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Facebook crossfire hits US Embassy

Kenny

Kenny

Webpage overwhelmed by angry and abusive comments, putting to test US commitment to freedom of expression

The US Embassy in Bangkok got a taste of sorts of the "freedom of expression" medicine after Thai political rivals faced off with plenty of obscenities on its Facebook page over the past few days.

With some comments disappearing from the Facebook page yesterday, questions were asked if the embassy really adheres to the democratic principles it preaches. In a reply to a Twitter user, American Ambassador Kristie Kenny said, "As you know, we welcome a vibrant exchange of views. Just ask that it be kept civilised and respectful of all involved".

It was unclear what sparked the war of words on the embassy's Facebook account. The heated exchanges followed the ambassador's "chat" session a week ago with fellow Twitter users, during which "freedom of expression" was a dominant topic. The session came a day after Thai-American Joe Gordon was sentenced to two and a half years in jail for translating parts of the banned book "The King Never Smiles" on a website.

The issue of a 61-year-old Thai-Chinese man recently sentenced to 20-year imprisonment for sending obscene and threatening text messages deemed offensive to the monarchy also came up during the chat.

The past few days saw a highly unusual increase in the number of posters visiting the embassy's Facebook page. "Everyone was in there - royalists, anti-royalists, yellow shirts, red shirts, people who agree with Article 112, people who disagree with Article 112 - you name it," said a visitor to the Facebook page, who did not leave any comment.

Some posted messages were simple expressions of love for the Thai monarch. Others asked the United States to "stay away from Thai affairs". "Embassy, are you Thai?" one poster asked, apparently half jokingly. Much profanity was used by those squabbling on the page, prompting one person to write "Embassy, do something. This is a big mess".

Messages came in both Thai and English, some supporting US policy on human rights while others suggesting they saw hypocrisy.

"We support the USA because we support human rights," one wrote. "Why don't you [the US government] go and check out your best friends in the Middle East instead of picking on Thailand," another said. Some alluded to cases like that of a man who went to jail for writing a poem featuring a plot to assassinate US President Barack Obama.

The embassy's Facebook team was apparently frustrated and overwhelmed. A message was posted yesterday asking everyone to calm down.

"Dear Facebook friends - As always, we welcome your discourse and diverse views on our wall and pages. Please be mindful of our existing terms of service, however, by refraining from using language that is profane or abusive," the embassy said.

"This is not worth it," one poster calling himself "Khun Wit" wrote in Thai. "Any signal of attempts to interfere with the Thai justice system would face opposition from the silent power of Thai people. And I can tell you that the silent power is not that silent."


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