Controlling media and access to information has become a top priority for the Thai government, which has been rattled by shows of open defiance from pro-democracy protestors.
But it is not clear that increased censorship and media bans will have the desired effect.
The protestors have frequently altered their tactics and have used social media to conjure up new forms of protest and to foster connections with international social movements. These range from the democracy campaigners in Hong Kong to K-pop’s stans.
Thai citizens woke up last Thursday to discover that at 4 a.m. the military-backed government had announced a “severe state of emergency” decree, which exceeds the state of emergency with which it has ruled since March. The new order bans any meeting of more than four people and permits authorities to close off any area it chooses.
It also ups the stakes in Thailand’s already onerous censorship system and seeks to marginalize more of the media that is not allied with or directly controlled by the Prayut Chan-ocha government.
The decree bars the “publication of news, other media, and electronic information that contains messages that could create fear or intentionally distort information, creating misunderstanding that will affect national security or peace and order.” That was understood to mean no live news footage of anti-government demonstrations.
Protestors were quick to show their defiance. Crowds measured in their thousands gathered at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument on Thursday afternoon. Still more gathered at multiple other locations in the capital the next day.
And Bangkok police were quick to use their new powers. They arrested a news reporter for Prachatai as he live-streamed a police dispersal operation on Friday evening.
Over the past weeks, demonstrators had been rallied in flash mob style, with only a few hours of notice. They used social media, especially Twitter, but also WhatsApp, Facebook and Line, to announce and then change the venues.
Over the weekend, the cry went out to switch to another messaging app, Telegram. Supposedly unhackable, it had been a favorite of the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. The Thai government quickly joined China and Russia in attempting to prevent downloads of Telegram. (As of Wednesday, it was functioning normally.)
Embarrassingly for the authorities, mobile fast-food vendors seemed better at keeping up with the crowds than the police, who seemed to fall for all the decoy moves and then get stuck in the city’s notorious traffic. By Sunday, anti-government protestors had mounted similar, peaceful actions in more than half of the country’s provinces.
Thailand’s mainstream media has also been left flat-footed. Some is possibly on the wrong side of history.
Cable TV providers, including TrueVisions, blocked out channels and news reports deemed sensitive. Nation TV, allied to The Nation newspaper group, hewed ever closer to the government line. Its rival, the Bangkok Post, stumbled, and then headed off in the opposite direction. (Surprisingly for 2020, both The Nation and the Bangkok Post still run separate daily print editions in Thai and in English.)
On Sunday, the Post ran a news story with the headline “Protestors Hit Bangkok Train Stations” atop a story explaining that the demonstrators gathering around five stations had forced the system-wide closure of the city’s electric train services. Hours later, it retracted and even posted an apology article, acknowledging its error: “The Bangkok Post would like to clarify that anti-government protesters were not responsible for the decision to shut down the services.” Two days later, on Tuesday, the Post ran an editorial: “Prayut Has Lost All Legitimacy: He Must Go.”
Just as telling, the authorities have repeatedly appeared to be a generation or two behind the public mood, and several technological steps behind the student-led protestors.
In August, a government order forced Facebook to shut down Royalist Marketplace, a popular discussion group operated by anti-monarchist Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who lives in exile in Japan. As it complied, Facebook complained: “Requests like this are severe, contravene international human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves…”
Pavin relaunched the group under a new name and now counts more than 1.1 million adherents. Twitter and Facebook have shown themselves unwilling to comply with the totality of government take-down requests, though YouTube has been more pliant.
Last month, the Thai government was itself found to be a Twitter spammer. The messaging platform closed 926 Twitter accounts which it said “can reliably link to the Royal Thai Army (RTA)… These accounts were engaging in amplifying pro-RTA and pro-government content, as well as engaging in behavior targeting prominent political opposition figures.” The Thai Army consistently denies that it engages in information warfare.
Brooking no criticism, the government on Friday blocked access from Thailand to online petition operator change.org. The Ministry of Digital Economy & Society – very much in the front-line, given that computer crime regulations are being used more than Thailand’s infamously strict “lese majeste” laws – on Friday ordered internet service providers AIS, Dtac, and True to deny service. Petitions remain visible abroad.
The government had more success on Tuesday. It obtained a court order requiring the complete closure across all platforms of Voice TV, a channel which has shown a lot of protest footage. It is allegedly linked to Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire former prime minister who was ousted in a military coup in 2006. Court actions against three other channels, The Standard, The Reporters, and Prachatai, are still pending.
But while the Thai government wages war on its own population and private sector media, the students have found solidarity from populations in neighboring Asian territories.
In some cases, these have been a reheating of the so-called Milk Tea Alliance, an online community linking (beverage drinking) youth in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand. The Alliance initially found its voice over the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement of 2019-2020, but has also rallied against Disney movie “Mulan,” which was fronted by a pro-government starlet and was partly filmed in China’s controversial Xinjiang region.
Legions of K-pop fans have opened their wallets to support the protests too. Some $150,000 (THB4.71 million) was donated over the weekend by the fans of Girls Generation, Super Junior, Blackpink and others, with the fan groups seemingly competing to outspend each other. (This was one instance where BTS’s ARMY failed to come out on top.)
Further authoritarian actions may yet be taken against protesters and Thailand’s media. And in places including Hong Kong and Belarus, the authorities have halted color revolutions. But the Thai government’s patchy and reactive methods seem unlikely to prevent the rest of the world from looking on.