Having failed in its efforts to intimidate, behead and drown the growing pro-democracy movement, Thailand’s military-backed government on Monday went after the media in a futile effort to quash publicity at home and abroad about its violent suppression of dissent.
The Royal Thai Police said it would ask the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission and the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society to investigate VoiceTV, Prachathai.com, The Reporters, and The Standard for violation of the emergency decree imposed on Bangkok last week by livestreaming content that “promotes unrest”. All four were directed to immediately halt broadcasts on the Line social network and could have their licenses revoked.
“A free media is an essential element in any democratic society, and bona fide journalists should be allowed to report important developments without the threat of bans, suspensions, censorship or prosecution hanging over them,” the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand said in a statement. “The justification used in this instance by the authorities under the controversial new state of emergency is that some reports may undermine national security. This is overly broad, and can easily be abused to silence reporting that is accurate but makes the government uncomfortable.”
The crackdown came after five days of protests by student-backed protests that, thanks to government overreaction, crippled the city’s transportation system and needlessly escalated a conflict that, to date, had only manifested itself with a series of large-scale, but peaceful, pro-democracy rallies.
But the government overplayed its hand Oct. 16, turning riot police and irritant-laced water cannons on unarmed teenagers and university students at Bangkok’s Pathumwan intersection. Older, more-seasoned activists formed a human barricade against shield-and-baton-wielding officers to protect the young, largely female, youths who got their first chance to witness the the violent means by which the former generals will go to retain their grip on power.
The government by this point had imprisoned most of the movement’s core leaders, but, using direct messages, encrypted chat rooms and even peer-to-peer Bluetooth communication, the tech-savvy youths not only regrouped, but expanded their operation Saturday, blasting out a series of overlapping messages, leaving police scrambling to cover all the potential bases of protest.
Police this afternoon also ordered the NBTC to block all servers for encrypted mail/chat app Telegram, which had gathered more than 160,000 users in protest-related groups.
As had happened Friday, police were left fondling their holsters at Victory Monument as no one showed up to protest. In a kneejerk reaction, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered all the city’s mass-transit networks shut down amid fears protestors would take over every station.
Smart and nimble, the students instead grouped at three points in the city where, perhaps shamed by the global criticism of their gestapo tactics the night before, let the rallies carry on for hours before organizers called it a night.
There would be no pause, however, as new protest sites popped up Sunday at Victory Monument, the Asoke intersection and in Pathum Thani. Again, companies of riot police mustered nearby, but did not intervene, although more than a dozen light-rail stations were closed, leaving teens and twentysomethings flowing out of the Phrom Phong BTS station around 5 p.m. happy to walk to Asoke.
The ball now is squarely in the government’s court, as demonstrators have proved that neither the emergency decree, horrible weather, the police crackdown and public transit shutdown are not enough to keep them at home.
The government’s escalation also has brought the expected – and generally ignored – condemnation from aboard, but also at home from quarters of “polite” society that traditionally has remained silent during political upheaval.
A K-Pop superstar, beauty queens and television hosts all came out after the water-cannon assault to back the student movement. Putting their lucrative endorsement deals at risk, the celebrities and influencers who have milked the tits of Thailand’s elites and corporate barons broke ranks to criticize their traditional government allies.
BNK48 member Milin “Namneung” Dokthian lamented on Facebook that she had to urge protestors to “stay safe”.
“We wouldn’t have to say ‘be safe’ if we had a true democracy,” she wrote in a post shared by band members.
Beauty queen and television personality Maria Poonlertlarp likewise said on Facebook that the crackdown was “completely unjust”.
“People have been silenced from speaking up about the double standards and the abuse of power,” she said in a tear-fille d video in both Thai and English.
By Sunday evening, politicians not drunk on power and their own reputations began suggesting that Parliament reconvene to consider the protests, the activists’ demands and even the constitutional amendments they delayed last month, a move that set off last week’s chain of events.
House Speaker Chuan Leekpai was scheduled to meet today with government and opposition representatives to discuss a possible special parliamentary session. Such a move requires the support of a third of parliament’s 488 MPs and 250 senators. At least 35 votes are required from government MPs.
A more conciliatory tone also seeped out of Government House Monday, with Prayut spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri tell the media that had not yet been banned that the premier “is willing to listen to everyone’s problems and continues to solve problems in all areas”.
The former coup leader has remained steadfast, however, that he will not resign, a key demand of the student activists.