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Asia

Thai protests go from the streets to cyberspace

In Thailand, the government has been shutting websites to control online criticism of it and the monarchy. Analysts say the government needs to find a less hard-line approach.

Smaller anti-government protests have taken place in Bangkok since the crackdown in May on the Red Shirts

Smaller anti-government protests have taken place in Bangkok since the crackdown in May on the Red Shirts

The battle between the Thai government and the opposition Red Shirts, who support former President Thaksin Shinawatra, that took over the streets of Bangkok earlier this year came to an end on May 19 when troops dispersed the crowds.

The violence and bloodshed left some 90 people dead and more than 1,400 injured.

Now the battlefront has changed with attacks against the government continuing on Thai and English-language websites. However, making use of the Computer Crime Act and the emergency decree, the government has recently shut down thousands of websites, which have been critical of the administration and the royal family.

In the past state control of the media has been limited to criticism of the Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej

In the past state control of the media has been limited to criticism of the Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej

"We have been implementing regulations on communication systems, based on national security like in many countries," Panitan Wattanayagorn, the Thai government spokesman, recently explained.

"We regulate these activities in such a way that they do not harm our national interests. Specific activities may not be allowed on those websites."

Government control of media has shifted focus

In the past, most government control of the media and the Internet has been related to the royal family.

However, media activist Supinya Klanarong says there has been a shift in focus since the protests.

"After the conflict and the state of emergency, censorship has been extended to politics as well. This means general opposition websites related to the Red Shirt movement or critics of the government are also being blocked."

Pro-Red Shirt website blocked

One news website that has been blocked several times this year is prachatai.com. Red Shirt supporters had discussed the protests openly on its discussion board.

However, the government only succeeded in shutting the site down temporarily, with the website circumventing the government controls by changing its server and by using another URL.

Prachatai.com's director, Chiranuch Premchaporn, who has been charged under the Computer Crimes Act, says the discussion board was shut down in July. She says there is a need to balance the interests of writers and the government.

"Even if I believe in freedom of expression, I understand there should be some limitations. We should set up a system to moderate content that can be considered to violate the rights of the people or the law."

Almost 100 people were killed in political violence in May

Almost 100 people were killed in political violence in May

Legal reform needed

Chris Baker, an author and commentator on Thai politics and business calls for "a cooperative framework in which all the parties are involved. Instead the government is using various forms of rather draconian legislation – the Computer Crimes Act, the emergency decree. At present, this is being rather inflammatory because people don't like being closed down in this way. And it's also relatively ineffective."

Media groups are warning that intimidating web users and closing down sites may backfire against the government and lead to a radicalization of those who post comments online.

Chris Baker says legal reform is needed to overcome the problem and to "control things in a permanent way as it's very unsatisfactory for all sides at the moment."

Author: Ron Corben (Bangkok)
Editor: Anne Thomas

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