Fear spreads as Thai junta jails online critics

Activists are detained by police for defying the ban on public gatherings of 5 persons or more, and for protesting against the recent arrest of several critics of the military regime in Bangkok on April 27, 2016. Thai election authorities on Wednesday filed their first charge under a law banning campaigning and debate before a referendum on a controversial new constitution, as the junta tightens its grip on free speech. / AFP PHOTO / LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA

BANGKOK: The Thai junta’s fresh arrests of online critics is spreading paranoia across the country, say rights activists, with eight people being held for disparaging the regime on Facebook. 

The military government’s latest crackdown on dissent comes as it prepares to put a charter it drafted to the public in August. 

The looming vote has stirred Thailand’s turbulent political waters, with politicians from the toppled government speaking out against the charter and handfuls of activists around the country defying junta laws to demonstrate against the document, which they say is deeply undemocratic. 

But a fresh wave of fear was sparked last week after soldiers stormed the homes of eight activists who police say were paid to run Facebook pages that criticised and mocked the junta. 

The group was jailed and now faces trial in a military court for sedition and violating Thailand’s computer crime act, two laws that carry tough sentences. 

Two of its members are also charged with insulting the Thai monarchy – a crime that carries up to 15 years per offence. 

The group’s lawyer said the royal defamation charges were levied over comments two of the activists made in a private Facebook chat, raising concerns about the military’s surveillance capabilities. 

“We are all paranoid about this,” Winyat Chartmontree, who works with a team of human rights attorneys, told AFP. 

“In the past there were only rumours that the military could hack into people’s Line and Facebook messages. But this time there was clear evidence.” 

Human Rights Watch said the junta was using “draconian laws” to silence opposition. 

“These are laws that could be sending people away for a dozen years for a couple of Facebook posts,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director. 

“They are [using] army vehicles, black boots,” he said of the arrests, which were carried out in the early morning. “They want people to fear them”. 

The junta says it is seeking to end the cycle of mass protests that has rocked the country ever since ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by the military in 2006. His sister’s administration was overthrown in the 2014 coup. 

But critics say the army is chiefly bent on safeguarding its influence and dismantling the Shinawatras’ powerful political faction, which has won every national election in the past decade but is hated by the military-allied elite. — AFP


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