In June 2018, a 19-year-old British tourist told authorities that she had been raped while visiting the Thai holiday island of Koh Tao. The allegation was serious and the response was rapid, but not in keeping with the norms of a rape investigation. The local police first denied that the rape had occurred; they also described her accusation as “fake.”

Only when the story broke in the British and Thai press and on social media in August did the police finally act, but not to investigate the crime. Instead, they went after those who had shared the story. They first detained a dozen Thai residents for sharing news on the case. The residents were arrested under Thailand’s Computer-Related Crime Act and could face up to five years in prison and fines for spreading false information and damaging national security. The act has previously been used to prosecute those responsible for critical or defamatory Facebook posts about the country’s monarchy or politicians, but rarely in criminal cases.

In an another remarkable move, police also obtained warrants to arrest the editor of an online Thai newspaper in Britain and the administrator of a dissident Facebook page in California, both of whom had shared or reported on the case.

“This event was quite surprising” said Wason Liwlompaisan, a digital activist and co-founder of the Thai tech news site Blognone. “I’m not sure why the police tried to arrest just these people in this case.”

The message was clear—news of the alleged rape was not to be shared on social media or reported by members of the Thai press. And it worked; in the 18 months since the story broke, there has been little domestic news coverage of the case, even as it has been widely reported in Britain and the United States.

Thailand has had a history of arresting or charging people for posts on social media since a coup in 2014. For example, in 2015, a tour operator named Pongsak Sriboonpeng was sentenced to 30 years in prison for several Facebook posts critical of the royal family.

This latest crackdown, driven by the spread of a seemingly non-political news story, marks a newly authoritarian approach to media coverage. The reaction of Thai officials to news stories on an alleged rape case speaks to the state’s increasingly overbearing imprint on its citizen’s digital space ahead of forthcoming elections on March 24.

Pramuk Anantasin, the California-based administrator of the CSI LA Facebook page, which has hundreds of thousand of followers and regularly shares stories that are censored in Thailand, believes timing is partly why he was targeted.  “I feel like it was because the election is coming,” said Anantasin. “They don’t want people to follow my Facebook page, so that’s why they arrest my followers. [Something like this] never happened in Thailand before.”

At the center of the crackdown, however, is Thailand’s pivot from its traditional ally, the U.S., towards its largest trading partner and source of inbound tourism, China.

The Power of Chinese Tourism  

To understand Thailand’s censorious response to the alleged rape case, it is important to go back to another tourism-related event which took place around the same time, but one that received even less attention. On July 5, 2018, shortly after the rape, a tour boat sank off the Thai resort island of Phuket, killing 47 of its 93 passengers, nearly all of whom were Chinese. The incident was widely covered in China and, in the coming months, resulted in a large drop off in inbound tourists.

Tourism is a key contributor to the Thai economy, accounting for nearly 20 percent of gross domestic product, or $95 billion, a figure that is growing. In fact, it is one of the few sectors of the Thai economy still performing well.

China has been a key supporter of Thailand since the coup. It was one of the first countries to lend its support to the military junta, and the last four years have seen huge growth in trade alongside an influx of Chinese tourists. Maintaining that relationship has become a key priority of the military government.

“Thailand is highly dependent on tourism, especially these days when the military is struggling to get the rest of the economy growing at the rate that it should be,” said Benjamin Zawacki, a Bangkok-based human rights researcher and author.

At the same time, Thailand’s tourism industry has also become less dependent on visitors from Europe or North America. Since 2009, the number of Chinese tourists has jumped from just under 800,000 to more than 8 million.

“Chinese are the most important market, responsible for about a third of all arrivals and probably for up to 50% of all inbound tourism-related income,” said Wolfgang Georg Arlt, director of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI).

In fact, Chinese tourism has proven uniquely resilient despite widespread protests in 2013, the military coup in 2014 and a deadly terrorist attack in 2015. According to analysts, this is no accident.

“A large percentage of Chinese tourist travel as part of official tour groups organized by travel agencies, rather than independently,” said Edoardo Saravalle, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security. “This gives China a way to influence the flows of tourism.”

In the aftermath of the drownings, the king apologized for the boat accident and in October, Thailand announced a China-focused tourism stimulus package. A new marketing campaign has promoted travel around Chinese New Year.

A requiem for victims killed in a boat accident near Phuket on July 5, 2018. The capsizing killed 47 of the boat’s 93 passengers, nearly all of whom were Chinese. Photo by Zhang Zhitao/Chengdu Economic Daily/VCG/ Getty

The strategy seems to have worked. China has not reduced the flow of tourists visiting Thailand, as it has after geopolitical spats with countries like South Korea and Taiwan, resulting in significant negative impacts to their GDP. Moreover, while it is impossible to verify the source, a story published by the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua on its English language site published, nearly verbatim, the official Thai version of the rape story. Similar stories were also found in Chinese-language state media and the rape story was not widely shared on searchable Chinese social media.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if, whatever coverage Thailand gets [in China], it’s positive, whether it’s about tourism or politics,” said Sarah Cook, China media researcher at Freedom House.

Thailand’s eagerness to please China is evident in how Thailand has responded to other instances involving Chinese tourists. When a Thai security guard hit a Chinese tourist at an airport last October, an incident captured and shared on Chinese social media, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha apologized both to the Chinese government and the tourist. News of the apology was also published in Xinhua.

Thailand’s servility has worked. After dropping off significantly in the months after the boat accident, the number of inbound Chinese tourists began to recover in late 2018, according to data from COTRI. Thailand recently celebrated the arrival of the record 10 millionth Chinese tourist with a big media event. And censorship is a key pillar of Thailand’s efforts to keep tourists coming.

Seeking Greater Digital Control

The censorship of the alleged rape foretells a potential future for Thailand as it moves closer to China and the “China Model” of a state-monitored internet.

“The level of communication with the Chinese is constant, and at a high level,” said Zawacki. “It’s on a much more intimate and regular basis than with the United States and other countries.”

Thus far, censorship and digital control of the media by the military junta has been mostly haphazard. A 2017 study by the Thai Netizens Network, Sinar Project, and the Online Observatory of Network Interference found that Thai Internet Service Providers (ISPs) do not follow uniform standards, or even block the same sites. They found that “Denial of Service” (DDS) was the most commonly used censorship tool but that other forms of censorship were also used. Moreover, only a few URLs were blocked by all ISPs, mostly news sites.

Part of this inconsistency is due to the fact there are several different laws that govern censorship. Two laws in particular—NCPO orders 97/2014 and 3/2015, relate directly to the news media and are responsible for widespread self-censorship. In the digital space, the key tool is The Computer Crimes Act. This was the law used to arrest the twelve residents who shared information about the Kao Tao rape case.

But Thailand now has a new, more powerful censorship tool that brings it closer to the Chinese model. A new the Cybersecurity Act passed last week, notably ahead of planned elections, gives Thailand’s National Cybersecurity Committee (NCSC) sweeping powers to question individuals and enter private property without a court order in case of actual or even anticipated “serious cyber threats”. The NSC will be able to monitor and access the private data of citizens and seize data and equipment without a court order in “emergency cases”.

The new law dramatically increases the power of the state to further police digital content by mandating social media platforms to delete content at the government’s request. It will also allow for censorship on disturbingly vague criteria like being “against public order or good morals of the people.”

“The [law] provides an overly broad ground for authorities in Thailand to arbitrarily enforce censorship of vaguely defined offenses,” said Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher for Thailand in Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “The precedent of interpretation by authorities that are neither judicial nor independent from the executive has troubling implications for human rights reporting.”

No one is certain if China played any role in the bill’s drafting. In nearby Vietnam, a new and draconian cybersecurity law has been directly linked to meetings with Chinese officials. There is evidence that China is playing some role in Thailand too, as Freedom House documented Thailand as one of the countries where government officials underwent training sessions in China.

In another development, Thailand recently launched a Huawei Technologies 5G test bed in the Thai military government’s $45 billion economic project near Bangkok. The test bed is Huawei’s first in Southeast Asia. The U.S. has urged its allies to prevent the world’s top producer of telecoms equipment from building next-generation mobile networks over fears that China could use the digital infrastructure for purposes of espionage. Huawei says the concerns are unfounded; Nokia, Ericsson and a number of Thai telecoms operators are also operating 5G labs at the site.

Observers are also worried that China could also have a wider influence on media in Thailand. The country is a regional hub for outlets such as Reuters and the Associated Press, along with the regional offices of a number of NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, many of whom have reported stories or released reports critical of China’s human rights record.

“As the economic relationship gets closer between two countries, especially when the non Chinese country is fairly authoritarian, the Chinese government is very good at using that to crack down on dissenting voices in the country,” said Cook.

The biggest test of Thailand’s new attitude to censorship will take place in the run-up to the elections on March 24th. While some are skeptical that this date will be adhered to, or that the elections will be fair, everyone agrees that there will be more censorship of the traditional media and online posts under the new cybersecurity law.

“I hope that Thailand has an election as soon as possible,” said Anantasin. “If we don’t have any election, or if the military tries to rig the election, the censorship will become worse.”