As a Thai, I’ve witnessed the complicated relationship Thailand has had with freedom of speech. Talking about the constitutional monarchy in a negative light leads to serious implications. Many have disappeared or been exiled for sharing their opinions, making it that much harder to fight against authority. However, censorship hasn’t stopped certain Thais from making their voices heard. With the use of online media and entertainment, the digital age has opened new doors for this new generation of activists to effectively engage in the political stage.
Like any other government, Thailand is far from perfect. On May 22nd, 2014, Thailand experienced its 12th and most recent Coup d’Etat launched by the Thai military. Additionally, Thailand has in place one of the strictest lese majeste laws that restrict freedom of speech of its people. This law forbids anyone to defame and insult the monarchy. It’s been ingrained in all the minds of Thais that speaking up against authority and the monarchy is taboo. Fearing that what they do or say might be considered as wrong, Thai’s believe that it’s better to not say anything at all. Especially as speaking up has led to multiple forced disappearances and to individuals exiled out of the country. As a Thai myself, the rigor and seriousness of the laws are real. Growing up, whenever the rare occasion the monarchy was discussed, someone would always say “careful they might be listening” as if this phrase would unjinx what was said. Although it might not necessarily be a negative conversation, the paranoia that is instilled within Thais all over the nation proves too extreme.
Although many have chosen to remain silent with these laws in place, others have had enough. Through the power of social media, Thai youth have spoken up and created a new movement called Free Youth. On the 18th of July, Thailand’s streets were flooded with what is known as the largest group of demonstrators since the 2014 Thai Coup d’Etat. Social media has been the main driver of the new movement, where Thailand’s youth have found ways to make it all happen just by the tips of their fingers.
The Importance of Social Media
Social media allows activists to easily plan big demonstrations in the capital city of Bangkok while simultaneously informing individuals outside of the city. This allows activists outside the big city to create their own “flash mob” style protests themselves. Although small protests happen at different times and places, it allows the movement to collectively come together. It even enables the movement to extend far beyond just Thailand. The Milk Tea alliance is a 2020 digital democratic alliance formed between activists from Thailand, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, showing how social media can create massive waves. The alliance empowers netizens from different countries to voice support for each other in their fight against their authoritative governments.
Social media also keeps interested participants up-to-date. Every protest is linked to a certain Twitter hashtag, a pinnacle way for non-participants to have an unfiltered and synchronous news feed. Not only does traditional media report on events late, the Thai media censors the authentic atmosphere of the protests. The concurrent updates of the protests are important in ensuring that everyone is safe on the field and can get help if needed. Trending hashtags also mobilize public participation while allowing the new movement to develop its brand and identity. It allows Thai youth to anonymously create and outline a new political climate that expresses the needs, wants, and desires of this new generation. This anonymity is more important than ever, as the government cannot target specific individuals for forced disappearance.
The Influence of Entertainment Media on the Protests
Due to years of living in a repressive environment, citizens have found ways to maneuver around all kinds of censorship. While the protests are here to make changes, they have also adopted a fun, comical, and light-hearted method by incorporating ideas, themes, and symbols from entertainment media to vocalize their message. For example, the three-finger salute from The Hunger Games was adopted by protesters as a symbol and act of defiance against an authoritarian state. The salute also symbolizes the three demands that the Free Youth are asking for. These include the resignation of the prime minister, an amendment to the military-written constitution, and an end to the intimidation of the people and cases of the missing person.
As I was interested in understanding the realistic atmosphere of the protests, I asked Poon Singhatiraj, who has attended a total of 3 protests, about his experience. Singhatiraj says that the protests felt more like a carnival or fair. Alongside the roads were the street vendors selling “moo-ping” (Thai grilled pork on skewers) with large speakers blasting music. In one of the protests Singhatiraj attended, the Japanese cartoon hamster Hamtaro was used as their symbolic figure. This hamster is now a rebel sign where protests have changed the theme song into an anti-government anthem. Another smaller event incorporated a Harry Potter theme where the goal was to “cast a spell for democracy”.
It allows Thai youth to anonymously create and outline a new political climate that expresses the needs, wants, and desires of this new generation.
With these media-related protests, demonstrators go out on the street and create signs related to the characters and storyline. People will dress up in Harry Potter or Hamatoro costumes to get into the spirit of things. Singhatiraj says the theme creates a “light-hearted and fun atmosphere that makes it seem approachable for outsiders to join”. From the looks of it, this method has been working. More and more people are willing to go on the streets and fight for their rights, making the protests larger than ever. This growth is monumental for a country like Thailand where the political climate doesn’t allow you to speak up, and where citizens are still afraid to have their voices be heard.
Since Thai protesters face an immense lack of security, they have found creative ways to sustain and expand the movement into something bigger and more impactful than ever before. Firstly, social media reports the events authentically and on time. Secondly, it allows activists that are part of the Free Youth to remain anonymous while voicing their opinions. Thirdly, hashtags spread like wildfire, allowing the movement to grow larger than ever before. Finally, the media themed protests attract newcomers, making the protests grow in the number of participants.
The tech-savvy generation has effectively used the digital tools they were given to their advantage in Thailand and the rest of the world. As the digital world grows, this is only the beginning of a new technological age of activism.
Cover: Poon Singhatiraj