Prayut fires warning shot

Prayut fires warning shot

What a huge surprise it wasn't that authorities went for the jugular of the BBC when perusing foreign news coverage of succession to the throne.

It began with a minor but almost ignorable little whirlwind of Facebook posts and tweets, but mostly from the usual suspects who see -- or think they see -- disrespect in virtually every story they read, see or hear, even from the Thai press.

But one of those predictably royalist, professionally outraged critics was a Bangkok policeman. He read the under-fire BBC report. Then he saw, because he went looking, that Chaiyaphum's ceaseless pain in the government's extreme lower back, Pai Daodin, had put a link to the article on his Facebook account.

Presumably fighting off nausea from the horror of this, the policeman made a couple of calls. Before you could say "Section 112", Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, his legal name, was back in the hoosegow, charged with lese majeste (Section 112 of the Criminal Code) for linking to the BBC.

Then, although there is nothing amusing about either lese majeste or enforcement of the law governing this offence, the fun began.

After arresting and locking up the perpetual political heretic for looking at it, the highly efficient Ministry of Digital Economy and Society blocked access to the actual BBC online story, in English and Thai. Police did not arrest or complain about 3,000 other Facebook fanatics who provided the same link in the same manner as Pai Daodin.

In the who-would-have-thought-that moment, the Chaiyaphum court allowed bail to Mr Jatupat so that he could sit his final-final law examination on Thursday.

Police sent out patrols seeking BBC Thai, unaware it exists only and completely in London. They knocked on the locked door of the BBC News office in Bangkok and went away.

Well, that is, they said they did -- after a viral (true) account of how the police raid coincided in time exactly with the theft of the BBC's daily Yakult delivery. After that fact emerged, police said they didn't even go to the BBC offices.

In any case, Jonathan Head, who has nothing to do with BBC Thai, was still at large at press time.

The BBC Thai Facebook page, begun shortly after the May 22, 2014 coup, carried a story on the succession of His Majesty the King that displeased Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and many royalists.

Despite the Mack Sennett quality, it is clear that a page turned on Dec 1. The foreign press covered the succession of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, and the prime minister wasn't wearing a smile about that.

For the first time ever since 1932, foreign reporters got a finger in the face. Lese majeste laws aren't just for Thais. "If a person lives in Thailand and violates Thai law, prosecution must be carried out. That is it," said Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha. Whatever the world's view of lese majeste, in Thailand it is illegal.

Just in case that wasn't clear, Gen Prayut had more. As the country's law enforcement chief under coup regulations, he noted almost laconically that the 15-year sentence under the Criminal Code isn't all he has. "There is also sedition and the Computer Crime Act."

And if that wasn't clear enough, army chief Chalermchai Sitthisart, who is personally pressing lese majeste charges against that Pai Daodin snudge, had some advice for, well, everyone: "Other countries need to understand Thai culture."

That's the sort of thing Singapore ministers used to utter while the warder brought the cane down on the bare back of yet another malcontent who thought that being foreign meant he could ignore the national security laws on chewing bubble gum.

Except that while one person has been charged and the BBC articles have been blocked to internet users who can't be bothered to use a proxy or VPN, the article itself still has not been declared a case of lese majeste. PM Prayut stressed that, saying legal action will be taken, but only "if Thai laws were broken".

The BBC Thai staff have not been charged. Photos and horrible, even threatening comments about one of them have been sent around by the proud loyalists. These people prove that Adolphe Thiers was correct when he described such people as plus royaliste que le roi.

This is not, however, lack of resolve. It is the opposite. It is the first shot across the bow in a heightened, even aroused vigilance. The succession has brought some changes. The always protective green shirts have stepped it up another notch. Putting a spotlight on the foreign press is a dramatic message.

"We are confident that this article adheres to the BBC's editorial principles," said a BBC spokesperson in London.

In Bangkok, however, the prime minister has the power to violently disagree. It's possible that in a short time we will see if he also has the will.

Alan Dawson

Online Reporter / Sub-Editor

A Canadian by birth. Former Saigon's UPI bureau chief. Drafted into the American Armed Forces. He has survived eleven wars and innumerable coups. A walking encyclopedia of knowledge.

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