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Ironic Thailand: Clamping down on freedom even as democratic elections are promised

Updated On: Oct 16, 2007

The land of smiles has definitely acted erratically in its junta-led period.

After a number of flip-flops comes the latest pull-back on the regulation of freedom of speech.

The particular issue raging now is about YouTube, the internet video-sharing website. First banned in Thailand in April after posting a video-clip poking fun at the King Bhumibol Adulyadej, it was then lifted in September after YouTube promised the Thai government it would block any video clips deemed offensive to Thai people or those that violate Thai law. Within the same month, the Surayud administration threatened to block YouTube again as another two video-clips accused Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda of masterminding the September 19, 2006 coup.

Perhaps tired of all the mud-slinging against its revered icons of state, especially since Prem is seen as a proxy for the monarch, the government has brought forth even tougher action by seeking to amend the lese majeste law to protect “children of the monarch as well as privy councillors” and to limit media coverage of lese majeste cases. The latter was seen as especially onerous as political dissenters could be incarcerated after secret court hearings.

However, the authorities did not expect the public backlash to be so great or that the people they sought to protect were seemingly ungrateful. Media rights advocates criticized that this would be a grave violation of the freedom of expression that ought to be “debated widely in public, not by army-appointed legislators”. Thailand’s 12 million internet users are also very unhappy with the onslaught of draconian measures set on cyberspace.

More pointedly, the Privy Council directly intervened and told the legislators to desist from tabling the law. Pornpetch Wichitcholchai, the lawmaker who proposed the bills, told Reuters that he withdrew them after receiving a phone call from an anonymous privy councilor who told him the privy councillors opposed the bills. He said, “We were informed by a privy councillor that the Privy Council was not happy to be protected, so we decided to withdraw them for now.” It is good that the Privy Council was wise enough to halt the legislators’ actions. Though well-intentioned, the law would probably bring more castigation against the councillors and monarchy –something which they do not need in an already tense Thailand.

The Thai people are getting increasingly testy with the authorities over many things –the economy, restricted freedom and continued martial law –and incumbent PM Surayud Chulanont is in a precarious position with low ratings and criticisms of his bungling cabinet. Even as Thai prosecutors try to clamp down on Thaksin – flying to the United Kingdom to discuss measures for possible extradition, and the continued assurance of elections in December –the people are not appeased especially when the junta-appointed government seems tainted by corruption too. Five cabinet ministers resigned earlier this month when it was discovered that their personal shareholdings of companies exceeded the legal limit of five percent.

Surayud himself has just faced a vicious grilling by the National Legislative Assembly last week. Most unfortunately, he was unable to acquit himself properly over his landholdings and even retracted his earlier statement on returning the land (if it is found to be illegal) and resigning from premiership. Now Surayud insists that he will just return the land but remain as prime minister.

The Nation newspaper slammed Surayud for his contradictory stance and said that all the flip-flopping statements released by him and his “lame-duck” cabinet have seriously impaired their credibility. It also warned that in light of all the public discontent, internal discord and lack of action to get Thailand back on its feet, there may be a real possibility that Thaksin and his supporters may well gain the upper hand and soon return to government, thereby shattering the junta’s hopes when it conducted the coup a year ago. (15 October 2007).

Sources:

Bruised egos, wounded pride after House grilling (Nation, 14 October 2007)

The 'YouTube battle' continues in Thailand (Straits Times, 13 October 2007)

PM insists election will be held as planned (Bangkok Post, 13 October 2007)

Martial law ends in 11 provinces, returns in 3 (Bangkok Post, 13 October 2007)

Probe into PM's controversial land to be sped up (Nation, 13 October 2007)

ThailandBritain to discuss possible extradition of ousted prime minister (AP, 12 October 2007)

For Surayud, more dark days ahead (Today, 12 October 2007)

ThailandBritain to discuss possible extradition of ousted Prime Minister (AP, 12 October 2007)

Lese majeste law still problematic (Nation, 11 October 2007)

Testing free speech in Thailand (Asia Sentinel, 11 October 2007)

Thailand halts plan to toughen lese majeste law (Reuters, 9 October 2007)

Ban on YouTube lifted after deal (Nation, 31 August 2007)

Website to block clips offensive to Thais or that break Thai law (IHT, 31 August 2007)