Facebook said it would challenge in court a Thai government order to block a popular page focused on the country’s monarchy in a politically incendiary move as student protests gathered pace. 

The US social media company on Monday halted access in Thailand to Royalist Marketplace, a private Facebook group with more than 1m followers, following a request from Bangkok. The page is run by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Kyoto-based dissident academic who fled after a 2014 military coup. 

“Requests like this are severe, contravene international human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves,” Facebook said on Tuesday. “We work to protect and defend the rights of all internet users and are preparing to legally challenge this request.” 

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, crowned Rama X last year, and the powerful Thai monarchy enjoy protection from criticism to a degree seen in few other countries. Thailand’s lese-majesty law carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years for remarks deemed insulting to him or his immediate family. 

However, student protesters have tested the boundaries on what can be said over the past month in a series of near-daily demonstrations. Some have aired unprecedented demands to rein in the monarchy’s power, including the abolition of lese-majesty, cutting the palace’s budget and putting checks on the king’s control of crown assets. Authorities have responded by charging or arresting several protesters with sedition and other crimes.

The blocked page specialises in uncensored news, commentary and gossip on the Thai king and his family, and has welcomed uncensored comments and posts from its large readership.

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“The government has seen my group as being a part of a larger campaign of the students in demanding monarchical reforms, hence shutting it down would help weaken the student campaign,” Mr Pavin told the Financial Times. “I protest against the government’s decision and vow to defend the right to express [myself] freely.” 

Mr Pavin said he was “furious” when Facebook contacted him to inform him that the group had been blocked and immediately set about forming a new page under a similar name. As of Tuesday morning, the new group had more than 400,000 followers. 

Royalist Marketplace, the blocked group, was set up in mid-April and gained its 1m-plus followers during Thailand’s coronavirus lockdown, when many young people shared online criticism of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government and the king. 

Facebook, Google and Twitter faced court orders to take down posts after an August 10 protest at Bangkok’s Thammasat University in which a list of 10 demands to reform the monarchy were read out. 

Facebook has faced increasing pressure from Thailand’s government to comply with requests to take down what the former deems peaceful political speech. The company said it has engaged with Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society over its concerns, while resisting curbs on what it believes is speech protected by international human rights law. 

Facebook said “excessive government actions like this . . . undermine our ability to reliably invest in Thailand”. 

A Thai government spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter.

The number of people prosecuted for lese-majesty offences has fallen since King Vajiralongkorn ascended to the throne. However, Thai authorities continue to use it to threaten dissidents and have prosecuted some for sedition and violation of the kingdom’s “computer crimes” law. 

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Via Financial Times