The Debate | Opinion | Southeast Asia

The Internet as Battleground in Thailand’s COVID-19 Tinderbox Moment

Online tools have been invaluable for Thailand’s pro-democracy movement – but the government is cracking down.

By Colleen Scribner for
The Internet as Battleground in Thailand’s COVID-19 Tinderbox Moment
Credit: Pixabay/Thomas Ulrich

The link between internet access and fundamental freedoms became clear in 2019 as governments in countries like Iran, Algeria, Zimbabwe, and Indian Kashmir attempted to snuff out large-scale protest movements by shutting down the internet. One of the latest examples of this practice is in Thailand, where the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is responding to large-scale student and youth-led pro-democracy protests with repressive internet restrictions. To maintain internet freedom and sustain the pro-democracy movement in Thailand, service providers and content hosts must resist restrictions and civil society must creatively circumvent them.

The Thai protests, which began in earnest in July of this year, defied a restrictive COVID-19 state of emergency order issued in March, which banned “fake news” and all gatherings. After months of continued demands and protests for Prayut’s resignation and constitutional reform, the situation escalated after a large demonstration in which some participants heckled a royal motorcade. The government declared additional state of emergency measures on October 15, and arrested at least 87 protest leaders in the following days. Demonstrators subsequently organized five consecutive days of large-scale protests, sending the message that no amount of arrests would keep their decentralized movement off the streets.

In addition to the October arrests, the regime moved the same month to shut down independent online media outlets like Voice TV, Prachatai, The Reporters, and The Standard. (The judiciary has since lifted the suspension orders.) Prayut’s government also blocked the petition site change.org and reportedly moved to restrict access to the messaging app Telegram, while attempting to force the tech giants Facebook, Twitter, and Google to take down content critical of the Thai monarchy. Although the extra state of emergency powers were rescinded on October 22, the protests have continued.

Until its recent deployment against protest leaders, the Thai government has used its harsh lese-majeste laws less frequently in the past two years; however, Thai authorities have used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext for increased restrictions on civil and political liberties. For instance, several users were charged under the March 2020 emergency degree for sharing information about COVID-19 and the government’s response. Activists and journalists have also been targeted under the Computer Crime Act or faced defamation cases from private companies and individuals.

Simultaneously, the pandemic had laid bare the extent of Thailand’s socio-economic inequality. While the government has been effective in combating the virus’ spread and moved quickly to provide economic relief, COVID-19 has highlighted the outsized power that the country’s ruling class has accumulated at the expense of small businesses and the informal sector. Eight million Thais may also be out of work by the end of 2020, fostering grievances and creating a population with time to engage in protest activities. This convergence of two forces – increased political repression and awareness of inequality – has created new protest incentives. The internet has then enabled demonstrators to act on these incentives.

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Continually increasing social media and internet penetration ensures that Thai citizens can share information and increase their organizing capacity. According to DataReportal, national social media and internet penetration stands at about 75 percent, and the number of social media users increased by almost percent between April 2019 and January 2020. Social media platforms have been an instrumental tool for the Thai pro-democracy movement, allowing it to rapidly organize mass gatherings and even build regional solidarity with protesters in Taiwan and Hong Kong. For instance, Telegram has enabled demonstrators to coordinate the location of protest meet-ups with thousands in a single group chat. As a result, the Thai government appears increasingly motivated to crack down on internet content to impede free expression, access to information, and freedom of assembly, building on Thailand’s long history of obstacles to access, limits on content, and user rights violations.

The private sector has a vital role in preventing the suppression of Thailand’s pro-democracy movement. First, service providers should use all available legal channels to push back against government requests to restrict connectivity, or block websites and social media platforms. Content hosts – including social media platforms and news outlets – should resist requests to remove or block content hosted on their platforms. If government requests cannot be resisted in full, both service providers and content hosts should limit the scope and duration of any restrictions. Responses from international tech platforms have so far been mixed in protecting human rights online, but Facebook is setting a largely positive example. At the government’s request, Facebook blocked Thai-based users from accessing Royalist Marketplace, a group created on the platform by a critic of the monarchy. However, the company also announced legal action in response to the request, noting that “requests like this are severe, contravene international human rights law and have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves.”

Digital organizing can be a considerable asset to civil society leaders, granting them access to national and global audiences. Yet, as Erica Chenoweth has noted, “movements that do not rely solely on digital organizing techniques are more likely to build a sustainable following,” precisely because online activities create an opportunity for government surveillance and suppression. Thus, to sustain their ability to disrupt the regime, Thai demonstrators will also need to find creative offline approaches to resistance. Already, protestors have developed a hand signal vocabulary to move protective equipment and supplies among themselves. Employment of pop-cultural references from Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, in addition to humor and satire, have also proven effective organizing tactics. On November 7th, more than 10,000 protestors tried to deliver personally written letters to the king, but police stopped their delivery with water cannon. Should the government begin to engage in blocking more protest-related content or throttling fixed or mobile internet connections, these tactics will become even more important.

It is evident that the internet is a critical battleground in the fight for democracy and human rights in Thailand. In order to preserve it, the private sector must take appropriate steps to counteract and oppose government suppression. However, if the pro-democracy movement is to survive, Thai demonstrators cannot rely on online tactics alone.

Colleen Scribner is Program Officer at the Lifeline Fund for Embattled CSOs at Freedom House and the 2020 Human Rights Fellow at Young Professional in Foreign Policy. She has previously held positions at the Public International Law and Policy Group, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery.