Thais turn to social media to talk politics — Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Thailand’s political crisis, exacerbated by the coup in May, has had a huge impact on freedom of speech in the country.

Published: December 19, 2014 10:11 AM

DECEMBER 19 — Thailand’s political crisis, exacerbated by the coup in May, has had a huge impact on freedom of speech in the country.

The military government of General Prayuth Chan-ocha is still holding on tightly to martial law as a way 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 organised seminars considered a threat to the regime.

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 in which 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 or 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, Mr 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 organisations, 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 3.6 million Likes, while Abhisit’s has almost 2.4 million.

The role of social media

How has social media contributed towards the opening up of society at a time when the country is under military rule? First, the nature of social media, which is relatively free and unrestrained, decentralises 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 Thai Pro-Democracy and Peace-Loving Groups in Sweden 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 democratisation. 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.

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 have resulted in violent confrontations that threaten to polarise society further.

To be sure, the Internet is not an entirely safe zone for debate. The military government has sought to censor certain websites that could be destabilising 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 become 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 the time 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 associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. He is also associate fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or organisation and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.