Thailand’s hashtag activism targets political change
20 Apr 2020|

In Thailand, harsh laws, military-backed governments, rewritten constitutions, flawed electoral processes and controls on public expression have long restricted citizens from engaging in meaningful political discourse.

General Prayut Chan-o-cha seized power in a military coup in 2014 in an attempt to end the nearly decade-long political deadlock between the traditional ‘yellow shirt’ royalists and ‘red shirt’ populists. Since then, thousands of dissenters have been arbitrarily arrested and some have been killed under mysterious circumstances. But the government, described by one of Prayut’s key allies in parliament as a ‘democratic dictatorship’, is now under threat from viral activist campaigns on Twitter.

There are more than 52 million active social media users among Thailand’s 67 million people, making it a leader in global rankings for connectivity and internet use. There are 17 million Thai Twitter accounts. Traditional media have been tainted by pro-establishment propaganda in the name of national security, and Facebook, which was mobilised by the red and yellow shirts to fire up massive protests more than a decade ago, is now being policed by conservative family members and government authorities.

With Twitter’s greater potential for anonymity and global reach, more people in Thailand are recognising it as a platform for political resistance and pressure for change.

In tweets often intertwined with pop culture references and catchy slogans, Thais are now openly discussing the scandals and shortfalls of not just the military government, but the royal family as well.

Some of the most prominent political hashtags, such as #LousyGovernment, #GetOutPrayuth, #RIPThailand, #NoConfidence,  #PleaseEnjoyUsingTaxpayersMoney and #OneStupidLeaderIsGoingToKillUsAll, have been used by millions to voice anger and despair over the state of their country’s leadership.

One simple tweet, ‘Will I ever live to see Thailand become a developed country?’, has been retweeted more than 74,000 times. Another that said ‘Let’s plan a way to kick out Prayut’ garnered 56,000 retweets in two days.

Twitter hashtag activism is slowly reversing the public’s reluctance to disrupt the false sense of stability that has flowed from Thailand’s turbulent history of political crackdowns and street protests ending with gunfire.

Some prominent examples came with the new, pro-democracy Future Forward Party. Led by billionaire tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the party used virtual campaigning to bridge the rural and urban political divide and reach young voters who had been disengaged from politics. Facing the threat of dissolution, the party used Twitter to call for a rally in Bangkok that became the largest protest seen since the 2014 coup.

After the constitutional court dissolved the party in February, students from across the country created satirical anti-government hashtags such as #SSRUCan’tBeLoudThey’reNextDoor, #MURefusesToEatColourfulDesserts and #KKUIsSorryForBeingLateSalimDeletedOurPost (‘Salim’ and ‘colourful desserts’ are derogatory terms used to describe Thai conservatives and religious chauvinists who claim to be politically neutral under the guise of multicoloured shirts). These hashtags gained momentum overnight and led to more than 30 rallies calling for Prayut to step down and restore democracy. Student-led movements of this scale have been unheard of since the 6 October uprising in 1976 and the Black May protests in 1992, both mass demonstrations against military dictatorships that ended in civilian massacres.

Since the death of King Bhumibol in 2016, Thais have been criticising the monarchy to an unprecedented extent—despite lèse majesté laws making criticism of the royal family punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment for each instance. Trending issues include the road congestion caused by police blocking traffic for royal motorcades (#RoyalMotorcade), authorities shutting down a popular island for a princess to hold private year-end celebrations with her close friends (#IslandShutdown), and a cinema asking customers to leave after they refused to stand for the royal anthem (#BanMajorCinemas).

More recently, the hashtag #WhyDoWeNeedAKing was used more than 1.2 million times in 24 hours after King Maha Vajiralongkorn was reported to be travelling across Germany to escape the Covid-19 pandemic. An overnight Twitter war between Thai and Chinese users emerged over recognition of Hong Kong and independence for Taiwan on the hashtag #nnevvy. Thais retweeted insults about their government and the monarchy made by Chinese users.

This growing discontent has infuriated the government. Prayut has become well known for his outbursts in response to public scrutiny, daring people to oust him and suggesting that journalists who don’t report the truth should be executed. Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan has threatened to prosecute those who disseminate what he described as malicious fake news and information that might ‘impact on national security or damage a particular organisation’s reputation’.

On 24 March, Thailand declared a state of emergency due to the Covid-19 pandemic and put measures in place to prosecute citizens who criticise government actions. An ‘anti-fake news’ centre was set up by the government last year to monitor online content. In addition, the Royal Thai Army has reportedly launched information operations targeting anti-regime tweets and manipulating content to harm pro-democratic entities.

However, it’s nearly impossible for authorities to suppress the thousands of voices behind trending hashtags. The arrest of a 20-year-old anti-royalist drew a significant backlash on Twitter. The hashtag #SaveAnonymous quickly trended to first place in Thailand, and Twitter users crowdfunded nearly $90,000 to cover the activist’s legal fees and bail.

Thanathorn declared: ‘The feelings have evolved and there is a need for action everywhere … and this is what they [the military junta] fear; they fear change.’

Hashtag campaigns have sparked a shift in Thai political consciousness extending well beyond coloured-shirt clashes. They are likely to lead to much bigger demonstrations and it will be very difficult for the government to silence the increasingly vocal dissenters. The more the government cracks down on Thai Twitter, the quicker the hashtags will trend, the harder the retaliation will hit, and the more pressure the regime will be under.