CHAOS AND HERMES HANDBAGS
By Andrew Biggs
This is the story of a Hermes handbag, an ageing academic and an overzealous police force. It is a story that one hopes will end in common sense, but then again I hope to win the lottery on the first of next month.
Let’s begin with the cops. Here in Thailand we have a special division of police officers whose task it is to crack down on cyber crime. What constitutes cyber crime is laid out in the shadowy Thailand Computer Crime Act of 11 years ago, but it doesn’t just encompass clear-cut cases such as forgery and theft.
This is the law that can wind you up in jail for liking the wrong Facebook post. In other words, you can go to prison for thinking you agree with something.
The law states it is illegal to post anything on the net that disrupts society. I get that. We want Thailand to be stable and prosperous, but pray tell — how does one define social disruption? Seriously. Taylor Swift’s last album was positively awful — every time that hideous lead single hit the airwaves it disrupted my life, and others I’m sure. Does she get arrested on her next world tour?
The key words are “disruption” and “panic”, and how those words are defined and subsequently acted upon is the task of the cyber cops over at the Technology Crime Suppression Division.
These are not police officers busting wife beaters and bank robbers. In the hierarchy of desired departments I bet they’re right up the top. It can’t be too taxing trawling Facebook all day for those heinous “likes”, in between a few rounds of RoV and Candy Crush.
They have a website where the home page boldly welcomes you to the “TECHNOLOGY CRIME SUPPRESS DIVISION”. You would think being so close to Google they could investigated correct English grammar.
It features a cute cartoon of a young man photoshopping the face of another guy onto the head of a dog. The door to his bedroom flies open and there’s the Thought Police – I beg your pardon … a Technology Crime ‘Suppress’ Division officer standing in the door frame, casting a long and stark dark brown shadow. To me the crime is not as big a deal as the fact a cop can get to his house so quickly. The last time I dialed 911 I had time to make myself a sandwich – and toast it in the pie iron.
On the website there are other short cartoons. Check them out; it’s at tcsd.go.th and in each of them, a young man at a computer is slandering, cut-and-pasting, or bullying on his computer anonymously. Ah but there is nothing anonymous about the internet thanks to the aforesaid law. I know that from frequenting Starbucks. By the time I’ve filled in my personal details to enable free wifi, my Toffee Nut Iced Latte With Extra Whipped Cream has gone lukewarm.
As the cartoons show, no matter what evil you may be up to, a TCPD officer is just around the corner ready to slap handcuffs on you.
(And for some inexplicable reason, those perpetrators are depicted as the nerdiest of guys. Every single one of them wears glasses, has unkempt brown hair and is noticeably pudgy, as opposed to the slender cartoon men in figure-hugging brown arresting them.)
Cyber crime is a massive problem all around the world. Heck, the Russians elected Donald Trump! Tracking down cyber criminals engaging in larceny and fraud should be the number two priority of the TCPD. They need to fix up that grammatical error in their name first.
The trouble is that’s not happening. That cyber law has morphed into a political tool. Who decides what constitutes a threat of panic and disorder? Is there a committee for that? As was suggested in this column last week, democracy-eschewing army generals are a little like party politicians. They need all the help they can get, especially when a hostile population starts growing tired of their shenanigans.
And this is where the handbag and the ageing academic enter our story.
As you probably know, the government is currently playing a waiting game with the general public over the scandal of deputy prime minister Pravit Wongsuwan’s two dozen very expensive wristwatches. It was right after that controversy erupted back in early January that a 77-year-old retired academic posted a picture of the Prime Minister and his wife, the latter holding a Hermes handbag. “Thai leaders must look expensive, not cheap,” he wrote in both Thai and English.
The comment immediately drew dozens of “likes”. It also drew the attention of the TCPD. Sudden end to Candy Crush. Cut to sirens wailing as they raced out to the home of the academic and arrested him on the spot.
Those seven words, according to the TCPD, constituted false information that sowed panic and disorder in society. Those are their words, not mine.
False information? The academic was hardly telling a lie. Since when has a Thai leader ever looked cheap? Certainly we’ve had some frugal ones — Chuan Leekpai and Chamlong Srimuang come to mind — but you could hardly describe them as “cheap”.
More surprising was the allegation that his comment “sowed panic and disorder in society.”
I remember the day our academic posted that comment. It was January 11, 2018. According to my diary I spent the afternoon in an office with a glass wall overlooking Phrakhanong BTS. I was also there the following day, too, and being on Sukhumvit Road, I was in an excellent position to be an eyewitness to any panic or disorder permeating Thai society.
And yet to me, those days were as chaotic as any other normal day on Sukhumvit Road. About the only panic and disorder that went on was in my mind, trying to fathom how a handbag could bring down Thai society. In my panicked state I can only be thankful Taylor Swift didn’t suddenly waft through the speakers. It does conjure up a bizarre scenario of innocent Thais screaming as they run up and down narrow sois, knocking over somtam carts, panicking uncontrollably, owing to a Hermes handbag.
Is it just a little too easy for a police officer to slap a charge of panic and disorder on an ageing academic, not unlike the way they slap cartoon handcuffs on pudgy nerds photoshopping faces of nemeses onto dogs? One cannot clearly measure and define such things as disorder, making the crime a value judgment.
The academic’s original comment garnered more than 80 “likes” from followers before being taken down. They have all technically broken the law, too, but nobody was arrested. Was it a shortage of staff that prevented 80 cop cars speeding out in all directions on January 11? Or is justice being selective in its punishment?
“It’s a weird experience to be a suspect at nearly 80,” Charnvit Kasetsiri told reporters later.
Actually he is Dr Charnvit, former Thammasat University rector, an esteemed academic who obtained his PhD from Cornell University no less. In other words he’s a smart man who doesn’t like ostentatious displays of wealth — and apparently that is against the law.
Dr Charnvit did do a little backtracking after the initial fiasco, for which he cannot be blamed. But has Thai society come to this? To perceive handbags and retired academics as harbingers of panic and disorder can only be viewed as Orwellian … or worse, Pythonesque.