Wed, Mar 13, 2019 - Page 9 News List

‘A real source of hope’: Social media open
Thai junta to criticism

Social platforms wield increasing power in Thai politics, where traditional media remain in the iron grip of the military

By Hannah Ellis-Petersen  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

Just more than a week ago, Thailand’s army chief began trending on Twitter.

It started with an order, made by General Apirat Kongsompong that 160 radio stations across the nation must play the 1970s anti-communist propaganda song Nuk Paen Din (“Scum of the Earth”), which glorifies the might of the armed forces, on a daily basis.

The social media backlash was almost instantaneous. The military was lambasted for being archaic, out of touch and trying to use Cold War tactics to brainwash the public and influence the outcome of the general election on March 24.

Less than three hours after Apirat, who is also secretary-general of the military government, became a trending topic, the order was rescinded.

The reversal— unprecedented in a system where criticism of the junta is usually met by prosecution, not compromise — was an indicator of the increasing power that social media is having in Thai politics.

In the five years since it took power in a coup, the junta has retained an iron grip on traditional media in Thailand, ensuring newspapers and television unfailingly promote its agenda. Those who dared to criticize were often prosecuted under the draconian computer crimes law.

The narrative propagated in media was one of stability and prosperity — a world away from the reality of a stagnant economy and oppression that has defined military rule.

However, recently, there has been a shift, accentuated by the upcoming election. The last official election in Thailand was in 2011, when social media use was not as widespread. Now, at least 74 percent of Thais are active on some form of social media and are among the heaviest internet users in the world.

Thailand has more than 49 million Facebook users, making it the eighth-biggest user of the platform in the world. It is here, not in the state-restricted media, that large sections of the population are getting their political news and analysis.

“It is a real source of hope to me that through social media, particularly Facebook, but also Twitter and YouTube, ordinary citizens have built themselves up into influential political commentators, voicing ideas and criticisms of the junta that traditional media would never dare, and they have absolutely huge followings,” said Pravit Rojanaphruk, a renowned Thai journalist who was detained by the junta in 2015 for an online post.

Pravit said that an increasing number of dissenting political voices on social media had even emboldened traditional media to be more critical of the military government, encouraging them “to push the limits of press freedom, which we are seeing play out in real time in this election.”

It was a similar case with the vehemently anti-military rap song, Which Is My Country, which confronted the corruption, nepotism, violence and the suppression of free speech in Thailand under the junta.

The government threatened the group, Rap Against Dictatorship, with prosecution under the computer crimes law, but after the song went viral, racking up 58 million views, it proved impossible to stop it being shared and the authorities backed down.

The military, which set up its own pro-junta party, is aiming to hold on to power after the election, but “social media has the potential to sway this election out of the military’s control,” Pravit said.

The election will see 7.4 million first-time voters eligible to go to the polls, accounting for more than 10 percent of the electorate. They are not so heavily polarized down the lines of pro-democracy red shirts and pro-monarchy yellow shirts, which have defined Thai politics over the past decade and could prove crucial to the result.

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