Thais Say Facebook Goes Down as Junta Releases Red Shirts

Internet users in Thailand reported temporarily losing access to Facebook Inc., sparking speculation the social media site had been blocked by the military. At the same time, the junta that seized power a week ago released leaders from the Red Shirt movement opposed to the coup.

Facebook users reported that the service was inaccessible for about 45 minutes on computers and mobile phones. Surachai Srisaracam, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Information and Communication, yesterday denied the site had been blocked and said some users lost access due to a technical glitch. Surachai was earlier cited by Spring News as saying the site was blocked on orders from the junta.

The army has threatened to prosecute people who spread divisive comments and shutter social media sites that don’t censor “provocative” content. Facebook, Twitter Inc. and Google Inc.’s YouTube were a powerful mobilizing tool for opposition movements that led the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

The Red Shirt leaders are among hundreds of politicians, activists and academics who have been ordered to report to the junta since the May 22 putsch. Soldiers on May 27 arrested Chaturon Chaisang, education minister in the cabinet of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, as he was answering questions in Bangkok at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand.

“The reality is that Thailand’s complex political problems can’t be dealt with by security measures, clampdowns and arrests,” Duncan McCargo, a professor of political science at the University of Leeds in the U.K., said in an e-mailed comment. “A change of tone and approach is really needed before the generals lose yet more goodwill and credibility.”

‘A Misunderstanding’

Surachai said the ministry only blocks “problematic web pages” and that local media reports that he said Facebook had been ordered shut were due to “a misunderstanding.” Charlene Chian, Facebook’s Singapore-based head of communications for the Asia-Pacific, said by phone yesterday that the company was investigating the situation.

Of the 253 people summoned by the military since the coup, 200 have reported to authorities and 124 were released, said Winthai Suvaree, a junta spokesman. It was not clear if that number included the Red Shirt leaders.

Red Shirts

Most of the Red Shirt leaders were detained at a meeting between key political figures just moments before army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha seized power. The military on May 27 aired footage on national television of the detained leaders, who are supporters of the ousted government, to show they were safe.

Leaders including Jatuporn Prompan, Weng Tojirakarn, Tida Tawornseth, Korkaew Pikulthong and Nattawut Saikuar were seen leaving an army compound after their release yesterday.

The junta also late yesterday summoned Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-trained lawyer and independent political analyst, to report to the army, without saying why.

The junta, which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order, on May 27 shortened a nationwide curfew, saying it was in effect from 12:01 a.m. to 4 a.m., after initially instituting a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.

“The head of the NCPO has asked each province to look at the impact of the curfew to see how serious it has been, and we will see how we can relax it,” NCPO Deputy Spokesman Nattawat Chancharoen told reporters yesterday in Bangkok. “We believe we should relax it more in some areas next week.”

Tourism Stocks

The easing of the curfew and a pledge by the military to accelerate spending on infrastructure helped the benchmark SET Index of stocks erase losses since the coup. Tourist arrivals have plunged 20 percent since the army imposed martial law May 20, threatening an industry that contributes as much as 10 percent of gross domestic product.

The SET Index rose 0.7 percent yesterday. Airports of Thailand Pcl, the nation’s biggest operator of airfields, jumped 1.9 percent, snapping three days of losses.

Tourist operators have asked the junta to ease restrictions in popular destinations including Phuket and Pattaya, Suwat Sidthilaw, the permanent secretary for tourism, said May 27.

— With assistance by Chris Blake

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