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Thailand’s Junta Scrambles to Ward Off Cyberattacks as it Closely Moves to Police the Internet

“Internet users will have to look over their shoulders when going online,” said Sunai Phasuk, at Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

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BANGKOK – Thailand’s Military Government has been scrambling to ward off a series of a cyberattacks aimed at protesting the ruling junta’s recent moves to more closely police the internet.

Several government websites were blocked on Tuesday, including that of the Defense Ministry and government procurement systems. The Ministry of Digital Economy and Society was blocked a day earlier. Authorities declined to comment on those specific instances, but had said they were warned of planned attempts to incapacitate websites by overwhelming them with traffic. At least one group vowed on social media to carry out more cyberattacks.

“When some groups said they would attack, the government prepared security plans and other measures in response, so let’s not pay any attention to them,” Prime Minister and junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters. “They only want to disrupt things.”

The attacks came after Thailand’s military-appointed legislature on Friday approved new provisions that strengthen the country’s Computer Crimes Act. The act already allowed the government to shut down websites and penalize internet service providers who failed to remove any content that the junta regards as illegal or sensitive. The new tougher measures, which will become law once they are endorsed by the country’s king, has alarmed many Thai internet users and the country’s budding tech sector.

Gen Prayuth last week said the tougher laws were needed to counter illegal content originating overseas, particularly material which violates Thailand’s strict laws prohibiting criticism of the country’s monarchy.

It is a sensitive time in the kingdom. King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun this month formally succeeded his popular father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in October after more than 70 years on the throne.

Authorities have blocked a series of websites since the royal succession.

Many critics say the new law, which proposes setting up a junta-appointed committee to determine what constitutes a threat, is vaguely defined. It also brings Thailand more in line with the scrutiny that authoritarian nations such as China and Vietnam apply to the web, posing a risk to fundamental civil liberties, they say.

“Internet users will have to look over their shoulders when going online,” said Sunai Phasuk, at Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

Korn Chatikavanij, a former finance minister who now chairs the Thai Fintech Association, said the breadth of the law and the loose way in which it can be interpreted may discourage entrepreneurs and prompt some companies to move their servers abroad.

“The definition of what is to be removed from the internet is too broad,” Mr. Korn wrote in a widely circulated Facebook post. He said it could include anything from copyright violations to threats to national security, the economy or moral values. Some of the content attracting the government’s attention in the future might not even be illegal, he said.

“This means uncertainty for business practices and might adversely affect the ISP [internet service provider] industry,” Mr. Korn said.

Pawoot Pongvitayapanu, founder of Thai e-commerce site TARAD.com, said he welcomed new safeguards against fraud and other illegal activity online but he was worried over their reach.

“I spoke with some foreign investors and they’re concerned about risk and the possibility of being easily prosecuted by a law that can be interpreted in all sorts of ways,” Mr. Pawoot said.

Thailand has a quickly-growing e-commerce industry, much of it conducted on Facebook and Instagram. The government has promoted the sector as a way to help create a stronger domestic consumer economy and buffer the country’s from the ups and downs in global demand.

But since seizing power in a coup in May 2014, Thailand’s military junta has moved to more tightly control the web. Government ministers are urging the consolidation of the country’s internet gateways into a single entry point in a bid to ease the blockage of communications and websites it deems a threat to national security.

By Nopparat Chaichalearmmongkol and Wilawan Watcharasakwet | WSJ

James Hookway contributed to this article.


Write to Nopparat Chaichalearmmongkol at nopparat.chaichalearmmongkol@wsj.com and Wilawan Watcharasakwet at wilawan.watcharasakwet@wsj.com

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