Updated: Red shirts, censorship and a predicted crackdown

9 04 2010

The Bangkok Post (9 April 2010) reports that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, now with almost total control over the televised media, has defended the decision to shut down the red shirts’ People Channel, claiming it “aired disinformation so people would turn on the government. This endangered national security.” More specifically, Abhisit appears to be personally affronted because the red shirts played a tape on stage that Abhisit says “falsely claimed the government was using weapons to suppress protesters.” Propaganda and censorship chief Sathit Wongnongtoey “said the red shirts had provoked hatred of the government.” He claimed that the red shirts had “doctored video and audio material to discredit the government.”

Preventing oppositional voices is now defined as a means of defending national security.

Thailand’s Cable TV Association president Kasem Inkaew “warned that the closure of PTV would draw more UDD supporters to the red shirt rallies,” and said that members “had received many calls from subscribers who were angry after the rally broadcasts were suspended…”.

As usual, a couple of yellow-shirted academics have defended the government, with Thammasat University law lecturer Surachai Sirikrai saying the shutdown was warranted because People TV presented “one-sided information that threatened public peace.” That logic would mean shutting down all television stations in the country.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology is reported as “warning that all websites linked with the red shirt demonstrations and those encouraging people to join tomorrow’s mass rally will be blocked immediately. ICT permanent secretary Sue Lor-uthai yesterday said the warning came after the Centre for Public Administration in Emergency Situations authorised his ministry to tackle websites and Twitter users considered provocative and inciting disunity.  Mr Sue said the authority given to the ministry would help efforts to ban websites quickly rather than wait for a court order.  Mr Sue said almost 10,000 website links had been blocked since March when the red shirt demonstration began.  Bans on another 700 links were awaiting court approval, he said.”

At about the same time, acting government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn has claimed that the government is only using peaceful means.Ominously, however, he adds that the “government was using the approach employed during the bloody Songkran protests last year.” That response to the Songkhran Uprising was claimed by the government to have been “measured,” but resulted in dozens of injuries and at least 4 related deaths.

It now seems just a matter of time – at least for the government – before the crackdown begins.

The government claims to have the military brass on side for its proposed actions against the red shirt protesters, but this is not absolutely clear. Wassana Nanuam says that it may be deputy army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha who will have “to head the operation to disperse the red shirt demonstrators…” as his boss, General Anupong Paojinda is “reportedly uncomfortable with a plan to break up the protests.” There is speculation he may refuse to act and that the government may have to get General Prayuth to do the job.

Wassana reports that Abhisit and Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban “are reported to have locked horns with Gen Anupong on Tuesday over a plan to disperse the red shirts. The army chief was quoted as saying the security authorities had no authority to move in and break up the rally at Ratchaprasong intersection.”

General Prayuth is said to have “mobilised 50 companies of troops from the 2nd and 3rd Army Regions and from the Lop Buri-based Special Operations Command to help beef up security in Bangkok.” Anupong is not inactive however, and has “asked suppliers of tear gas and rubber bullets to speed up deliveries.” He has also  “given clear instructions to troops not to use firearms if they embark on an operation to disperse the demonstrators. Soldiers have been told to use only crowd control equipment – mainly water cannons, batons, shields, tear gas and rubber bullets.”

It is a situation balanced on a knife-edge.

Update: Worth reading the report at Inter Press Service for an assessment of the politics of this current censorship. Also worth reading is this TIME report on the military.