Thailand elected a new leader in 2023, but the country still has a long way to go to improve democratic norms, civil society groups say.
Laws and regulations are contributing to an environment where online debate is stifled. Censorship, surveillance, digital restrictions and disinformation campaigns targeting opposition candidates are among the issues cited by research groups for the drop in digital freedom rights.
“Thailand’s digital democracy is under siege,” Emilie Palamy Pradichit, founder of Bangkok-based based Manushya Foundation, said in a statement.
One of the biggest challenges to online debate and media is a December 2022 decree that requires internet service providers to comply with content takedown requests within 24 hours.
Civil society groups launched an online petition to scrap the decree.
The impact of that requirement is included in a report published jointly in October by the Manushya Foundation and Washington-based Freedom House, which examines conditions from June 2022 to May 2023.
The report found hundreds of takedown requests and a high compliance rate among social media companies.
Other issues include state-sponsored disinformation campaigns ahead of the 2023 general elections and legal actions — including a 42-year prison sentence handed down in January to a pro-democracy activist over Facebook posts deemed to defame the monarchy. That sentence was later reduced to 28 years.
VOA emailed a spokesperson for the ruling party a request for comment but did not receive a response.
Jemimah Steinfeld, editor-in-chief at London-based Index on Censorship, said the report “makes for sober reading, [but] it is sadly not surprising.”
She told VOA, “Freedoms in Thailand have been in free fall in recent years. The cases of critics being punished are sadly all too common, from high-profile activists who violate the notorious Section 112 of the Penal Code to schoolchildren who turned up to the protests that rocked the country in 2020. Thai authorities appear to be throwing everything they have at tracking down dissenting voices.”
Thailand’s Article 112, or lèse-majesté law, carries lengthy prison sentences for criticizing the monarchy.
Arnon Nampa, a Thai human rights lawyer and activist, was sentenced in September to four years in prison for publicly criticizing the monarchy. In November, a 57-year-old woman was sentenced for 18 months over a Facebook post calling for changes to the monarchy.
“Most [people] associate Thailand with its stunning coastline and food. There is that, but there is also a dark side — a side that is sadly being aided and abetted by advances in technology,” Steinfeld said.
Dozens of Thai dissidents have been prosecuted since pro-democracy and anti-monarchy movements began in July 2020. Many have since been charged for online criticism and publishing content violating Thai laws.
These laws have contributed to Thailand’s digital rights being eroded and foster an environment where media may self-censor, according to the report.
When officials passed an amendment to the Computer Crime Act in 2016, they said it would protect the digital rights of Thai people.
But the amendment carries fines and jail terms. Critics say the bill gives authorities too much power to decide what constitutes a violation of the law.
Pravit Rojanaphruk, a journalist at the news website Khaosod English, said the law is “vaguely written.”
“Online social media freedom, or digital freedom, is the new frontier yet to be fully controlled by the Thai state,” he told VOA. “The vaguely written Computer Crime Act partly states that importing false information into the computer system is a crime punishable by up to five years of imprisonment.”
According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, more than 180 cases have been filed under the Computer Crime Act in the past 3½ years.
Despite the risks, many continue to post freely, Pravit said.
“Cyber cops cannot simply arrest them all, as there might not be enough space in prison, so they choose those that they think have more influence and are residing in Thailand,” he said. “The crackdown is thus more about deterrent than ensuring absolute suppression, which is currently not possible."
Darika Bamrungchok, a digital rights activist at Thai Netizen Network, says prosecution against activists shows that Thailand’s control of digital freedoms continues.
“This is the way that the authorities and government tried to control the digital rights landscape in Thailand. For the last nine years, if you look at the report, the score of the violations of the user rights, the way that they are doing in terms of the prosecution of activists and civil society, is quite high," Darika told VOA.
Thailand’s military staged a coup in 2014 and since then, the country has been ranked in Freedom House’s annual report as "not free." The country was ranked "partly free” in 2013.
"Compared to [other] Southeast Asian countries in terms of the internet access, Thailand is quite OK because of our business sector here. If you look at Myanmar, when we talk about the internet shutdown or internet control, we’re not at that level," Darika said.
But she still has hope that Thailand's digital freedoms will improve under its new government led by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin.
“They might focus on business development, the economy in Thailand and tourism, which is different from the previous government. I can see that it's a transition, but I really hope it can be better," Darika said.
Palamy Pradichit is more pessimistic.
“Considering the proliferation of the 112/Computer Crime Act cases that have taken place after May 2023, it’s most likely the next report [will] be as dark as this one," she said.