It should not be news when a national leader pledges to enforce a law. Yet Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha made front-page headlines on the weekend when he felt compelled to promise he would implement the massively amended Computer Crime Act 2016 (CCA 16) with neither fear nor favour. The premier has turned this law into a controversy. Instead of consulting the country, he has reinforced -- again -- the claim that the military regime considers legitimate criticism as scurrilous attacks.
Prime Minister Prayut has both plans and policies to develop the country. But his damaging new revisions to an already flawed computer law illustrate its shortcomings. By refusing to acknowledge the serious problems with the new legislation, the premier is once again rejecting the public's voice. Critics of the bill are not enemies of the country or the military regime. He just seems to be treating them that way.
The amended Computer Crime Act was on the desks of Gen Prayut's cabinet and members of the National Legislative Assembly for months. To their credit, the NLA leaders were open about the bill's agenda. The public got notice of parliamentary hearings, and of the voting schedule. Ten days ago, exactly as the government asked, the NLA passed the law unanimously.
What they got is effectively a new law, with more opaque sections and harsher punishments than ever seen before. In effect, it allows the government, police or prosecutors unlimited discretion in defining an online crime. For example, a crime is anything on a computer or device that is "a breach of good morality". To quote the prime minister, "Good morality is peace, order and national security". And anyone violating peace, order or national security faces a 15-year prison sentence.
The most prominent legal, political and digital-economy experts explained the problem. Criminal laws are not supposed to be vague, but to precisely define crimes. The ruling junta under Gen Prayut clearly wanted this shadowy wording, which amounts to a threat against anyone using a computer or similar device. As the prime minister put it, he intends to use the law to get rid of junk information. That only adds yet another layer of haze to the blurred lines of what is, and what is not, legal while online.
On Friday, Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva called on Gen Prayut to be more mindful of constructive criticism. He is correct. No less than Gen Prayut, Thais demand updated laws to deal with digital crimes. But most want something better than the CCA 16. He said Gen Prayut takes both criticism and helpful suggestions as proof of political obstruction.
This has defined almost all government actions since the coup. With new laws and reforms alike, the regime has almost always ignored expert opinion. This is not encouraging for a junta that has set out a roadmap to return the country to democratic and constitutional rule.
By actual definition, democracy means holding a government to account. But under Gen Prayut, neither his government nor his appointed legislative and reform bodies have answered to the public. Instead of listening to expert opinion on this disputatious computer legislation, the prime minister has ignored them.
The premier has attempted to link critics of the law with criminal activists who have attempted to disrupt some government websites. Most people will see that this is unfair. Gen Prayut and his legislators have had months to listen to the public, and chose to ignore them. This has made an arguably bad law even worse. The public should always have a voice on important legislation.