United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration at Thammasat University. One of the biggest gatherings is to take place near the Grand Palace in central Bangkok on Saturday.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha cited the global resurgence of COVID-19 infections in a televised address Thursday in an attempt to discourage protesters from attending the weekend rallies. Although the former junta chief did not explicitly say authorities will ban protests, he urged people to rethink attending them.

The first batch of blocked online content includes 661 Facebook pages, 289 YouTube channels and 69 Twitter accounts, according to the ministry.

Last month, Facebook said it blocked Royalist Marketplace, a private group with more than 1 million members, after a youth-led rally on Aug. 16 that evolved to a demonstration in Bangkok with about 20,000 people -- the biggest since the 2014 coup demanding democratic reforms. Royalist Marketplace nearly doubled its membership since mid-June as a series of protests spread across the universities in the kingdom.

Buddhipongse had warned Facebook on Aug. 10 that Royalist Marketplace had to remove content violating the Computer Crime Act or face legal action. Criticism of the monarchy is strictly forbidden in Thailand under its lese majeste laws. Royalist Marketplace was launched in April by Kyoto University professor Pavin Chachavalpongpun to discuss the role of the Thai monarchy.

Although Buddhipongse insisted the closure of illegal pages had nothing to do with the upcoming anti-government protest, analysts said it is undeniable that social media is a crucial communication channel for the demonstrations.

"One tweet spreads to other thousands of other tweets. That's the massive impact of social media among the young generation, who live on the internet," Bhubate Samutachak of Mahidol University's Institute for Population and Social Research told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"That's why we saw up to 20,000 young people gather at the latest major protest on Aug. 16," he said.

Boonyakiat Karavekphan, a political science lecturer at Ramkhamhaeng University, said all allegedly illegal content addressing government policy failures and criticism of the monarchy had been shared widely and rapidly, encouraging young people protest.

Bhubate said restricting access to websites is unlikely to quell the protests when the protest leaders have claimed that thousands of people would join.

Protesters also vowed to hold a large-scale march on the Government House on Sunday to restate their demands, which include amending the constitution, dissolution of parliament, ending official harassment that inhibits people exercising their rights and reforming the monarchy.

"The closure of pages and websites does not help because they can be reopened immediately and easily. Then, there is no way to stop the spread of the anti-government content," said Bhubate.

The reopening of Royalist Marketplace is an example. Pavin immediately opened a new group with the same criticism of monarchy called, Royalist Marketplace Talaat Luang. Membership of the new group soared to more than 500,000 people just in a few hours.

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