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Nirmal Ghosh
Monday, Jul 14, 2014

Asia

Thai digital natives on edge as junta tightens grip

The Straits Times | Nirmal Ghosh | Monday, Jul 14, 2014

THE studious young woman reading a book through her glasses at a Starbucks cafe is nervous.

She looks around often, quickly scanning the people wandering through the mall.

For good reason: When the Thai military arrested one of her friends, they asked him: "Who was that girl?"

The 24-year-old graduate of a top Bangkok university, and her friends who number around 30, all recent graduates, are learning how to become underground political activists.

An array of groups has sprung up in universities, among graduates or postgraduates, with names like "Chulalongkorn University Community for the People" and "Silapakorn University Community for Democracy".

The groups do not meet too regularly or obviously; one meeting with The Straits Times took place on the deserted upper floor of a university library.

They conceal the names of their own contacts in other underground groups from each other, send e-mails in code, and chat via Telegram - a mobile phone messenger app that is difficult to monitor and has features like self-destructing secret chats.

At first glance there is a whiff of high-school intrigue and excitement about it, but it is quite serious: Some activists who have been summoned and questioned by the junta have learnt that the army has files on them already.

None wanted their names mentioned; there are cases of the army tracking down and questioning anyone speaking with or even just helping the foreign media.

The tentacles of the junta, which seized power on May 22, are firmly embedded.

Agencies under direct control of junta supremo Prayuth Chan- ocha, who is head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), include four security arms: the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), the Royal Thai Police, and the policy-level National Security Council and National Intelligence Agency.

Under the police is the Special Branch, and the army has its own military intelligence and a task force on lese majeste to track and hunt down people deemed to be against the monarchy, which was formed after the 2006 coup d'etat.

Police generals in charge of security include Lieutenant-General Somyot Poompanmoung, the deputy police chief set to take over as chief in October; and Major-General Amnuay Nimmano, deputy chief of the Metropolitan Police, who last month warned the public "liking" the Facebook pages of anti-coup groups would be considered a criminal offence.

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