The Cyber Coup
From the Series: The Wheel of Crisis in Thailand
In the period between the two most recent coups in Thailand, from 2006 to 2014, there was a political consensus among governments, elected or otherwise, that Internet controls were necessary. However, the thorny issue was who or what to control (Sinpeng 2013). I argue here that the 2014 coup marked a shift in the patterns of state cyber controls towards increased infiltration and surveillance.
The new military government recognized the use of the Internet as a vehicle for governance and state control, but its increased infiltration and centralization of online communications will lead to more societal division. In its attempt to mitigate the polarization left by a decade-long political conflict, its divide-and-rule strategy, which relies on turning Internet users against one another, will create further rifts within Thai society and prolong the conflict.
It was unprecedented but not accidental that the May 22, 2014 coup was announced through Twitter and Facebook. The military understood that one of the most effective ways to reach its citizens was through social networking sites. More than ninety percent of Thais with Internet access and around twenty million are on Facebook. Ignoring social media would have been a grave mistake for the government. But the question remained of how extensively controls and censorship of information should be exercised. When Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt shut down the Internet in their countries, it triggered more protests that eventually led to their respective downfalls. Yet, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogen was able to get away with blocking various social media sites, while simultaneously winning a re-election and cracking down on his opposition. In Thailand, a country marred by decade-long street protests, the last things the men in uniform wanted after their putsch were more protests. What became harder to control was not resistance on the ground but online. But how to win a war in cyberspace where the enemies are anonymous and numerous?
Two sets of regulations, the Computer Crime Act (CCA) and the lèse-majesté law, became the regulatory pillars of Internet controls in Thailand. The 2006 coup established an unprecedented legal framework for the formal institutionalization of Internet censorship policy through the passage of the CCA in 2007. Scholars and rights groups have broadly condemned the CCA for providing the state with wide-ranging powers to interpret what constitutes a computer crime.1 Another set of laws that has been used to restrict Internet freedom is the infamous lèse-majesté law, or Article 112 of the Thai Penal Code. This law prohibits any defamation of, or insults to, the king, queen, heir apparent or regent of Thailand, and punishes them with a penalty of up to fifteen years imprisonment.2 Together with the CCA, they represent “repressive laws and harsh sentences.” The criminalization of Thai cyberspace was also facilitated by the creation of new institutions such as the Technological Crime Suppression Unit, Internet Security Operation Centre, and the Cyber Scouts (Atchavananthakul 2012). These institutions represent the cyber version of what Katherine Bowie (1997, 82) refers to as the “symbol of conservative reaction against progressive reforms.”
Yet these institutions had limited success in achieving the goals of the 2006 coup-makers. Insofar as the aim was to monitor and occasionally punish what state officials perceived as anti-royalist elements, they succeeded to some extent. However, the surveillance of cyberspace was limited due to intra-elite disagreement over what needed monitoring. During democratic times, despite a sharp rise in the persecution of CCA and lèse-majestécases, censorship of the Internet was very selective and not widespread. This was because political elites themselves needed sufficient openness online to mobilize their own supporters. If the online world became too heavily censored, there would have been little room for online action. The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), a Democrat-leaning, pro-monarchy, conservative alliance formed to oust the ruling Pheu Thai Party government, was almost exclusively mobilized online through its leader, Suthep Thaugsuban. While Suthep’s Facebook page garnered a mere 25,000 likes in early 2013, this grew to nearly 3,000,000 likes within a year, following his decision to head the protest movement.3 His nemeses, Yingluck and Panthongtae Shinawatra, had strong online presences, with their Facebook pages among the top twenty most popular in the country. These political leaders needed a somewhat open web in their own struggles for power.
The military elites, on the other hand, saw the open Internet and limited censorship on social media platforms as major contributing factors to the political crisis in Thailand. Prior to the 2014 coup, the problem was not just that there was not enough censorship but, more importantly, that there was a lack of control over information and communication technologies. For the military, the Internet had to be a tool for state governance and not for protest mobilization. There had to be a centralization of Internet controls in ways that would allow the state—and the state only—to identify and monitor subversives, while at the same time promoting state propaganda. As soon as the new National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) took over, their first priority was to choke off Internet points through a combination of offensive and defensive strategies: blocking, filtering, phishing, denial-of-service attacks, forcing compliance from ISP providers, and outright intimidation of net users (see Citizen Lab 2014; O’Brian 2014). They have so far failed to get major Internet companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, and LINE to comply with their wishes, which could significantly threaten their control over the Internet. This latter obstacle could deal a heavy blow to the junta’s new censorship regime.
The most dangerous tool in the state’s disposal to curb freedom on the net is not coercion but persuasion. The government can exploit and has exploited the already pervasive divisions within Thai society to their advantage. By encouraging the public to turn over identities of “subversive” net users, which at the moment can include anyone critical of the military regime, they can help society by informing the authorities of those who could threaten national unity. Already, pro-military supporters have helped the government by tagging people of opposing views to the army’s Twitter account and or passing on their Facebook information. The military, in response, continues to infiltrate cyberspace by creating fake accounts and trolling the Internet in search of enemies of the state.
The current strategy towards greater censorship and centralization of the Internet by the military will not get the country closer towards national reconciliation, but rather, it will deepen the divisions within society.
1. For a full analysis on how the Computer-Related Crime Act of 2007 contravenes international standards, see Tunsarawuth and Mendel 2010.
2. For excellent scholarship on the relationship between lèse-majesté and the Thai state, see Streckfuss 2011.
3. Based on author’s calculation.
Atchavananthakul, Sareounee. 2012. “Rakha Khong Kan Pitkan Internet Thai Praphet Tonthun Lae Pra Moen Tonthun Thang Trong (bueangton)” [The Price of Internet Censorship in Thailand: Type of Investment and Direct Investment Assessment (preliminary)]. Accessed on June 10, 2014.
Bowie, Katherine Ann. Rituals of National Loyalty: An Anthropology of the State and the Village Scout Movement in Thailand. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
Citizen Lab. 2014. “Information Controls during Thailand’s 2014 Coup.” Accessed July 15, 2014.
O’Brian, Danny. 2014. “Thai Junta Used Facebook App to Harvest Email Addresses.” Electronic Frontier Foundation, June 24, accessed on July 15, 2014.
Sinpeng, Aim. 2013. “State Repression in Cyberspace: The Case of Thailand.” Asian Politics & Policy 5, no. 3: 421–40.
Streckfuss, David. 2011. Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lèse-Majesté. New York: Routledge.
Tunsarawuth, Sinfah, and Toby Mendel. 2010. “Analysis of Computer Crime Act of Thailand.” Centre for Law and Democracy. Accessed September 18, 2014.