Facebook is a giant. It is not only the probably best known social media platform of the world, it is also a corporation that owns services such as WhatsApp or Instagram. Being such an online imperium acting worldwide, Facebook is powerful. And it faces many pitfalls, for example regarding data security, hate speech, different local laws and censorship. In this series, I will examine Facebook’s not always glorious role in development, conflict and crisis around the world.
If you travel to Thailand as a tourist, you should know some basic rules. The probably most famous one: Don’t do or say anything that might seem to criticize the monarchy. Don’t step on Thai Bath bills (as they show the king’s portrait), be respectful, stand still, and be calm when the National Anthem is played in public places at 6 pm and avoid talking about monarchy or political issues If you tend to be critical. Those rules seem odd to some people but they are easy to follow as a tourist.
The first time I understood how severely the Thai lèse-majesté law actually affects peoples’ lives and political changes was in 2017. I came to Thailand to study at a Thai university for one semester. Spending lots of time in an international bubble as well as with my Thai classmates, I experienced differences and similarities between Eastern and Western cultures, discovered how different value systems and definitions of terms like “democracy” can be. I knew I was a guest in this country and I tried to discover my surroundings value-free. Grown up and socialized in Germany, I was impressed by the collectivism in Thai society but also wondered about the different view on politics. Some things were strange but all in all, I felt really comfortable until in May 2017.
It was at the end of my stay when I couldn’t forget anymore about the fact that the lèse-majesté law helps suppressing political opposition and censoring free opinions. Only a few final exams were left to write, when I read the news about a dispute between the Thai government and Facebook. Facebook refused to block 131 pages which contained illegal content. One third of the pages allegedly violated the lèse-majesté law. When Facebook didn’t follow the government’s request, the government threatened to ban Facebook completely. A harsh threat if you consider that beside Youtube and Line, Facebook is one of the most important social networks in Thailand and almost all Internet users have a Facebook account in the country. I found out that this ban request wasn’t the first one and that Facebook already blocked content in the months and years before. My Thai friends for example couldn’t riskless watch and share the pictures of their crown prince wearing a crop top while spending time in Germany. I saw them in several newspapers at home. I found out that several people who did see and share those pictures and videos were even jailed.
After learning all that, I recognized that the Facebook profile of one of my teachers suddenly disappeared. Rumours started to spread amongst students. And I started asking myself what was happening. How should I answer questions about democratization in the upcoming exams? How should I comment on monarchy? And how should I behave in the Social Media? I didn’t want anyone to get in trouble because of my thoughts or behavior. And at the same time, I wasn’t sure anymore about what could be said and written in Thailand at all. It was only a short insight I got into the tense relation between government and activists, between Thailand and Facebook, between monarchists and democrats. A short insight that made me realize how confusion and self-censorship work.
My Thailand experience was in a time, when Thailand was kind of dimmed. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the beloved father of the nation and at this time world’s longest-reigning current head of state had passed away not even a year ago, the country was still in mourning. In Bangkok, they were preparing for a pretentious funeral and the coronation of the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn. The people all over the country were wearing dark colours, acted respectfully. They didn’t aim to start unrests.
Now, three years later, things have changed. Maha Vajiralongkorn went too far by grabbing more and more power, transferring assets from the Crown Property Bureau to his own and lastly spending time in a German luxury Hotel while his nation was facing the Corona crisis. Many Thais don’t want to keep silent anymore. Many have been unhappy with the military junta governing their country since 2014. But now they are also unhappy with the king.
This year, students started to protest. Using symbols from fictional stories like the Hunger Games or Harry Potter, they started a peaceful fight against the political system in Thailand by rallying the streets and expressing their opinion in the social media. The pro-democracy movement soon started criticizing the monarchy directly. The students call for reforms, amongst others, they demand to revoke the lèse-majesté law, to adjust the monarchy budget according to the economic situation of the country and to “to abolish the excessive one-sided glorification and propaganda in education regarding the monarchy”. Given that within the last years several critics of the monarchy were abducted, murdered or just went missing, the students are courageous.
I saw the images of the protests in the news. Some of my Thai friends posted fotos of them showing the three fingers gesture out of the Hunger Games movies which became the movement’s sign of identification. And as I remembered what I learned about the history of revolutions and coups in Thailand I was fearing the worst. In 1976, students’ protests ended up in a massacre at Thammasat University in Bangkok. Could the current demonstrations end up like that? Will the armed forces end the peaceful gatherings violently? They did not so far.
The times have changed since 1976, the people in charge have changed and the protests then and now are different. And the national and international attention increased due to the possibilities of the web. Using Hashtags like #FreeYouth or other Hashtags in Thai language in the social media, the Thai students are reaching out to people all over the world. Facebook is playing a big role for the movement as two examples show:
- Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a critic of the junta and the monarchy who is living in exile and works at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, is the founder of a Facebook group called “Royalists Marketplace”. He set it up in April 2020 and calls it ”a space for freedom of expression”. Within the group, 1 million members had the chance to express their critique of the monarchy. In an opinion article for Washington Post, Chachavalpongpun describes what happened to the group. It was blocked by Facebook because of the “obligation to follow the laws of the countries in which it operates”. Thailand’s digital minister had threatened with charges under the local Computer Crime Act if the company would refuse to block content which is against Thai law. Facebook at the end gave in but announced legal action against the government’s demands.
- During the last months, several activists were arrested. One of them is Parit Chiwarak, one of the students’ leaders. His arrest was filmed and streamed on Facebook. And he is not the only activist whose fate is published on Facebook. People who fear to get arrested or abducted livestream their lives. Students who witness their friends being arrested film the situation. Facebook helps them to grant transparency and visibility.
According to Chachavalpongpun, the self-exiled academic and activist, “[s]ocial media is a significant catalyst for change”. Facebook and other platforms in the case of Thailand have a strong influence on the peaceful revolution. One the one hand, they help by offering new tools for communication, networking, and visibility. On the other hand, Facebook is torn between following the government’s legal demands and protecting Human Rights. It remains to hope that the company will find a way to be a catalyst for good.