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THAILAND: A State Of Emergency

THAILAND: Censorship And Policing Public Morality In A State Of Emergency

The Asian Human Rights Commission joins other concerned groups and individuals around the world to condemn the blocking in Thailand of 36 websites. The websites were blocked under a state of emergency that the unelected Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, declared on 7 April 2010 in response to continued protests in Bangkok. Most of the 36 are sites belonging to or closely aligned with the anti-government protestors; however, the list includes the independent news and commentary sites Prachatai (no. 8) and Fah Diew Kan and its affiliate (no. 34, 35). At time of writing, some of these sites are partly or fully reoperating, or are operating on mirror sites. Some can be accessed outside Thailand, but not in the country.

The AHRC calls for the unqualified lifting of restrictions on all these addresses without delay, and guarantees that there will be no further censorship of these or other sites.

But the blocking of these Internet addresses is merely one highly visible manifestation of a much more sinister program that comes with the state of emergency in Thailand, about which the AHRC is gravely concerned. A reading of the order for their shutdown reveals deeply anti-democratic and anti-human rights aspects of the government programme that require closer public scrutiny and much more open debate.

First, the order, signed by Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, claims that the blocking of the websites was authorized under item 9(2) of the declaration of the state of emergency, which translated roughly reads as follows:

"It is prohibited to report or distribute information that may cause alarm among the public, such as in newspapers or other media or anything with intent to cause misunderstanding about the state of emergency which will damage state security or peace and order or public morality across the kingdom."

This typically nebulous provision permits the authorities in Thailand to take any steps they like against any persons or associations on any pretext associated with the declaration of emergency. The websites were targeted only because the Internet is a part of the public domain that the authorities have great difficulty in keeping in check, unlike the broadcast media, most of which is under direct control, and the print media, which is largely complaisant. The targets of the state of emergency declaration, while including Internet sites, are by no means limited to it.

Second, the order is signed under the letterhead of the Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order, which up until a few weeks ago was a hitherto little-known agency. From what the AHRC can ascertain, the CAPO was established in 2009 under section 16 of the Internal Security Act, which reads in translation that,

"In the event of a need to overcome problems affecting internal security in any area, the Director with the approval of the Board shall have the power to establish one or more special operations centres. The structure, staffing, administration, duties, control and coordination or command of operations centres... shall be as determined by the Director with the approval of the Board..."

Strangely, the contents of the CAPO's website provide no immediately obvious details on its structure, staffing, administration, duties, control and coordination or command. It appears to be based at an army regiment and comprise mainly of army officers, while an announcement from last year indicates in only the most general terms that it includes both military and combined civilian-military-police units, about which nothing is explained.

Given that this agency is at the forefront of counter-protest actions and is issuing orders for the closure of websites, it is particularly ironic that there is little clear information available about its existence and workings. The Asian Human Rights Commission therefore calls, in addition to its unreserved demand for the cessation of censorship in Thailand and for the ending of the state of emergency at the earliest possible time, for intense public pressure from inside the country and abroad to clarify the functions, personnel and funding of the CAPO, and its precise role in the current state of emergency.

What is CAPO, why is it shutting down websites, and how is it qualified to police public morality?


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