[BANGKOK] A proposal by Thailand's junta for a single Internet gateway to allow authorities to monitor content would destroy competition and was reminiscent of the most authoritarian measures to stifle free speech, a former information minister said on Thursday.
The plan to create a single gateway for all Internet traffic was approved by the military government in August but details remain unclear.
Free-speech activists say the gateway, referred to as a China-style "Great Firewall", is the latest effort by the junta to smother dissent and monitor detractors.
The plan has also triggered concern that Internet speeds would plummet, which would almost certainly hurt online business and anger Internet users. "Once it becomes a single gateway there will be a problem with traffic speeds," said Anudith Nakornthap, a former information minister under the government of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. "The junta wants to control various websites. This is similar to the control mechanisms of non-democratic countries such as China and North Korea." The junta has ruled Thailand since overthrowing Yingluck's government in May 2014.
Thai politics has been agitated for a decade by a confrontation between the Shinawatras, in particular Ms Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist premier who was himself ousted in a 2006 coup, and the royalist-military establishment, which sees him as a threat.
The military has ruled strictly since taking over, banning protests and not tolerating dissent, and has shut down thousands of websites.
Thailand has 10 Internet gateways run by both private and state-owned companies. The plan would apparently entail merging traffic through one state-run firm.
Prasong Ruangsirikulchai, executive director of the Telecommunications Association of Thailand, said the government would meet fierce opposition from the private companies that would be forced to suspend their lines. "If the government is not so strong they cannot do that,"Prasong said during a talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on Wednesday. "They would have a tough time to convince private companies to cut their lines." The military has said the plan is necessary for national security but Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters on Thursday it would not go ahead if it violated rights. "If it violates rights we can't do it," he said.
Critics say the plan goes against a digital-economy master plan to encourage online business by attracting investment from companies like Facebook Inc, which opened its first Thai office last month.
The government played down a coordinated attack last week on several state websites in a protest against the plan.