Today’s Riddle: Last week, more than 360,000 netizens petitioned against the junta-sponsored Computer Crime Act for fear that it will lead to greater censorship and self-censorship online.
Then eight days ago, after the junta-appointed legislature voted 168 to 0 to endorse the controversial law, calls went out for protests at the Democracy Monument and the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre last Sunday.
So how come only nine people showed up?
Explanation: The junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly lived up to its reputation as the military dictatorship’s rubber-stamp parliament. Although four NLA members abstained from voting, none dared oppose the revised computer bill.
The tally of 168 Ayes and 0 Nays evoked totalitarian states such as North Korea or Iraq under Saddam Hussein. How could there possibly be not a single opponent to the bill among 172 legislators? Do these rubber-stamp parliamentarians all think alike? Or they were simply afraid to go against Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta leader who appointed them?
As for the high number of online petitioners and low real-world turnout, fear and self-preservation explain the discrepancy.
The junta’s ban on more than four people gathering for ostensibly “political” purposes is apparently still effective. No one, if not very few, wants to risk one-year maximum imprisonment term and 20,000 baht fine for violating the ban, which has stood against basic civil rights since it was imposed by the junta over two years ago on May 22, 2014, the day they staged the coup.
“If you come out you would be arrested afterward. So people don’t come out. If you come down, it must be all out [war],” netizen Kittthat Sokhuma wrote in response to my posing the same question posited in this column on Facebook.
A Thai Facebook user writing under the name Tai Evans expressed disappointment:
“Thought [people] would fill up the streets to oppose, so I could share it to show the world that Thais won’t be cowed. Alas.”
Some are looking to Anonymous, the white-hat hacker collective which has aided attacks on various government websites since Monday. “As of now, everyone is placing hope on Anonymous…,” user Manita Chuen wrote.
Even some expats chimed in to try to explain. “It’s just apathy and in difference… as long as the people can still play [P]okemon,” wrote long-time expat and French political cartoonist Peray Stephane.
Facebook user Kris Willems, meanwhile, cited risk as the biggest factor:
“Simply put: they can put you in jail for a long time. Not many people are prepared to take the risk. It’s not the same as protesting in a democratic country. Thailand is a dictatorship.”
Willems wasn’t alone to cite risks as a factor. Another netizen, Supin Tangkaewfa, summed it up well: “Who will go out and take the risk??? Better to stay put. Why should we go out and let others monitor us? Our families will be in trouble…”
The risk for opposing military dictatorship is real. Dozens have been charged with violating the junta’s ban on assembly or even sedition during the past two years. Hundreds have been summoned for psychological operations euphemistically called “attitude adjustment” with some, myself included, detained. Those die-hard dissidents often find themselves imprisoned.
Think of Khon Kaen University law student-cum-activist Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattaraksa, who had his bail revoked Thursday on spurious grounds. Never mind that he soon has to sit for exams and sought release again. This argument was not accepted by the court as valid. On Friday, five suspected hacktivists were reportedly taken in by the junta for possible involvement with the ongoing hacking of Thai military government websites in retaliation to the passage of the more-draconian revision of the draconian Computer Crime Act. They can be detained for up to seven days without charge by the junta. Another 100 are said to be under monitoring for potential hack-tivities.
The fear is real. A university lecturer was interviewed by this writer on Thursday about the political prospects for next year. After the interview concluded, I asked her to spell out her preferred spelling of her full name in English, but she told me she is in fear and refused to be named in the news article.
“I have been invited for meals [with the junta] twice,” said the contact, who is a Redshirt, sounding desperate and in fear. “Next time they might strip my clothes off.”
Investment comes with risk, and so goes the struggle for democracy. What we collectively, as a society, get back depends on what we are willing to risk.