Anti-government protests in Thailand in September 2008 resulted in a declaration of a state of emergency by Thailand’s prime minister on Sept. 2, 2008. Although the declaration placed restrictions on media content, the refusal by army commander Anupong Paochinda to enforce the state of emergency made the restrictions on the mainstream media largely theoretical.
Immediately following the declaration of the state of emergency, however, online commentary in Thailand was quashed by a September 3 court order shutting down 400 Web sites in Thailand, some of which were allegedly insulting to the Thai royal family, according to a September 2 Bangkok Post story.
The product of tensions between two rival political parties, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and the ruling People’s Power Party (PPP), civil unrest in Thailand began with the takeover of government buildings in late August 2008. The Associated Press (AP) reported August 26 that several thousand PAD members occupied the state-run National Broadcasting Services of Thailand (NBT) television news station, suspending broadcasts for several hours. The NBT later resumed broadcasting from another location, according to the AP.
The Asia Times reported September 6 that protestors also occupied the prime minister’s office the same day. The PAD called for the resignation of the prime minister and his government, stating that the PPP is aligned with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled to London in early August 2008 to escape corruption charges in Thailand, according to a September 2 BBC News story.
The Guardian of London reported September 2 that the death of one protestor in a clash between the PAD and 400 army troops near the headquarters of the United Nations in Bangkok prompted Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to declare a state of emergency in Thailand. On September 2, Sundaravej suspended the constitution and declared that army chief Anupong Paojinda would enforce order in Bangkok, according to a September 2 BBC News story. The state of emergency limits freedom of assembly and prohibits the media from publishing or broadcasting images that would incite the public, CNN reported September 2.
Several Thai media organizations, including the Press Council of Thailand and the Thai Journalists Association, released a statement on September 2 condemning the state of emergency. Specifically, the statement challenged restrictions on the media contained in Article 9 of the 2005 Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation, which authorizes the prime minister to declare a state of emergency. Article 9 states that restrictions may be placed on reporting that could threaten “national security, or law and order, and/or the good morale of the people.” The media organizations said this provision violates Section 45 of the Thai Constitution, which protects freedom of expression and states that newspapers shall not be prevented from printing news or expressing opinions.
Section 45, however, also contains an exception allowing the government to restrict the liberty guaranteed by the Section through laws enacted for the purpose of “maintaining the security of the State ... [and] maintaining public order or good morals.”
Although the protests took place on a large-scale, drawing thousands of people to the streets of Bangkok, according to a September 2 story on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” the demonstrators were largely peaceful. The New York Times reported September 14 that the protests had resulted in one fatality over three weeks, and “life in Bangkok has continued as usual.”
Reuters reported September 14 that Army Chief Anupong Paojinda refused to enforce the state of emergency and said he would not use force against protestors. He told the Bangkok Post for a September 13 story that he had urged the acting prime minister to cancel the state of emergency. Mediabistro.com blog Fishbowl NY, which covers New York media, said in a September 2 post that the restrictions against the media were not being enforced. “It’s amazing that the military has taken a stand and said they won’t enforce this censorship,” said Kavi Chongkittavom, senior editor with The Nation (Bangkok), according to a September 2 Hollywood Reporter story.
Although the army may not have enforced restrictions against the mainstream media, the government moved to cut off access to hundreds of Web sites. The Bangkok Post reported September 2 that Thailand’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Ministry had detected 1,200 Web sites that were detrimental to national security or harmful to social order and good morals. The ICT Ministry said it had advised Internet service providers to immediately block access to these Web sites and sought court orders to shut them down, according to the Bangkok Post.
Enacted in 2007, Section 20 of Thailand’s Computer Crime Act empowers courts to block Web sites that are harmful to national security or social order. Government officials must file a petition with a court stating the grounds for the request to block access to a Web site and evidence regarding the allegations. The Act also authorizes imprisonment for those who possess pornographic computer files and allows the police to seize computer equipment if it is implicated in illegal activity under the Act.
Of the Web sites that were shut down, 344 were deemed insulting to the royal family of Thailand. Two of the blocked Web sites included religious material, one contained a video sex game, and five had content deemed to be obscene, according to a September 3 story in The Guardian of London.
A week after the declaration of the state of emergency on September 2, a media appearance by Thailand’s prime minister resulted in his departure from office. Sundaravej, a former celebrity chef for seven years before he became prime minister, made several appearances on the popular Thai cooking show “Tasting and Complaining” after he took office, according to an AP story. On September 9, Sundaravej was forced out of office by a Constitutional Court ruling that Sundaravej violated the restriction against private employment contained in Article 267 of Thailand’s constitution.
Sundaravej stated in court that he had not earned a salary for his appearances on the cooking show. Rather, he said, “I did it because I liked doing it,” The New York Times reported in a September 9 story. But testimony from the managing director of the company that produced the show said that Sundaravej was paid $2,350 for four shows, according to The Times.
The ruling People’s Power Party stated that it would try to reinstall Sundaravej as prime minister through a parliamentary vote, but Sundaravej stated that he would resign from his position as party leader and would not accept the prime ministership in any event, according to a September 12 AP story.
Acting Prime minister Somchai Wongsawat lifted the state of emergency on September 13, citing fears that Thailand’s tourism industry was suffering, according to a September 14 New York Times story. On September 16, the PPP voted Wongsawat in as Thailand’s prime minister.
– Amba Datta
Silha Research Assistant