Bangkok is no Hong Kong right now. Once considered an Asian model of democracy, Thailand is under strict military rule since the spring, with free speech squashed and fears deepening.
BANGKOK — It was an openly provocative gesture in a kingdom where the army seized power in a May coup d’état to restore order: Students and professors gathered Sept. 18 on Thammasat University's campus near Bangkok to hear a lecture about democracy and the decline of dictatorships in foreign countries.
Four months after the military takeover, this country long lauded as a model of political openness in Southeast Asia is seeing its freedoms alarmingly diminished.
The university gathering lasted no more than 10 minutes because some 30 police officers stormed into the room. In a menacing tone, they ordered the conversation to end, arguing that it "threatened national security," master's degree student Apichat Pongsawat recalls. Four lecturers were taken into custody.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the coup in May before receiving the king's endorsement to become prime minister on Aug. 25, has since justified the lecture's interruption. He called for putting aside "all criticism, all forum on politics" in a bid to restore unity. Martial law is still in effect.
"Since the coup d’état, we're not allowed to talk about anything," Apichat says. Because the student dared to protest against the coup on May 23, he was detained in a military camp. He was sidelined for a week for what the army called "attitude adjustment," without access to a lawyer and without any contact with the outside. According to Amnesty International, 242 people have been detained since the military takeover.
Apichat is a member of Nitirat, an association of "enlightened jurists" which, as early as 2012, asked the government to change article 112 of the country's penal code concerning the crime of lèse-majesté, which prevents any debate about the monarchy.
Given the reality today, such a reform seems a long way away. On Sept. 12, the prime minister told parliament that he wanted to use new technologies to accuse of lèse-majesté "those who don't pay attention to the words they use, who are arrogant at heart or have ill intents regarding the important institution of the nation."
Since then, everybody has been wondering whether that means their Facebook activity could be considered a violation that could lead them straight to jail. Apichat, who had 5,000 contacts on his former account, felt the need the delete it after he was freed. On his new private profile, he only has about 200 "friends," and he knows he should watch his language. "I'd risk being arrested again," he says.
For Thanapol Eawsakul, founder of a political magazine entitled Fah Diew Kan (The Same Sky), detention started on May 23. He demonstrated in the streets against the overthrow of the elected government. The soldiers explained to him that this time around, the army would be "very serious on the crime of lèse-majesté." When he was freed a week later, he realized that the country had shut up. "A lot of my friends had deactivated their Facebook accounts," he says. "Some had changed their user names. Most militants got scared."
After that, he avoided discussions about the monarchy. But it was only on July 5 that he understood he was not allowed to talk about any political subject. That day, the military contacted him again. They wanted to "have a cup of coffee" with him. In reality, they placed him in detention for a second week. Thanapol now wonders how long Thailand will suffer this oppression.
Another journalist, whose editorial board has asked him not to speak to foreign media, says he considered fleeing the country when he learned on Twitter that he was on a list of people expected to present themselves to the authorities. He went there. And like the others, he was taken to a military camp in a rural region. He was with soldiers when the junta blocked access to Facebook for a few hours on May 28. "One colonel was bragging about it — "That's it, we did it" — but at the same time his daughter reproached him for that in an instant messaging app."
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat who has since become associate professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies, believes there is no doubt that the army wants to keep political control. One event in particular is approaching — every Thai citizen knows it, although it is a taboo subject in public.
"Concerning the royal succession — King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 86 — the military are worried that Prime Minister Thaksin, his sister Yingluck or their party control the transition," Pavin says.
Like many critics, Pavin was ordered to present himself to the army after the coup d’état. Because he didn't go — he was abroad — his passport was revoked in July. Since then, he has been unable to return to his country and is therefore seeking asylum in Japan.