The Internet is the latest battleground in Thailand's stormy political climate as the government attempts to shut down Web sites critical of it and the monarchy. The government is using tough laws to silence online criticism, but net users are finding ways to be heard.
During months of political protests earlier this year, the Thai government shut down thousands of Web sites it said fanned the protests or criticized the royal family.
The protests, which left 90 people dead and more than 1,400 injured, ended on May 19 when the army dispersed the crowds.
But the battle over the Internet continues.
Using the Computer Crimes Act and an emergency decree, the government shuts sites it thinks support the red-shirt protest movement. Media rights groups say more than 50,000 Web sites have been closed.
Chiranuch Premchaiporn is a director with Prachatai.com, an on-line news site the government shut down in April. A big concern for the government apparently was the site's discussion boards.
She says Prachatai shut the discussion board in July. Chiranuch faces charges under the Computer Crimes Act and if convicted could go to jail.
"Even I believe in the freedom of expression or free speech but I understand some limitation and we also set up a kind of system to moderate some content that can be considered violate the rights of the people or violate the law," Chiranuch said.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanaygorn defends the Internet censorship policy.
"The situation under the emergency decree is very different," said Panitan. "On one hand we still keep the freedom of the media. But on the other hand we do look into certain messages that create tension, confrontation and push people to confront among one another and that activity is monitored."
A decade ago, it was easier for the government to control the media. TV and radio have long been state-controlled.
And newspapers faced attacks during Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's administration earlier in this decade.
Tough to control
Chris Baker, an author and political analyst on Thailand, says new technologies are harder to control.
"In the past the government was able to control all broadcast media very closely and generally could influence the press," Baker said. "But that situation has totally changed with cable and satellite TV spinning out of control, community radio and the whole Internet as well."
Prachatai.com is an example of that. Pinpaka Ngamson, an editor for the site, says the government could only shut it temporarily.
"Now it's not difficult for us to work anymore, we know how to cope with this kind of order from the government," said Pinpaka. "We just change our server and use another URL [Uniform Resource Locator] and go on with our work."
Thai media commentators have called on the government to rethink on-line censorship. They say it reinforces international opinion that Thailand's media is increasingly less free.
Supinya Klanarong, a media activist, says the Computer Crimes Act is applied too broadly beyond insults against the royal family. Supinya says more media restrictions have emerged since the anti-government protests ended in May.
"It means a general opposition Web site related to the red-shirt movement or the critics of the government are also being blocked as concern for national security, too," Supinya said. "So it's not only about the issue related to les majeste but is also about political Web site in general, especially the dissident point of and the opposition."
Some of the concerns appear to have been heard.
Government leaders say they hope to improve draft legislation on the Internet laws.
Panitan, the government spokesman, says the there is a need to balance security and Internet freedom.
"On the one hand we regulate these activities in such a way that it's not going to harm our national interests," Panitan added. "Specific activities may not be allowed to be in those Web sites. But on the other hand we want to keep other communications open."
But media groups such as the Southeast Asian Press Alliance say the government has been intimidating Web users who engage in "sensitive political discussion". The group warns that shutting down Web sites may backfire and lead to the radicalization of those who post political comments on-line.