Thailand’s military is bolstering its self-designated role as protector of the monarchy with increased “cyber patrols” to root out critics of the king following last month’s coup.
The junta has clamped down on any opposition to its overthrow of an elected government, with a crackdown on perceived slurs against the royals at the heart of its online surveillance operations.
“Lese majeste is our priority,” Police Major General Phisit Pao-in, head of the Technology Crime Suppression Division, told AFP.
Twenty police officials were recently sent to reinforce Phisit’s cyber patrol team of 15 civil servants, who trawl the internet for royal insults.
“Since the coup, we were asked to intensify our surveillance and to focus on threats to national security,” said Phisit.
Under controversial lese majeste rules, anyone convicted of insulting King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.
Phisit said his team wanted to talk to suspects to “change their attitude”, while “headstrong” campaigners would face charges.
At their Bangkok offices, the owl mascot of the cyber patrol unit stands opposite a gilt-framed portrait of Bhumibol, whose picture hangs in offices and homes across the country.
For many Thais, respect for the king, patriotism and religious devotion are closely intertwined, giving him an almost divine status.
The military takeover comes as the kingdom quietly braces for the eventual end of the 86-year-old monarch’s more than six-decade reign.
Open discussion of the succession is not possible in Thailand because of the lese majeste laws.
But the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has yet to attain the same level of popular support as his revered father, who is the world’s longest-reigning sovereign.
Critics have long said the royal insult legislation has been politicised, noting that many of those charged are linked to “Red Shirt” Thaksin supporters.
Under the junta, the risks are even graver as lese majeste suspects will be tried in military courts with no recourse to appeal.
“It appears to reflect a conviction among hardline elements behind the coup that Thais perceived as enemies of the monarchy must be crushed,” said Michael Montesano, a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Phisit’s cyber patrols are not alone in their efforts to wipe out any criticism of the monarchy – about 20 ultra-royalist groups are helping to monitor the net.
They include “The Garbage Collection Organisation”, led by a director of a Bangkok hospital whose goal is to hunt down offenders viewed as “trash”.