As anti-government protests gather momentum within Thailand, demonstrators’ savvy social media tactics are inspiring similar calls in other parts of Southeast Asia, most notably in neighboring Laos.
Student and anti-government protests have gripped Thailand for the past three months with demonstrators calling for a new constitution and the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. They have also broached the once-taboo question of reform of the Thai monarchy, prompting Prayut’s administration to declare a “severe” state of emergency on October 15. (Today, the government announced it would lift the state of emergency).
On October 20, as Thai demonstrators massed in the streets of Bangkok for the seventh straight day, the Lao-language hashtag #ຖ້າການເມືອງລາວດີ – “if politics was good” in Lao – began to trend, featuring in more than 400,000 posts on social media. “We must be one to fight with dictatorship,” one Lao user tweeted in English under the hashtag. “One day we [are] hoping Laos and other country will be free.”
Under the “if politics was good” hashtag, Lao web users have tweeted out their support for Thailand’s protests, and issued calls for reform in their own country, a one-party state where stirrings of dissent usually stamped out quickly.
Lao and Thai social media users have also used the hashtag to call for the release of political prisoners, including Houayheuang Xayabouly, also known as Muay, a 30-year-old social media influencer who was arrested in September 2019 after she posted a video on Facebook criticizing the government’s delayed response to floods caused by a dam collapse. She was subsequently sentenced to five years imprisonment. Prior to her arrest, Muay’s videos regularly received tens of thousands of views.
Given that Southeast Asia boasts four of the world’s top eight Facebook user bases, it is natural that social media and instant messaging apps have become important tools for the region’s social movements. The rare growth of online dissent in Laos comes amid the continuing expansion in the “Milk Tea Alliance,” a remarkable example of transnational anti-authoritarian solidarity that has united activists in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. During recent frictions with China, netizens from India and the Philippines have also beamed out support for the alliance.
As Singaporean blogger and activist Roy Ngerng put it in an interview with Reuters earlier this year: “The Milk Tea Alliance became the common ground from which we can express our solidarity in humorous and safe spaces. Solidarity is taking on a more organizational and structural form.”
Of course, there is always a risk of extrapolating trends from social media into the real world of politics. By Southeast Asian standards, Laos has a relatively small pool of social media users: As of January 2020, according to the site Datareportal, social media penetration in Laos stood at 43 percent, compared to 67 percent in Vietnam, 75 percent in Thailand, and 88 percent in Taiwan.
The Lao government is also much less willing to allow even the limited space for political organizing that currently exists in Prayut’s Thailand, and would likely respond ruthlessly to any upsurge in open dissent. Over the past few years, as social media has become more popular, the LPRP government has arrested a number of social media users for critical comments posted on their profiles. Some have been forced to make public confessions on state-run television.
This comes on top of the growing number of dissidents who have disappeared in mysterious circumstances. The best known case (though hardly the only one) is that of Sombath Somphone, a civil society activist who was stopped at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the Lao capital Vientiane one night in December 2012. He was then transferred to another vehicle, according to a police surveillance video, and was never seen again.
Scholars of online political activism have noted the importance of real-world organizing in successful movements for change. This is something that the Lao government seemingly has no intention of allowing. But for now, the fact that people are willing to criticize their government openly has opened up at least one small chink in the country’s political façade.