Thailand’s cybercoup

May 27

Thai police and army soldiers stand guard outside a military compound before former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra arrives to report to Thailand’s ruling military on May 23, 2014 in Bangkok, Thailand . (Photo by Rufus Cox/Getty Images)

The following is a guest post from University of British Columbia political scientist Aim Sinpeng.

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It was the most social-media savvy coup in Thailand. And for a country with one of the largest number of coup attempts in the world, 19 in total, since 1932, it was quite a feat. The men in uniform are trying to get with the times. Perhaps they learned from Turkey’s Erdogan that they could block social media sites like Twitter and YouTube and still win an election. Or perhaps they underestimated how shutting down Twitter had backfired on Tunisia’s Ben Ali and helped fuel more protests.  Either way, the Thai military thought the coup had to be carried out properly: on the ground and in cyberspace.

First things first: why was there a military takeover?

The military felt after seven months of unrest in Thailand between the pro- and anti-government groups and with little to no sign of a “compromise” among warring elites, that they needed to take control of the situation. Under the leadership of the army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, they first declared martial law on May 20, then followed with a complete takeover on May 22. Gen. Prayuth now acts as an interim prime minister and has abolished the 2007 constitution.

Unprecedented in Thailand’s coup history was the military’s extent of media engagement. For the first time ever, the martial law declaration was announced through its Twitter account, @ArmyPR_News, and its new Facebook home, National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the official name of the military government. This makes sense considering that 96 percent of Thais with Internet access use Facebook. So when the NCPO announced its coup, social media served as a key platform.

Despite rumors of a complete Internet blackout, the military stopped short of doing that. Yet, the May 22 coup d’état centered on the battle over information control. In comparison to the previous military takeover, in 2006 and 1991, the junta has taken more drastic measures to curb press freedom. The coup was no longer just about who controlled the government, but also who controlled the media.

Is information control still possible in this this digital era?

Traditional media – TV, radio, satellite, newspapers – proved easier for the military leaders to manage. No need to be savvy here. The military had to only declare martial law and the Thai media knew just what to do. Press freedom has not been high in Thailand anyway. According to Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, Thailand’s rankings hovered within the 130th range, out of 175, for the past 10 years – a level comparable to authoritarian states like Zimbabwe. The media is used to self-censorship and if/when the military is in power, they know to stay away from reporting “political” issues.

But the NCPO did not want to leave room for error. Following the declaration of martial law (and before the coup), they issued 19 orders, six of which specifically targeted information control. The military suspended all normal programming of radio, cable TV and satellite stations and had the media only play re-runs of military-approved programming. Thais were also ordered to stay home, but they were deprived of their much beloved evening soaps. Only recently were the six public TV channels able to resume normal programming, still under a watchful eye of the military government. Apart from not being allowed to present views that could fuel more tension in the country, Thai TV programs are also no longer permitted to present the opinions of viewers – meaning no more SMS messages or phone-ins by audience. An op-ed on the Nation asked the military whether they could like “emoticons,” which may show emotions of readers, online. No one seems to know where the “line” is.

Foreign media were affected too, with CNN, Fox, CCTV, CNBC, and Bloomberg asked by the junta to stopped their reporting. CNN continued on its Twitter account @cnni. They have, as of May 25, been able to resume their work, but must not report on any information that could create disunity in Thailand, nor are they allowed to interview academics for their viewpoints.

Some Thais, however, took the heightened censorship in stride.

Thailand’s main cable company, True Corporation, put up a list of TV-free activities for their distressed consumers, who knew no life without television. Some Thais, bored with repeatedly listening to the same military-style music, began a petition on a popular web board, drama-addict, to request a new, more modern pop-like music. One user, Chawada lovelove, wrote:

We pay your (military) salaries through our taxes to protect us from harm. You took away all our media, and we are OK with that!!! But all you do is play this ancient music over and over – the kind of music not up to our taste. Sir, please, Sir, could you play another song? We are bored.

Social media control, however, will prove much more difficult. Yes, the military will try, and they will try hard. The NCPO summoned the executives of all 51 ISP providers in Thailand and “asked” them for cooperation to monitor and report on any inappropriate behavior online. Such behavior would include anything that would create disharmony and disorder in society, broadly defined.  Internet providers would be required to submit a list of URLs to be blocked within one hour to the Ministry of ICT, Cyber Police, or the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission. Already, reportedly more than 100 Web sites have been blocked since May 20.

The media ban between May 20 and May 24, however, drove people online. The lack of “news” and anything on TV during those critical days following the imposition of martial law prompted ordinary people and journalists alike to flock to social media to get their information.

Based on an analysis of Google Analytics, the most searched terms in Thailand on google.co.th (Thailand’s #1 web site) last week were: 1) “Facebook” 2) “movie” 3) “music” 4) “news” and 5) “YouTube.” Key words that went viral included “martial law” “coup” and “coup d’état”:

Google searches in Thailand (Source: Google Trends)
Google searches in Thailand (Source: Google Trends)

Thais were also tweeting. The hashtag #รัฐประหาร (#coup in Thai) was tweeted 10,724 times and reached nearly 8.9 million Twitter followers between May 21 and May 24, right after martial law was imposed:

Tweets in Thailand
Tweets in of #coup in Thai (Source: Keyhole)

Fear is likely to grow both online and offline as more and more “lists” of names, many including journalists, writers and academics, are summoned to report to the military. But the media is trying to push back. Four media associations released an open letter on May 25 asking the ruling NCPO to “rethink” their censorship on media. Prachatai, a popular online newspaper, changed its homepage background to black with a message: “Journalism is not a crime” (picture below). The Bangkok Post, Thailand’s main English news source, wrote an op-ed that was seen as critical of the coup – arguing that the coup would “offer no solution” to the country’s conflict.

Prachatai Home Page (Source: prachatai.com)
Prachatai Home Page (Source: prachatai.com)

The tug-of-war over information control will be the most challenging yet for the new military government in Thailand – particularly when it comes to social media. Surprisingly even the NCPO’s own Facebook page, contained negative comments posted by Thai Facebook users.

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