By Thitinan Pongsudhrak
Although she has been granted bail, the second arrest of Prachatai Online webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn last Friday exposes Thailand's solidifying "soft" civil-military authoritarianism. Such authoritarianism is "soft" because it is tailored for the globalization age where domestic legitimacy and international credibility matter more than in past eras of outright military-authoritarian rule. This decidedly nuanced and disguised authoritarianism thus revolves around a necessary hybrid of a civilian democratic façade with a military spine.
Chiranuch's case is merely symptomatic of this hybrid authoritarianism. Her first arrest transpired in early 2009 for charges of allowing offensive comments on Prachatai's web board in violation of Section 112 of the Criminal Code and the 2007 Computer Crimes Act. This time around, similar charges appear to have been filed by an individual, whose identity is unclear, in Khon Kaen province. Chiranuch was ironically booked at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport and taken by car to Khon Kaen after returning from a European international conference on Internet freedom.
What her legal saga portends is growing censorship and selective persecution of those who are deemed to harbour the wrong thoughts. Freedom of expression in Thailand is an endangered commodity. To be sure, Prachatai is left-leaning in a country whose powers-that-be are shifting even more to the right. But Prachatai is no more to the left than its myriad counterparts in other countries that are receptive to dissenting opinions and open to fair comment and criticisms of the status quo and conventional wisdom.
Without offsetting news and opinion sources, Thailand would be skewed by the government's official news apparatus, reinforced by one-way rightist propaganda elsewhere. That Prachatai and its progressive cohorts, many now blocked by the ICT ministry, serve to balance out opposing views should be seen as healthy and warranted for Thai society. Otherwise the suppressed and stifled dissent will only accumulate and find manifestations in a pent-up fashion that can only be detrimental to national well-being.
While Chiranuch's ordeal is relatively high-profile, it epitomizes a plethora of other cases that have found little voice because of the climate of fear, intimidation, and coercion attendant with civil-military hybrid repression. These cases include the persecution of university students who have been gagged, harassed, and made to undergo psychological tests for their political beliefs. A professor at a well-known university has been detained at an army barracks for a week with neither charges nor apology on his release. A youthful aspiring entertainer was pressured to withdraw from a reality TV show because he had criticised Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. A high school graduate was denied a place at a leading university after passing the national admissions test because of political opinion.