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Facebook blocks Thai access to group critical of monarchy

Thailand's King Vajiralongkorn is seen paying respects at the statue of King Rama I after signing the military-backed constitution in Bangkok on 6 April 2017.Image copyright
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Thailand’s current king is Maha Vajiralongkorn

Facebook has blocked access in Thailand to a million-member group discussing the monarchy, after the government threatened legal action.

The firm told the BBC it was preparing its own legal action to respond to the pressure from Bangkok.

Thailand is seeing a wave of anti-government protests with have included unprecedented calls for reforms to the monarchy.

Criticism of the monarchy is illegal in Thailand.

Access from within Thailand to the “Royalist Marketplace” group was blocked on Monday evening. The page can still be accessed from outside the country.

The group has more than one million members, “pointing to its massive popularity,” group admin Pavin Chachavalpongpun told the BBC. A new group set up on Monday evening gained more than 400,000 followers over night.

Mr Chachavalpongpun said the group “provides a platform for serious discussion on the monarchy and it allows Thais to express their views freely about the monarchy, from the political intervention of the monarchy, to its intimate ties with the military in consolidating the king’s power”.

Facebook confirmed to the BBC it was “compelled to restrict access to content which the Thai government has deemed to be illegal”.

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Media captionBangkok has seen large rallies in the past weeks

“Requests like this are severe, contravene international human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves,” it said in a statement.

The social media giant also said it was “preparing to legally challenge this request”.

Thailand forcing Facebook to restrict access to the group has also been strongly criticised by rights groups.

“Thailand’s government is again abusing its overbroad and rights-abusing laws to force Facebook to restrict content that is protected by the human right to free speech,” John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

“Make no mistake, it is Thailand that is breaking the law here – international law protecting freedom of expression.”

Thailand’s monarchy has long been shielded from criticism under strict lese-majeste and other laws which punish insult to the insult to the royal family with up to 15 years in jail.

But in recent weeks, students and other activists have taken to the streets to protests against their government but then things took a surprising turn when some activists starting publicly calling for reforms to the monarchy – breaking a taboo.

Thais are taught to revere the monarchy from a young age.

“I think they have pushed the ceiling of the discussion on the monarchy very high and they will continue to do so,” Mr Chachavalpongpun told the BBC.

“The government tried to shut them up by using legal tools such as arresting the core leaders and blocking access to my group. If the students persist, a harsher measure might be taken, like a crackdown.”

Thai police last week arrested nine people over the protests.

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