When it comes to controlling information online, the Thai government has had a busy month. In addition to suing Thai Rath cartoonist Chai Rachawat for defamation, the government of Thailand is now threatening to close down websites that insult the Prime Minister.
Chai Rachawat posted a Facebook photo with a controversial caption criticizing Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra:
Please understand that prostitutes are not bad women. Prostitutes only sell their bodies, but a bad woman has been wandering around trying to sell the country.
Chai Rachawat was reacting to a speech delivered by Yingluck in Mongolia last month. Yingluck is Thailand’s first female Prime Minister. She is also the younger sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted by a coup in 2006. Thaksin has been convicted of plunder and is living in exile outside of Thailand.
In an interview with the Bangkok Post, Chai Rachawat explained why he made the controversial remark:
The prime minister's speech overseas touched a raw nerve with many. They feel that the facts about democracy in Thailand were distorted with the intention of whitewashing the brother and his family.
Speaking negatively about one's own country is like betraying the nation. It makes foreigners misunderstand Thailand.
The prime minister made two mistakes: saying something that was out of place and lying.
He also clarified that he didn’t label Yingluck a prostitute:
What I meant was prostitutes are not evil because they sell themselves, not the nation. However, a woman who sells the nation is evil. I did not label the prime minister as a prostitute.
Despite his clarifications, Rachawat has been sued for defamation and for violating Thailand's Computer Crimes Act. The suit was filed on World Press Freedom Day.
Blogger Bangkok Pundit thinks the defamation suit is a bad idea:
On all levels, this lawsuit is politically a very bad idea…[It] will hurt Yingluck more than it will ever hurt Chai. Yingluck should drop the lawsuit.
The suit is unprecedented in Thailand, as it is the first time that a Prime Minister has accused a citizen of defamation in relation to a Facebook post. What is common in Thailand is the filing of Lèse Majesté cases against bloggers and online commenters who insult the Royal Family, including the blocking of websites that criticize the monarchy.
After suing Chai Rachawat, the Minister of Information and Communications Technology warned that websites containing defamatory remarks against the Prime Minister will be immediately shut down. It urged citizens to report websites with offensive content.
Human rights groups have been asking the Thai government to amend the Lèse Majesté law, which has been described as the harshest in the world. They are also concerned about certain provisions in the Computer Crimes Act which they think can be easily abused by authorities in order to target dissidents and members of political opposition groups.
Whether Chai Rachawat was right or wrong in his provocative remarks, his case will certainly have a great impact on Internet openness and Internet regulation in Thailand.