Thai Government Counters Youthful Protests By Targeting Social Media

In Thailand, protests led by students have continued to grow throughout the month of August. August 16th saw 10,000 take to the streets of Bangkok, demanding political reform. It was the largest anti-government protest since the military coup in 2014. The wave of discontent continues to place pressure on Prayuth Chan-Ocha, Thailand’s prime minister, to resign. The government, despite claiming to listen to criticism and establish open political debate, has countered the protests by pressuring Facebook into blocking certain discussion groups. One such group, shut down Monday, comprised over a million members.

The anti-government movement, which has grown over the past month, is notable for its predominantly youthful support. Students and young people use social media to mobilize protests across the country. Their demands include constitutional change, Chan-Ocha’s resignation, and, in some cases, reform of the monarchy. This is particularly controversial in Thailand, where harsh laws against criticizing the monarchy can result in long imprisonment. Kanokrat Lertchoosakul, an academic in political science at Chulalongkorn University, remarked, “We have never seen a phenomenon like this.”

Blocking discussion groups on Facebook establishes a dangerous precedent, which may well turn out to be a decisive blow to protesters. The demonstrators’ young age means that social media is a vital organizational tool. The government has duly targeted it. In mid-August, Facebook was given 15 days to comply with a court order to block groups deemed to be seditious by the Thai government. While Thai Lawyers for Human Rights has documented 103 cases of students being harassed for expressing their opinion, it is clear that such traditional methods of suppression are being adapted. It will be important to monitor for further social media control in the future.

The current discontent amongst young people is linked to the disillusionment caused by last year’s election. As the first election since the coup of 2014 that saw Prayuth Chan-Ocha seize power, the 2019 election was an opportunity for democratic change. However, Chan-Ocha was re-elected, and the power of the military has only strengthened since then. Such protests have been around since February. The recent criticism of the monarchy is much more unprecedented – and risky. It was under this category of sedition that the Facebook group “Royalist Marketplace” was blocked on the 24th.

If the Thai government continues to crack down on social media platforms, the protests’ flame could fizzle out very quickly. However, the protesters do have an advantage. Social media has allowed for deeply symbolic expressions of resistance, which are much more difficult to police. References to cultural phenomena, such as Harry Potter and Hamtaro, a Japanese cartoon hamster, have allowed for easily communicable social media content that, hopefully, cannot be censored in the same way. This new form of protest may prove historic in the long run. The crackdown on Facebook shows that the government is well aware of that power.

Joel Fraser