BANGKOK: 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 Agence France-Presse.
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.
Some observers see the kingdom’s long-running political crisis as a struggle to determine who will be in power to oversee the transition.
Since the coup, Thailand has blocked access to more than 200 Internet pages deemed a “threat to national security,” including the website of Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper after it posted a video about the crown prince.
“The monarchy is above any conflict,” said junta spokesman Winthai Suvaree, relaying army chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha’s message to foreign diplomats in Bangkok last week.
Laws are needed to protect the royals “because the monarchy cannot answer questions like normal people,” Winthai added.
The coup makers have set out to purge Thai politics of the dominance of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
The populist politician, who was seen by his opponents as a threat to the monarchy, was ousted by royalist generals eight years ago and lives in Dubai to avoid a jail term for corruption.