BANGKOK (Reuters) - Months after the Thai army forced an end to weeks of anti-government protests, the government says widespread restrictions on dissent are still essential for peace. But the risk is that they end up sparking more unrest.
From high-profile arrests to the shutting down and censoring of thousands of websites, the measures used by authorities to keep a lid on simmering tensions are threatening to worsen the conflict, alienate rivals and discredit the administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
“Thailand is in uncharted territory and the government’s response to dissent could lead to a bolder display of resistance,” Jacob Ramsay, senior Southeast Asia analyst at Control Risks, a strategic consulting firm based in Britain.
“Once authorities start to react to that it has no choice but to do so with more force. It’s a vicious cycle.”
The tough line on dissent is also a public relations gamble for Abhisit, the seemingly progressive Oxford-educated premier who has to call an election by the end of 2011.
While the curbs will please his backers, they make it harder to convince voters he is serious about national reconciliation and close a social and political divide at the heart of five years of mass anti-government protests and civil unrest.
In the latest case, a director of prominent online newspaper Prachatai was arrested on September 17 after arriving on an overseas flight at Bangkok’s main airport over a comment posted two years ago deemed a breach of lese majeste and computer crime laws.
Lese majeste, or insults to the monarchy, are punishable by up to 15 years in prison in largely Buddhist Thailand where many regard King Bhumibol Adulyadej as almost divine. Critics say the military-backed government is using the law to silence opponents.
“It isn’t clear where the line is. The law does not guarantee freedom of speech or give us protection,” Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the director of the Prachatai website, told Reuters after she was released on bail.
Since a spasm of political violence killed 91 people in April and May, Bangkok and six province remain under emergency rule, which bans political gatherings and gives the government power to impose curfews, censor media and detain suspects without charge.
At least 185 protesters remain in detention and thousands of web-pages have been shut since April on top of over 100,000 blocked since 2007. Dozens of community radio stations and a cable television channel run by the “red shirt” movement were forced off air.
Recent action against dissidents also raised questions over who is calling the shots — Abhisit, who has voiced concerns about the use of anti-crown law, for political purposes or the army and its establishment allies.
Political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak said the recent arrest “exposes Thailand’s solidifying soft civil-military authoritarianism.”
He described Thailand’s current leadership as a “hybrid of a civilian democratic facade with a military spine.”
Since a 2006 bloodless coup, the Thai military has doubled its budget and strengthened its influence. A reshuffle this month elevated pro-establishment royalist generals opposed to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his “red shirt” protest movement.
Military figures seen as allies of Thaksin have been overlooked, which could worsen friction in the armed forces, a significant political risk for foreign investors who have plowed $1.7 billion into Thai stocks in the past two months.
Thitinan cited other cases of a toughening line on dissent, including a professor at his university held without charge and a student sent for psychotherapy for attending a recent protest.
“The way to silence those who disagree with the government is becoming more insidious,” said Somyos Pruksakasemsuk, editor of Red Power magazine, a publication allied with the red shirts.
Authorities said Red Power, with a circulation of 40,000, was “distorting facts and spurring hatred.”
Instead of shutting it down, a separate company operating its printing press was told it violated licensing rules and could no longer publish. “Now, no one dares publish for us and even hotels are reluctant to let us host political seminars,” Somyos said.
The Culture Ministry threatened to close another magazine which was criticized for its anti-establishment content because it refused to register under the Printing Registration Act.
Analysts say recent actions may give the government some breathing room before it decides when best to call a fresh poll but warned it could prolong the conflict already in its fifth year. The red-shirt movement held a rally of more than 10,000 people in Bangkok on September 19.
“Disengagement from critics is giving the government space to dominate national agenda and headlines,” said political historian Charnvit Kasetsiri. “But people will find room to voice their opposition and find their way back into the political dialogue. How smoothly that happens is up to the government.”
Abhisit insists emergency powers and other controls were necessary to keep peace in Bangkok, which remains on edge after a series of mysterious bomb blasts in recent weeks.
Defending the government’s action against some opposition media which “spread hatred,” he said: “I’m not sure whether you’d allow a special station for Al-Qaeda here.”
Editing by Jason Szep and Andrew Marshall