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Thai digital native on edge as junta tightens grip
Publication Date : 12-07-2014
The studious young woman reading a book through her glasses at a Starbucks cafe is nervous.
She looks around often, quickly scanning the people wandering through the mall. For good reason: When the Thai military arrested one of her friends, they asked him: "Who was that girl?"
The 24-year-old graduate of a top Bangkok university, and her friends who number around 30, all recent graduates, are learning how to become underground political activists.
An array of groups has sprung up in universities, among graduates or postgraduates, with names like "Chulalongkorn University Community for the People" and "Silapakorn University Community for Democracy".
The groups do not meet too regularly or obviously; one meeting with The Straits Times took place on the deserted upper floor of a university library.
They conceal the names of their own contacts in other underground groups from each other, send e-mails in code, and chat via Telegram - a mobile phone messenger app that is difficult to monitor and has features like self-destructing secret chats.
At first glance there is a whiff of high-school intrigue and excitement about it, but it is quite serious: Some activists who have been summoned and questioned by the junta have learnt that the army has files on them already.
None wanted their names mentioned; there are cases of the army tracking down and questioning anyone speaking with or even just helping the foreign media.
The tentacles of the junta, which seized power on May 22, are firmly embedded.
Agencies under direct control of junta supremo Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), include four security arms: the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), the Royal Thai Police, and the policy-level National Security Council and National Intelligence Agency.
Under the police is the Special Branch, and the army has its own military intelligence and a task force on lese majeste to track and hunt down people deemed to be against the monarchy, which was formed after the 2006 coup d'etat.
Police generals in charge of security include Lieutenant-General Somyot Poompanmoung, the deputy police chief set to take over as chief in October; and Major-General Amnuay Nimmano, deputy chief of the Metropolitan Police, who last month warned the public "liking" the Facebook pages of anti-coup groups would be considered a criminal offence.
Gen Somyot has encouraged citizens to spy on one another, saying the police will pay 500 baht (US$15.55) to anyone sending in evidence from social media - in the form of screen shots, for instance - that suggests opposition to the military takeover.
The police already has an IT task force set up to monitor websites and track down those who offend the monarchy - which tends to be seen as synonymous with opposition to the military.
Sunai Phasuk, a senior Thailand researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, says the military has files on some activists that date back to the coup d'etat of 2006, which unseated then Pemier Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire whose re-elected proxy party in a government headed by his sister was again ousted on May 22.
"This is a police state," said Sunai. "They have not killed anyone, but the climate of fear is pervasive. The repression is not so public now, but it is going on below the surface."
Among the new university- based groups, some maintain open Facebook pages, deal with hate mail from royalists who back the army, and assume they are tracked by the regime.
Several young activists from the university groups were arrested at the height of the small, creative protests in public places last month, where they held up three fingers in a sign of defiance taken from a popular film, quietly read George Orwell's classic anti-authoritarian novel 1984, or simply ate sandwiches in public.
A 22-year-old graduate from Thammasat University, involved in one of the groups, told The Straits Times when he was questioned and briefly detained by the army, his interrogators revealed they had been following him all day.
Subsequently, soldiers in an army Humvee visited his family twice to talk about him, he said.
The young man had been involved in pre-coup d'etat candlelit protests earlier this year in favour of the elections - sabotaged by anti-government mobs whose paralysing street protests helped pave the way for the royalist coup on May 22.
"They already know all about us, but they ask us about each other," he said. "It's like they are trying to build a case."
"What they want most of all is our network," the 24-year-old woman added. But the groups themselves are still relatively unorganised.
Asked to explain their structure, members of one group excitedly discussed it first among themselves before deciding.
Even politically, it is difficult to categorise them. The 24-year-old woman said her group was not politically aligned with any single camp, but was "against anything that undermines democracy and human rights. We are against military dictatorship".
Sunai said: "The civic reaction is unpredictable, and the generals don't know how to deal with it. They are more used to dealing with movements and hierarchies."
Most of the groups comprise inexperienced activists, responding naturally to restrictions of rights and freedoms under military rule, said Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of the popular website Prachatai.com
"They are growing up as digital natives, in a culture of expression in social media," she added.
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