Commentary / World

Under military rule, Thais turn to social media

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Thailand’s political crisis, exacerbated by the coup in May 2014, has had a huge impact on freedom of speech in the country. Today, the military regime of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha is still holding on tightly to Article 44, known by the media as the “dictator law,” which gives the prime minister unchecked authority over all branches of his government. It has been used to curb political dissent.

Protesters were arrested when they raised three fingers as a symbol of rebellion — inspired by “The Hunger Games” movie — and read George Orwell’s “1984” in public.

Academics were detained when they organized seminars considered a threat to the regime. And recently a supporter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was arrested for posing for a photo with a red water bowl (in preparation for the upcoming Songkran festival in Thailand) — an act ridiculously deemed as a threat to national security.

As the space for public political debate and opinion shrinks, Thais have moved their political debate to cyberspace. The media, too, has followed this trend of reporting events on social media networks as the Internet plays a growing role in promoting political discussion.

The rise in use of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, has transformed the way information is distributed and shared in Thailand. For the first time, the people can have direct and even equal access to political information from different sources, made possible by emerging social media networks. They can compare content and make decisions based on these various sources, examine the issues from alternative viewpoints and even challenge the information controlled by the state.

Among Thailand’s population of 67 million people, 28 million are on Facebook, 4.5 million on Twitter and 1.7 million on Instagram. Noting the rise of social media in Thailand, Matthew Phillips, a scholar on modern history, argues: “The act of going to a ballot box and casting your vote is obviously something that is being regulated through current political discourse. That being said, you cannot really see the current discourse without understanding the role of social media.”

Leading politicians, agents of civil society organizations, representative of independent institutions and a large number of academics have turned to social media as their main platform to engage the public and their supporters.

For instance, both former Prime Ministers Yingluck Shinawatra and Abhisit Vejjajiva actively use Facebook and Twitter to convey their messages. Yingluck’s official Facebook page has received more than 5 million “likes,” while Abhisit’s has almost 2.4 million.

How has social media contributed to opening up society at a time when the country is under military rule? First, the nature of social media, which is relatively free and unrestrained, decentralizes sources of information, making the controlled Thai media increasingly irrelevant as a news source.

Second, social media is increasingly used as a stage for political campaigns, seen in the establishment of numerous political groups with specific agendas and clienteles, such as the New Democracy Movement (NDM) and the Network of Relatives and Victims of Lese-majeste Law.

Third, social media reintroduces a participatory element that is fundamental to the process of democratization. Participating in politics no longer exclusively means going to the polling station or joining street protests — which are illegal in Thailand at the moment. But it can be done online and possibly more effectively.

Fourth, social media has become a forum for critical discussions, dealing with contentious issues that are otherwise unable to be discussed in the mainstream media. It has provided a useful platform for alternative media, which today offers information different from that provided by the state.

Some critics have argued that the public should not believe entirely what they read on the Internet; that politics should be debated face to face and not behind the anonymity the Internet provides.

These are partly true.

In the Thai political context, while face-to-face political debate is useful, some has resulted in violent confrontations that threaten to polarize society further. Surely, the Internet is not an entirely safe zone for debate. The military government has sought to censor certain websites that could be destabilizing to its regime. Content involving the monarchy, critical of the government’s performance or highlighting human rights violations, such as the Human Rights Watch website, have been blocked in Thailand.

But it will be impossible for the government to shut down all social media in the country, which has long been an integral part of the international community.

So far, social media has effectively inserted itself in a domain previously occupied by mainstream media. Undoubtedly, it has played a pivotal role in providing a space for political debate — a much-needed exercise during a time that Thailand has fallen deep into political crisis. And this role is ever more significant, now that freedom of speech is lacking under military rule.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

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