Thai PM, army deny drives on social media to target opponents

Monitoring Desk

BANGKOK: Thailand’s prime minister and the army denied on Wednesday opposition accusations in parliament that the military targets political opponents and rights activists with online propaganda campaigns run from fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter. The accusations provoked Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to walk out of a heated parliamentary debate on Tuesday after a lawmaker of the outlawed opposition Future Forward Party presented documents that he said bore out the claims.

“I don’t know about this, I don’t have this type of policy,” Prayuth told reporters on Wednesday, referring to the documents. “We will investigate, but there is no policy.” The lawmaker, WirojLakkhanaadisorn, had told parliament the documents showed Prayuth’s government was funding military-run smear campaigns to systematically harass opponents and praise the government on social media. He read from what he said were two leaked military memos that ordered army personnel to create fake social media accounts to “offer counternarrative” for criticism of the government. Reuters has not examined the documents.

“The army works in the open and we don’t use avatars,” Lieutenant General ThanyaKiatsarn, of the second army area command, a unit the opposition said figured in one of the memos, told the Khaosod newspaper. Some soldiers may be using social media to defend the reputation of the military but the effort was not centrally organized, he added. Facebook and Twitter did not immediately respond to emails to seek comment. Prayuth’s coalition majority was strengthened by the disbanding last week of Future Forward, the third-largest party in parliament, on the grounds that the party breached the law when it took a loan from its founder.

The dissolution has sparked daily protests among university students who are among the party’s most vocal supporters. Following Friday’s court ruling to dissolve the party, its members have launched a string of accusations against Prayuth and the former military junta he led for five years before elections in 2019. The ruling banned from politics 11 party lawmakers who lost their seats, while giving the 65 remaining MPs 60 days to either form a new party or join an existing one.

Meanwhile, Thailand reported three new cases of a coronavirus on Wednesday, taking total infections to 40, health ministry officials said, criticizing patients for not disclosing their travel history. Health Minister AnutinCharnvirakul asked the Thai public to avoid traveling to affected countries and called on airlines to refrain from luring travelers with promotions.

Two of the new patients, all of whom were Thai nationals, had returned from vacation in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido and came into contact with the third patient, their 8-year old grandson, said SukhumKanchanapimai, permanent secretary at the Public Health Ministry. The grandfather had not disclosed his travel history when he first sought medical attention and risked becoming a super-spreader, an incident of large transmission from a single source, Anutin said.

“We have to criticize this case … it creates a lot of trouble for us,” Anutin said. The patient came to the hospital on Feb. 23, but did not disclose his travel history until the next day, B Care Medical Center said in a statement. The patient came into contact with 30 medical personnel at the hospital, who later tested negative for the virus and are in self-quarantine at home, the statement said. Passengers, cabin crew and students in the boy’s class were all being tested, officials said. The boy’s school has been closed for 14 days and will be cleaned, a statement from the Don Mueng District Office said. A Thanachart-TMB (TMB.BK) (TCAP.BK) bank also announced it would close its branch in the area for disinfection after an employee’s relative was reported to have the virus.

The branch’s workers have tested negative for the virus, but were asked to stay home for 14 days, it said. Public Health Ministry officials will be prohibited from traveling to risky countries. If travel is required, personnel are required to self-quarantine for 14 days, Sukhum said. At-risk countries include China, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Italy, Iran and Japan. “For the airlines, please reduce promotions,” Anutin said. “Even though tickets are cheap, it could be your last holiday.” National carrier Thai Airways Pcl (THAI.BK) said its executives took pay cuts to reduce costs amid the fall-off in passenger travel. (Reuters)