Students protest at Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus outside Bangkok on Monday
Students protest at Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus outside Bangkok on Monday © Chalinee Thirasupa/Reuters

Thailand’s government is taking legal action in an attempt to force US social media companies to remove content relating to student protesters’ controversial criticism of the country’s monarchy in a demonstration earlier this week.

Buddhipongse Punnakanta, minister of digital economy, said the authorities had identified 114 posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube video-sharing platform that they said violated Thai law and were “inappropriate”.

The move comes after a gathering of up to 10,000 people at a university outside Bangkok on Monday, where protesters read out a list of 10 demands to reform the monarchy, which is shielded from criticism and public debate in Thailand by tradition and a draconian lese-majesty law. 

“All evidence will be gathered and submitted to court tomorrow,” Mr Buddhipongse said in a Facebook post late on Tuesday that mostly passed unnoticed the following day, a public holiday marking the birthday of Thailand’s Queen Mother Sirikit. 

People walk past a portrait of Thailand’s Queen Mother Sirikit, in honour of her 88th birthday, outside a shopping mall in Bangkok on Wednesday
People walk past a portrait of Thailand’s Queen Mother Sirikit, in honour of her 88th birthday, outside a shopping mall in Bangkok on Wednesday © Diego Azubel/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The Thai minister said that if the URLs containing the material were not closed or deleted within 15 days, the companies would be fined under Thailand’s Computer-Related Crime Act, which its government has in the past wielded against political dissenters. 

Mr Buddhipongse has in recent remarks accused Facebook of not complying with all his agency’s requests to remove “inappropriate” content. 

Facebook did not comment on the latest request to take down material, but said it saw freedom of expression as “a fundamental human right” and worked around the world to defend it.

“We have a global process for government requests and in reviewing each individual request, we consider Facebook’s policies, local laws, and international human rights standards,” the company said. 

Twitter declined to comment, and Google was not immediately available for comment.

The Thai government’s action highlights the extreme sensitivity of the protesters’ demands, as elements within the student-led youth protest movement break longstanding taboos and risk criminal prosecution by speaking out against the monarchy.

The student movement has adopted as its core demands the dissolution of parliament, the drafting of a new constitution, and an end to the harassment of dissidents by state security officials

However, Monday’s protest at Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus crossed into what is seen as forbidden and dangerous territory in Thailand with a declaration outlining demands on reforming the monarchy that was read out at the protest’s end. 

These included a revocation of the lese-majesty law, a reduction of budgetary funds allocated to the palace, and a clearer division between personal assets held by the king and crown property held by the Ministry of Finance. Thailand’s monarch King Maha Vajiralongkorn in 2018 assumed personal control of tens of billions of dollars’ worth of crown property. 

The declaration read out by protesters said it was “not a proposal to topple the monarchy”, but to reform it. 

Some students and opposition politicians, as well as Thammasat University, sought to distance themselves from the criticism of the monarchy after Monday’s event. Apirat Kongsompong, Thailand’s powerful army chief, railed in a speech last week against unnamed “nation-haters”, raising concerns that the conflict between protesters and the establishment could escalate. 

Additional reporting by Ryn Jirenuwat

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