Sitthichai gets no kick from the Net
Information and Communica-tions Technology Minister Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom says the Internet is not an "exciting" tool - a strange sentiment, maybe, for the man who guides the technology in Thailand.
The minister has ordered five websites blocked since he assumed the position eight months ago.
He admitted he was not information-technology savvy and made minimum use of the Internet. The reason Sitthichai, 59, is not excited by the Internet is simple: "I'm old."
"I have an e-mail account but rarely check it; normally I use the telephone." He visits two websites only on a regular basis.
Sitthichai, an associate professor in electronics, often visits the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers site. At ieee.org he updates his professional knowledge.
And at pgatour.com he can monitor golf tournaments and other sports.
He said he had "not even glanced" at most of the five sites he was responsible for closing.
"I once visited pantip.com and was confused by its many rooms. I quit and never went back," he said.
Pantip.com is a leading portal website in Thailand, and it hosts the popular Rajdamnoen Room, a virtual public space for people to share political opinions. The chat room was one of the five sites Sitthichai barred.
He insisted he had been approached by the webmaster at pantip.com, who had said the site was unable to control comments being made about Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda.
Other sites he has blocked are Camfrog for allegedly showing live, lewd acts by webcam users and YouTube for presenting a video clip considered insulting to the monarchy. He cannot remember the others. They were pornography sites.
Camfrog was reopened after being blocked for about 10 days. YouTube remains off limits to surfers in Thailand.
Both are overseas based and popular in Thailand. Sitthichai admitted he did not know the purpose of the two sites or what users did at them.
His decision to block sites or issue warnings to webmasters are based on opinions and suggestions from about 20 ministry staff and state-owned CAT Telecom, who monitor the online world around the clock.
He was presented with "hard-copy" evidence of the sites along with proposals to block them.
During his time with the portfolio he has received as many as 100 recommendations to shut sites. Just five deserved it, he said. It does not take him long to decide which sites will be blocked.
"The most important issue is lese majeste. That makes the decision easy. Then comes threats to national security and the morality of society," he said.
He sets his own criteria. To criticise the Privy Council president is a threat to national security, he said.
He instantly ordered YouTube off limits because the offending material "touched on the untouchable of Thailand".
Sitthichai realises his job is not easy. Information often comes with challenges to national taboos.
The dilemma is balancing the basic rights of people to information and those national taboos. The international community has slammed him for his actions, but he could have been pilloried at home by allowing material offensive to the nation to be distributed, he said.
Of the international incident the YouTube action has become he said: "I didn't mean to prevent Thai people having access to all of the website, but I wanted to show the world how important the monarchy was to this country and its people."
Sitthichai said the monarchy was vital to Thailand and its people and the institution was above politics.
He described Western criticism as "hypocritical".
"If it [YouTube owner Google] truly respects human rights and the flow of information, why does it self-censor information the Chinese government considers improper simply to gain access to that market?" he asked.
Every community has its own taboos and respected institutions that should not be criticised, he added.
"Remember when church and religion were taboo? Those challenging their religion were punished," he said.