A strange government directive on the eve of Songkran has raised questions and criticism. The Ministry of Digital Economy and Society issued a statement warning everyone not to "follow" or correspond with three men who are well-known for their anti-regime views. The reason for the statement, the law authorising such a warning and the details of alleged offences all remain mysterious. The ministry and government spokesmen both owe the country much more information.
The one-page warning came in the form of a letter. It was signed by acting permanent secretary Somsak Khaosuwan. It claimed that anyone in communication with any of the three men, or following their online accounts, could be charged under the Computer Crime Act. That law carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
The three men involved are Thammasat University historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul, Kyoto University associate professor Pavin Chachavalpongpun and online journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall. All three are listed as wanted for violations of Section 112 of the Criminal Code, the lese majeste law. All have lived abroad for some time -- Prof Somsak in France, Prof Pavin in Japan and Marshall in Britain. They are active online, often writing critically about the government and the ruling junta.
The ministry's letter is most notable for its vagueness. There is no hint, for starters, on why it was issued at all. Its sudden appearance just hours before the start of the five-day Songkran holiday meant that most people were unaware of it. Such timing normally indicates a need to disseminate the information as widely as possible. In this case, the government spokesman did not mention it.
There is no secret about this government's strong campaign against lese majeste. It is so rigid, in fact, that even talk of amending the outdated Section 112 is not tolerated. This is the main reason why so many Thais have moved from the country. More Thais live in political exile today than at any time since World War II and the Seri Thai, or Free Thai movement. Perhaps netizens should press Facebook and Twitter to change policy so that users can block others from seeing who they follow.
The government has issued various lists of men and women, now living overseas but wanted in Thailand to answer charges of lese majeste. This newspaper has carried details of 31 such wanted people, but it is believed there are more. This raises another question about the ministry's Songkran-eve warning: Why these three men? And if the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society is only cautioning about contacts or internet traces to Messrs Somsak, Pavin and Marshall, does that mean following and contacting the other dozens of suspects is legal?
The main questions, in fact, centre on legality. First, under what authority does this warning fall? It is difficult to imagine how following the posts of a person on Facebook or Twitter could be illegal, no matter who the person is, or what he believes. Also, there is the related legal question: If it is illegal to follow these three, is it then legal to read their internet posts without actually click on the "follow" button? And is it illegal to counter a post by one of the trio -- to try to show he is wrong?
This seems to be a major and possibly unconstitutional attack on freedom of speech and association, both guaranteed by the constitution. The ministry and government must clear up legal and social questions quickly. Otherwise, it will be properly called an unwarranted attack on Thai personal freedoms.