In Thailand, A Vigorous Crackdown On The King’s Critics

In recent years, authorities in Thailand have increasingly applied an antiquated lèse-majesté law to silence critics of authorities. On Friday, a dual U.S./Thai citizen became the latest person arrested for allegedly insulting the country’s ailing king.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej
King Bhumibol Adulyadej
Arnaud Dubus

BANGKOK – If you listen to what Thailand's military leaders are saying, the Thai monarchy is under a state of siege necessitating emergency measures.

A special department of the army has been put in charge of monitoring local radio programs and websites to detect "any slanderous or libelous contents against the monarchy." And hundreds of volunteers have been recruited to "patrol" the Internet.

Thailand's Department of Special Investigation, an FBI-like national detective force, has lodged 19 lèse-majesté complaints against leaders of the "Red Shirts," a political pressure group opposed to the current government. For three months last year, the Red Shirts brought the center of Bangkok to a standstill. Authorities are using the lèse-majesté law to charge critics with violating the dignity of the monarch.

Several media professionals have already been caught up in the dragnet. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, editor-in-chief of the independent news website Prachatai, faces a possible 50-year jail sentence for failing to "delete rapidly enough" offensive comments about the royal family that appeared on the site. In March, a webmaster was given a five-year jail sentence for similar reasons. And Somsak Jeamteerasakul, an obscure historian, has been accused of leading a university conspiracy aiming to weaken the monarchy.

Lèse-majesté cases have spiked in recent years, according to David Streckfuss, author of a book about the Thai monarchy. Before 2005, Thailand had had fewer than a dozen such cases. There have been more than 500 since. (A Thai-born U.S. citizen was arrested this week on allegations of insulting the king for an article he had translated and posted on his blog)

Streckfuss sees the crackdown on would-be opponents as directly related to the declining health of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The 83-year-old monarch has been hospitalized since September 2009. "It is possible that the closer we get to the point where someone will succeed to the throne, the more the Thai authorities will systematically use the law to try to stifle criticisms," says Streckfuss.

The inevitable transfer of power is further complicated by growing political divisions in Thailand between members of the establishment (soldiers, bureaucrats, royalist milieus and the Democrat Party in power) and forces in favor of a more egalitarian society. These divisions have been particularly apparent over the past five years. The high-profile Red Shirt movement is a case in point.

"The head of the army, Prayuth Chan-Ocha, and the government try to make the Red Shirts look like an anti-monarchist movement," says an activist pushing for the abolition of lèse-majesté accusations, who requested anonymity. "The issue of the monarchy has always been used by the establishment to discredit the forces opposed to the current government."

Any insult to the king, the queen and the successor to the throne is punishable by jail sentences of between three and 15 years. Sanctions were less severe when Thailand was an absolute monarchy – before 1932.

In 2005, King Bhumibol spoke out against the lèse-majesté crackdown. If the king cannot be criticized, it means "he is not a human being," said Bhumibol. The king's statement had little effect on the situation.

Some observers say the ultra-monarchist hysteria erodes the institution's aura and galvanizes those who want to change it. Former Thai Senator Jon Ungphakorn thinks that "those who style themselves as defenders of the monarchy are the very ones who destabilize it, and bring to a standstill the reforms that could enable the monarchy to endure."

Read the original article in French.
Photo – permanently scatterbrained

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!