Having charged at least 167 people under the lese majeste law over the past year, the regime of Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha is now trying to find out who are active underground, the shadowy members of the monarchy reform as well as anti-monarchy networks. And their money pipeline.
The raids on Thursday were telling – particularly the one at the office of left-wing Same Sky Books and Magazine in Nonthaburi province just northwest of Bangkok at 10am.
Its publisher and editor, Thanapol Eawsakul, did not see it coming although he told me a day later Friday that some warned him about such a scenario. As many as 30 police officers, many were cyber cops, arrived at his office unannounced looking for copies of a booklet on monarchy reform speech made by now imprisoned protest co-leader Arnon Nampa.
They found none and Thanapol denied being a publisher of the booklet. No charge was lodged against Thanapol, but then police demanded Thanapol to hand over his smartphone, computer, and their passwords.
“Did they point a gun on you?” I asked Thanapol on his newly purchased phone Friday. “No,” he said, but added that with 30 officers behaving in a “mafia-like” manner, treating him as if he was a drug dealer, he felt there was no choice.
“It’s really mafia-like. With all these officers and guns,” Thanapol said. “We’ve been [detained] in a military base before. It’s no different. We were forced to give them access [to the smartphone]. It’s a rogue state’s power,” Thanapol told me, reminding me of the week we spent together with 10 others right after the May 2014 coup at a military base in Ratchaburi province.
We were detained without charges. The public was not informed of our whereabouts while we were kept under a program euphemistically called “attitude adjustment” by the military junta, led by the same Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha. (BTW, I did not surrender my phone back in 2014 to the junta but handed it to my lawyer and later an officer of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights for safe keeping, however.)
Thanapol admitted that police’s actions on Thursday at his office were backed by a court’s order, however. He sounded very upset that there was no clarification provided in the written order as to why the court would grant police the power to temporarily confiscate, access, and copy information inside his communication devices.
I later called the Nonthaburi Provincial Court to enquire and was told by a female official that the court, or the judge who signed the order for that matter, does not need to clarify.
“Why should the court have to clarify? If [the affected] person isn’t satisfied, then he can lodge an appeal. The court won’t clarify the matter as the order had been given,” the court officer told me on Friday.
All told, Thanapol said police took the devices away to a nearby police station for three to four hours for cyber cops to examine the information and rang him up afterward to pick it up.
“My attorney said these gadgets, once confiscated by police, should no longer be used again,” Thanapol explained, adding that it could be bugged. “This is the way they deal with drug dealers.”
Thanapol complained that even his private financial info has been compromised. His Facebook account was temporarily offline after the cyber cops took it away and he told me he had no clue what kind of info they got from it and from his email account.
The strings of crackdowns appear to not only aimed at creating a climate of fears and to deter those thinking of continuing to join or support the monarchy reform and/or anti-monarchy movements, but to search for the ‘network’ of lesser known and invisible figures that are involved underground.
In a separate raid in Bangkok, a member of the anti-government Democracy Reform Group (DRG), whose name was only revealed as ‘Note’ by the source was arrested, charged with sedition and computer crimes for being a Facebook page administrator of the group and calling for people to come out to join monarchy-reform protests.
Note’s smartphone and computer were also taken away by cyber cops as well.
Back to Thanapol’s case, part of the court order stated that police are empowered to “examine, access or copy information of Thanapol Eawsakul’s mobile phone in relation to social media communications, photos, GPS locations. If necessary, to decode them and use it as evidence to crimes committed or investigate and search for those committing crimes…”
It’s clear in the court’s order that police are more interested in finding out who were involved in Thanapol’s circle than any booklets, where digital copies are readily available online in Thai and English.
Clearly, the regime believes that there exists a larger clandestine network of conspirators, not publicly exposing themselves, but active in either the monarchy reform or anti-monarchy movement – or both. Thus, they want to access these social media accounts and examine whom people like Thanapol or Note contacted, called, converse with, and check their digital footprints to see where they may have visited.
Thanapol, a figure close to former Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and secretary general of Move Forward Party Chaitawat Tulathon from their Thammasat University days, is a prime target.
They must want to know whom he has contacted and what was the history of Thanapol’s social media correspondents.
This means after a year of arresting and prosecuting visible monarchy reform leaders and activists – with at least 167 charged with defaming the monarchy, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group, the regime is now trying to dive beneath the tip of the iceberg to try to find out who are the key people involved.
Such a move will alienate more people who hope to see monarchy reform realized, which did not despite a very public demand. They are being pushed to become more radical and could possibly opt for wanting to see Thailand turning into a republic altogether since they feel not hope in reforming.
This is basic psychology. The regime cannot keep people in fear forever. They may be shocked to find out that the iceberg beneath the sea is not a network, or networks, of conspirators but a collective yearning for a transparent monarchy institution that can be scrutinized and made accountable, like in the United Kingdom and Japan – if not more.
That the crossing of the Rubicon River is a fluid act or shifting sentiments about what’s happening in Thailand and not a top-down organized conspiracy.
The year 2022 has already begun on an ominous move and the raids on Thursday signal the regime’s increasingly paranoid and unwillingness to compromise. It presaged a more troubled time to come and an even more deeply divided ideological struggle in Thailand.