NYT on censorship and the monarchy

4 10 2011

Thomas Fuller at the New York Times keeps many Americans abreast of events in Thailand. Hence, his report on censorship and lese majeste is going to be widely read in the English-speaking world. In his most recent article, he paints a troubling picture regarding the ideas and infrastructure of lese majeste repression. He begins by describing the first-ever visit by journalists to the bowels of institutional lese majeste censorship and repression:

Down a maze of neon-lit corridors in a massive government complex here is a windowless room where computer technicians scour the Internet for photos, articles, Facebook postings — anything that might be deemed offensive to King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his family.

The technicians work in what is called the Office of Prevention and Suppression of Information Technology Crimes. The government that came to power in July prefers to call it the “war room,” the headquarters of a vigorous and expanding campaign to purify the Internet of royal insults.

The officials are a “team of 10 computer specialists led by Surachai Nilsang, whose title is cyber inspector.” Surachai indicates the ideological dimension of repression that might be similar to that heard from goose-stepping ideologues in North Korea: “The thing that drives us to do our duty is that we love and worship the monarchy…”.

The visit indicated that cyber-technicians “in the war room have blocked 70,000 Internet pages over the past four years, and the vast majority — about 60,000 — were banned for insults to the monarchy…. Each blocked page requires a court order, a request that judges have never turned down, Mr. Surachai said.”

Fuller observes:

Because the monarchy remains a taboo subject in Thailand and is often discussed elliptically, the motives of those who attack the royal family remain largely a matter of speculation. After his six decades on the throne, public protests against the king are unheard of in Thailand. And not even the most strident anti-establishment protesters would openly call themselves republicans.

Surachai confirmed that the number of anti-monarchy pages “increased sharply after the September 2006 military coup.”

He says that: “Some cases of lèse-majesté are clear-cut…”. Others involve royalist and frightened officials searching for “metaphors” in so-called “code words.” Here Thai officials become the royalist Gestapo.

Fuller notes that “the campaign against royal insults, which some compare to a witch hunt, worries many Thais, including groups of writers, academics and artists who say the lèse-majesté law is easily abused.” He adds that: “In August a group of 112 professors, both Thai and foreign, sent an open letter to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra that said the crackdown threatened “the future of democracy in Thailand.”

War room technicians say they receive “from 20 to 100 e-mailed complaints a day. Like Thai society itself, the e-mails are split between supporters and detractors of the crackdown.” A 24-hour call center “to handle reports of Internet abuse receives dozens of calls a day. But many are frivolous.” Many are prank calls.

Surachai revealed that he “uses a ‘spider,’ a specialized computer program that trolls the Internet and flags potentially offensive content. He then often consults with a special military unit attached to the king’s palace to inquire about the veracity of some Internet postings.”

When one of the senior officials decides to block, Surachai follows orders.

This is rather bleak material but captures the nature of lese majeste repression exceedingly well.


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