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Free speech takes a hit ahead of the Thai vote

Junta's strong-armed efforts to reign in social tensions could backfire

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Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, center, attends the annual Royal Plowing Ceremony in Bangkok on May 12.   © Reuters

BANGKOK An explosion at a military hospital in Bangkok on the third anniversary of the ruling junta underscored Thailand's delicate political situation ahead of the first full-fledged election in seven years.

The kingdom's two largest political forces have remained deeply split since the coup that brought the current military junta to power.

The lingering tension -- exacerbated by the May 22 attack, which injured more than 20 people -- has prompted the government to clamp down on free speech as it tries to nip unrest in the bud before the general election. The authorities have promised to hold the vote 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 create more tension before the election.

PRESSURE ON FACEBOOK The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission on May 4 demanded that Facebook delete 309 posts. 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-majeste law, which bans expressions of contempt for the royal family.

More than 100 people have been arrested for alleged violations of the law since the military took power, 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 has questioned the legal basis of the order, continuing its tug-of-war with the telecommunications regulator.

For roughly a decade leading up to the coup, Thailand was divided between supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, many of whom are farmers, and Thaksin's opponents, mainly relatively wealthy urbanites. In 2014, the military toppled the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, to tamp down the confrontation between the two groups.

APPEARANCES AND REALITY The relative calm seen on the streets of Bangkok can be chalked up to the military's efforts to ban political activity and limit freedom of speech, rather than any healing of the country's deep political rift.

Still, these measures have not been enough to prevent a string of deadly bombings in the capital and elsewhere over the past three years.

Chalermchai Sitthisat, the army's commander in chief, said the hospital bomb, which was placed in a flower vase, was similar to the pipe bombs used in two recent explosions. He suggested that the "same group" could be behind the latest attack.

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 Party. Thaksin-backed parties, including Pheu Thai, have won every election 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 Pheu Thai through a voting system that makes it difficult for a single party to win a majority in parliament.

The new charter 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 is 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.

Still, the election will move the country away from outright military rule.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, had words of warning for the government. "If the election is manipulated and the postelection government is orchestrated by the military," he said, "more tensions and some turmoil can be expected."

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