Social Media as a political tool in Thailand

Surveillance of the Internet in Thailand is becoming an issue

Wake up Thailand – Big Brother is outdated.

Thailand – whenever people hear the name of this country they start to associate the following things: delicious Pad Thai, marvelous white sand beaches and everlasting smiles of warm and friendly people. So far so good, these perceptions are valid and also a good way of keeping Thailand in mind. But the country has gone through rough times lately. A (God bless) bloodless coup d’état in 2006, occupied airports in 2008, fatal clashes in the capital Bangkok in 2009 and 2010, a deeply divided society and many more worrying developments within the country that haven’t even made the international media. How has it come so far, what are the dynamics and how do these relate to the social media, like Facebook or Twitter?!

A quick look back

Thailand has been a monarchy for centuries and this Royal institution is an important part of the Thai society. The King – His Majesty King Bhumipol Adulyadej – is highly revered and sometimes referred to as a demigod rather than a human being. Arguably, he is the element that still holds a deeply divided society together. His words are unwritten laws as soon as they leave his mouth. Still, there is a part of the society that questions the Royal institution and is calling for change. Calling for change is a risky venture due to one of the harshest lèse-majesté laws in place that protect the palace from criticism, defamation or any other insult. This particular law is highly debated these days, as there is a fraction of the population that is calling for amendments.

An academic group, which is calling themselves Nitirat, has been advocating amendments to the law and also to laws set in place after the coup in 2006, which ousted the Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin has been a very popular PM, who was the first to win two consecutive elections in a country that has seen little democratic progress but a great deal of military involvement since the abolishment of the absolute monarchy in 1932. Thaksin is a very divisive figure in Thai politics and ever since his terms as PM, he has been a major player in the political arena. His populist policies guaranteed him support from the poorer and rural population of Thailand (as well as others of course). This man was gaining power at a pace that left the Bangkok elite, the Palace as well as the Army worried about their own power. Corruption, nepotism, dubious policy changes to enhance his private fortune, allegations of human rights violations in the war on drugs and other developments played into the cards of the worried parties and so in 2006, when PM Thaksin was on a trip to New York to attend a meeting of the UN General Assembly, the Army staged the coup and ousted the PM who watched his downfall on TV.

Ever since this coup d’état, Thailand has been finding itself in a politically unstable situation. Two political fractions have been fighting each other and sometimes took over the everyday’s life in the Thai capital, as happened in 2008 when the two airports have been occupied by the Yellow shirts (back then the Bangkok elite, said to be close to the Palace and Army), in 2009 and 2010 when the Red Shirts (mostly supportive of Thaksin) took the demonstrations and fights to the streets of Bangkok and got involved in lethal clashes with the Army. The clashes left scores of people dead and pictures went around the world and added a bitter taste to the image of the country of smiles. Thaksin has been living in exile ever since 2008 but is still said to be the puppet master of Thai politics.

A law to be amended

Back to the lèse-majesté law; in 2011 democratic elections were held and left Thaksin’s sister becoming the first female PM in Thai history. Frankly, she faces tough times to be in charge. After the raining season, large swaths of land stayed inundated and flooded industrial parks in Ayutthaya and around Bangkok, which caused sky-high economic losses to the Thai economy. Furthermore, the lèse-majesté law made it back on the political agenda and became a widely debated issue. The debate around this topic took place in the media, in the parliament as well as on political blogs and social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. Doing so is not without risks in Thailand though, as these tools are under permanent surveillance in order to monitor any critical movements in the society.

Increasing numbers of people who face charges due to this law caused even the international society to worry about the use of the law. Back in 2005, 35 defendants have faced a judge whereas in 2010 more than 470 people have been charged with allegations around the lèse-majesté law. Nitirat is criticizing its hardness and deviation from its original purpose and claim that the law is now merely used to create a state of anxiety within the society, in order to maintain power and control of it. The international society, such as the UN and EU have been issuing statements that ask Thai authorities to review their use of the law in accordance to international legal standards and fundamental human rights (e.g. freedom of expression). But this has been merely ignored.

Nitirat took this manner into their hands and publicly called for the above-mentioned amendments to the lèse-majesté law and also laws that were set in place after the coup 2006 (which allegedly created the idea that this group’s only purpose is to bring Thaksin back to Thailand). And so, yet another time, troubles were set in motion. Parts of the population supported their cause, yet were too scared to publicly show their support and others were definitely not in favor of the cause. The opponents showed their disagreement quite clear, when an effigy of one of the Nitirat professors was burned publicly and two men physically assaulted another professor. Neither of the two main parties in Thailand has shown support to the cause, but they allow the group to pursue their agenda as long as it is staying within legal boundaries (given the use of the law, those boundaries are hard to determine – so the group is anyway skating on thin ice).

Socialize or criminalize!?

How does all this now relate to social media tools? Well, Facebook and Twitter have played their parts in this story, just as they did during the Arab Spring. Facebook is a platform to communicate, socialize and interact with people around the world, but also a tool that is used to gather information made public by the user. Facebook is used to show support or criticize Thaksin; it is to show love for HM the King; it is to like the cause of Nitirat or verbally tear it apart; it is to interact with like-minded people across the country and many more things. In certain cases this kind of interaction is where such tools become dangerous. The case of a 19-year-old student, nicknamed Kantoop (“Joss Stick”), makes clear what happens or what can happen.

She allegedly posted something on Facebook that brought her on the radar of the Internet watchdogs and was followed by charges for violations of the lèse-majesté law. It is not clear who pointed out her comments – the watchdogs or someone else – but this is the only thing to do in order to be investigated; unfortunately anyone can bring in cases of lèse-majesté violations and this is dangerous about it. The case of Kantoop became widely debated, especially after she stated that she did not make the statements. According to her, someone tricked her and as all other teens do, she uses Facebook only to play games and communicate with her friends. All this fuss around her made her an outlaw and even her family members distanced themselves from her, leaving a 19-year-old student socially isolated. She was summoned to the police station someday in February, but as her case caused such uproar, the police announced that the evidence brought forward against her had to be re-investigated and that her summons has been postponed to an indefinite point in the future. Since then it has been very quiet around her.

It is not just dangerous for Thai people though. Thai-born American Joe Gordon was charged and condemned to 2.5 years in prison for translating and posting parts of an unauthorized and banned biography about HM King Bhumipol.

Certain moves by Thai authorities have now further undermined the state of free expression. The installation of a war room, which is to monitor the Internet; censorship of Twitter and the blockage of several thousands of blogs and webpage’s are just some developments that are to be observed and seen critically. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) only recently published a list of “Internet Enemies”. There, they conclude that if Thailand is continuing to follow the road they are on now, they soon will change positions in the list with its neighboring country Burma (also known as Myanmar). Given the fact, that Burma has been under military control until 2010 and is only very slowly moving towards implementing democratic elements in the country, the allegations made by RSF should be a blow to Thai authorities – ‘surprisingly’ they stayed very much unnoticed.

Outspoken critics and academics have moved abroad in order to follow their agenda. Living in Thailand and publicly debate the topic has become too dangerous for them. Even interacting with them on Facebook, like commenting, liking, sharing a post has become dangerous for Thai people who still live in Thailand and follow the critics via Twitter or Facebook subscriptions. Can you imagine yourself being brought to court just because you clicked the like-button on Facebook? Saksith Saiyasombuth just recently summarized the state of Thailand’s freedom of speech in a quick note about Abusing Language. He points out that, as lingual interpretation is left to only a few powerful individuals and as the state is interfering with things the citizens get to hear, Thailand will not become an open society and therefore continue having troubles to regulate itself.

We will see more and more cases in the future that involve social media tools. Therefore it is important to keep in mind what to post or make publicly available. Thailand is not famous for being an authoritarian state yet. Also it has not reached the state of being one so far. But continuing to follow the path they are on now will most likely create one. Freedom of expression and opinion is a fundamental right as explicitly stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and therefore has to be protected and maintained. Thailand, as a signee to the declaration is obliged to act in favor of its citizens, therefore it has to review the use of the lèse-majesté law and allow discussion and debate around the topic.


Further information and readings

Reporters Without Borders on Thailand

Lese Majeste as a political weapon (blocked in Thailand)

Lese Majeste repression continues (blocked in Thailand)

Kantoop and Lese Majeste

Thailand: Joe Gordon pleads guilty to Lese Majeste charges

Thailand Tries Twitter Censorship

The Big Question: Abusing Language (Saksith Saiyasombut for the World Policy Institute)

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