The spat between the government and the mighty internet giant is coming at a time of increasing political tension between the ministry and a more assertive student protest movement which has drawn the monarchy into its political demands for change and constitutional reform. The Thai Prime Minister lashed out on Tuesday against academics in exile fanning such flames.

As tensions rise in the kingdom over student protests and attacks on the Thai monarchy, the government on Tuesday faced down Facebook and warned that it must comply with Thai law. Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha was responding to comments from Facebook that it may seek to challenge Thai authorities legally after it eventually removed and blocked comments relating to a large group of over 1 million followers on its hugely popular social network platform in Thailand.

The strong statement from the Thai Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, directed against the Silicon Valley giant came as the social network threatened legal action against Thai authorities after it was forced to block a page that had been ruled as illegal and offensive to the Thai monarchy. The Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister Don Pramudwinai (left) was more nuanced but insisted that Thai laws must be upheld. Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta (left top) has repeatedly warned Facebook that it could face criminal prosecution in Thailand for failing to comply with orders from the government and the courts. It comes as growing student protests and agitation are causing political tensions to rise in Thailand. On Tuesday, a key protest leader and civil rights lawyer, Arnon Nampa (left bottom), was arrested by police in Bangkok for the third time.

Thailand’s Prime Minister waded into a standoff between Facebook and his government on Tuesday when he lashed out at several former university lecturers living in exile who have used the platform to criticise the monarchy, a revered institution in the country.

‘You know who and where these people are. Do they take responsibility for the damage to our country? No matter what happens in Thailand, they are not affected at all. The trouble is in Thailand,’ Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha said during a visit to Rayong province where the Thai cabinet held its weekly meeting.

Robust comments from the PM as Facebook finally removes certain content after an official order

The robust comments from the PM came as Facebook announced that it intends to challenge the government legally over its order to the social network platform to remove content and web pages.

It issued the statement in the context of placing a block on a large ‘group’ within the platform followed by as many as 1 million people.

The group highlighted the affairs of the Thai monarchy often in an unfavourable light and allowed members to express opinions, many of them critical.

Thailand’s draconian 1908 Lèse majesté law had long preserved the monarchy from criticism 

Under Section 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code, on the statute books since 1908, any comment or statement that may be considered, in any way, critical of the monarchy is deemed a serious criminal offence and each count can land the offender with a jail term of up to 15 years in prison.

In recent times, Thai courts have shown themselves not afraid to apply the law severely even for sharing or pressing a like button relating to or supporting such content. They have also handed down consecutive jail sentences for repeated acts of the same offence spelling long prison terms for offenders.

However, it was revealed by the Prime Minister Prayut Chao ocha, this year, that the monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn or Rama X, had asked him in person not to apply the legal sanction against Thai citizens. 

All Thai governments up to recent times, including the governments formed by the opposition, have rigorously enforced the measure due to the deep respect for the institution in the country.

Student protestors appear to have a different attitude as arrests continued on Tuesday in Rayong

The recent rise in student protests, which broke out on July 18th, however, has revealed a different attitude among some, more vocal young Thai students towards the country’s traditional, conservative establishment.

The meeting of the cabinet in Rayong on Tuesday led to the arrest of one of the protest leaders from the province, Panupong Jadnok, also known as Mike Rayong.

Mr Panupong had earlier been arrested by police in July on another visit by the prime minister to ally local people’s anger raised over a controversial holiday tour by an Egyptian Air Force unit to the province which breached Covid 19 protocols and resulted in one member testing positive for the virus.

The political activist was taken into custody on Tuesday when he again protested the presence of the PM in Rayong. Mr Panupong was arrested for the second time in just over two months on a charge relating to a controversial August 10th demonstration at Thammasat University when criticism of the Thai monarchy reached a new level.

Like other student protest leaders, he is facing another charge under Section 116 of the Criminal code for sedition which could see him facing seven years in prison.

Key leader Arnon Nampa arrested in Bangkok for the third time by police at Nangleong police station

On Tuesday also, police at Nangleong police station in Bangkok arrested a leading human rights lawyer and political activist who has been among the most trenchant in his criticism of both the government, current constitution and on the role of the monarchy. 

Arnon Nampa was arrested for the third time despite having been granted bail late last week for the second time by a Bangkok court.

The latest charge against him is now his third under Section 116 also in relation to the campus protests at Thammasat University on August 10th.

Lieutenant General Amphol Buarabporn of the Royal Thai Police confirmed his arrest to news agency Reuters.

Prayut adamant that Facebook must comply with Thai law and court orders on online content

On Tuesday, the Thai Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha was adamant, nonetheless, that Facebook must comply with court orders and Thai law in removing content deemed to be illegal.

He resolutely denied that the government was acting outside the law in its demands.

‘All actions against offending pages comply with Thai law. I do not use any dictatorial power that I no longer have to close them. These actions are based on court orders. We confirm that we are acting in accordance with Thai law,’ General Prayut said.

Foreign Minister also wades in and suggested that it depends on the quality of the websites

The stance of the government leader, who has recently called for unity and younger students not to get involved in protest activity, was supported by Thailand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister, Don Pramudwinai.

Mr Don, at the same time, attempted to distinguish between the quality of websites and internet pages when considering the question of the application of international law.

‘Freedom under international laws is another matter. Whether it can apply to what happens in Thailand depends on the quality of the websites concerned, whether they present what is beneficial to Thai people and society or not. Otherwise, they cause problems,’ he said.

The Foreign Minister also appeared to praise the giant social network for its cooperation to date.

‘Whatever violates Thai law is not right. Whenever there is wrongdoing in Thailand, we seek cooperation from Facebook Thailand, and it always cooperates,’ he said.

Tensions between Facebook and responsible government minister have been rising now for weeks

The tension between Facebook and the government has been rising now for several weeks.

Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta has repeatedly warned that the Silicon Valley online titan must comply with court orders to remove content. 

He has, on some occasions, compared Facebook’s record on this matter to the Google-owned YouTube channel. Mr Buddhipongse points to the 100% compliance rate of YouTube compared to a minority of requests being executed to the satisfaction of the government by Facebook.

He has confirmed that a 15 day last notice has been served on Facebook warning the firm of legal action. 

Facebook will face prosecution unless it complies with orders says Mr Buddhipongse in another warning

‘We do not ignore violations of the law. This is the first time we are taking action against the owner of a platform that does not comply with the orders of a Thai court,’ he said.

‘If they do not respond, we will take action against the platform. We are acting in accordance with the law. We are not abusing any party, because all actions are based on court orders. Actions respond to court orders. It applies to all platforms, not only Facebook,’ the minister explained on Tuesday.

Mr Buddhipongse, a former spokesman for the government before being appointed to the cabinet, confirmed that Facebook has removed key posts from the anti-monarchy group on its site that were found by a Thai court to be illegal and thus avoided, in that instance, prosecution.

Thailand is a key market for Facebook which has enjoyed massive success in the kingdom

Thailand is one of Facebook’s target markets where the social network giant has a user base of nearly 67% of the population. Facebook in Thailand accounts for 2% of the internet’s largest social network’s audience, globally.

The network has slightly more male users than female with 51% with 60% of its audience being under 34 years of age. Surveys suggest that as many as 40 to 45% of those using Facebook see it as their primary source of news on the internet.

In Thailand, among the huge Facebook audience, there are 2.9 million expats who use the site for news, entertainment and to stay in contact with friends in Thailand and at home.

Among these 2.9 million expats, nearly 10% openly identify themselves as from either the United Kingdom, the United States or Australia with 96,000 from the UK , 160,000 from the United States and 20,000 from down under.

In addition to this, surveys show that a further 4 million people worldwide follow Facebook for news on Thailand from outside the kingdom. 

Once blacked out in Thailand for 30 minutes

Weeks after the Thai military junta came to power in 2014, Facebook was blocked in the kingdom for thirty minutes on the evening of Wednesday, May 28th in what was understood by many observers as a test run on the government’s capability to control internet access in emergencies. 

An army spokesman, at the time, told the New York Times that the outage had been caused by a glitch in the network connecting Thailand to the world.

Online activity monitored closely

It is also understood that the Thai military in addition to the civilian government, police and citizen volunteers are very active in online monitoring and conducting surveillance against those who are critical of the monarchy.

This institution is seen by many Thais as essential for the maintenance of stability in the nation despite the country’s long and troubled history of army coups and political tensions which overflow into street protest.

Opinion polls offer no real comfort for ministers and show growing unease at  protest activity

An opinion poll on Sunday suggested that many Thais feel a deep unease about the current situation.

The NIDA poll conducted by the National Institute of Development Administration up to August 20th suggested that over 61% feel that violence could result from the current escalating tensions.

On the same day, a Suan Dusit poll, linked to Rajabhat University, up to August 21st, showed that over 52% agreed that students were entitled to make demands within the context of a democracy. However, nearly 42% said that the monarchy should not be impinged by protestors.

The poll showed that over 40% of people fear for their personal safety because of growing political tensions.

The bad news for Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha from the poll was that nearly 54% of people said that he should resign and that his government had failed.

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