Why is Twitter still accessible in Thailand?
Some Thai commentators have rightfully pointed out that the ongoing military coup could be ripped straight from a “Coup 101” course at the Royal Military Academy. When martial law was first declared last week, tanks rolled up outside all local TV stations and checkpoints appeared around Bangkok. And then, on Thursday (while I slumbered dumbly in the throes of a Mariana Trench-deep jet lag nap), the military announced that it was taking full control of Thailand’s government institutions. The country’s 12th coup d’état since 1932 was official.
The military swiftly implemented a nightly curfew (there goes my planned dinner romp around BK Magazine’s Top Tables winners this week….), constructed more checkpoints, banned political assembly, closed schools through the weekend, and summoned prominent political leaders, journalists, and activists—including ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The junta also took all foreign news channels off the air, replacing them with this charming message.
But despite an initial warning last Friday that critical social media sites would be blocked, the ubiquitous and powerful Twitter genie is still out of the bottle. Given its role as a platform for criticism and dissent during recent high-profile political uprisings, it is somewhat surprising that a junta battling defiant protestors continues to allow the site to function.
It’s not a question of technological capacity. The junta most certainly could pull the plug on Twitter if it wanted to—an estimated 200,000 websites are already blocked in Thailand. And it isn’t because Friday’s warning is being universally obeyed either. An outspoken journalist for English daily The Nation, Pravit Rojanaphruk, livetweeted his way to be detained by the military—and his Twitter is still accessible. Prominent expat blogger Richard Barrow Tweeted his condemnation of the coup. And Embassy Twitters are still posting their governments’ strong words against the junta. Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly #militarycrushmonday in the foreign Twittersphere.
Ultimately, it seems to be a question of which interest groups in Thailand are using social media. Popular support for the coup comes mostly from the Thai upper-middle and upper class, roughly the same social strata that was behind January’s Bangkok Shutdown movement aimed at deposing the Prime Minister and supplanting democratic elections with royal appointments… or workers’ councils… or something. And for two years running, the most Instagrammed places in the world are located in Bangkok—last year’s was the swish Siam Paragon Mall and 2012‘s was Suvarnabhumi Airport. I’ll bet that the people taking selfies before their flight to Phuket or choosing a filter to showcase their new Miu Miu shoes are not members of Thailand’s populist Red Shirt movement who strongly support the ousted government.
Bangkok’s GDP per capita is three times the national average, and Thailand’s elite is clustered in the city. Bangkokites enjoy high Internet penetration, flock to social media sites, and are smart-phone crazy. So, perhaps it isn’t really that surprising that, as foreign journalists call for civil freedoms to be respected, they are facing a cyclone of angry replies and calls for them to leave Thailand. Even the social media-savvy U.S. Ambassador Kristie Kenney, who is normally quite popular with Bangkok’s elite Twittersphere, has been besieged with uncharacteristically nasty replies to her recent anti-coup updates.
The junta itself has launched a Facebook page and even rebranded itself over the weekend (wisely ditching the cumbersome “National Peace and Order Maintaining Council” moniker in favor of a less awkward English translation). So, the military is clearly somewhat cognizant of its image—even if it is still uncomfortable with social media’s role in organizing flash mob-style protests and spreading criticism. Additionally, the military could not expect to curry any favor by locking up a huge mode of communication and expression for their support base.
Back in March, the world was taken aback when Turkey blocked Twitter (myself included… not least because I managed to send out a barrage of love-Tweets to Istanbul just two days before the ban would have made that impossible). Why is Twitter banned in a country that is still governed by an elected government, but isn’t banned under martial law in Thailand? Probably because Turkey’s government, also troubled by urban protests, enjoys a popular mandate largely drawn from a rural and lower class voting base. The specter of more urban protests in Istanbul always haunts the Erdoğan government… and unrest is just a social media campaign away from realization. But, in Thailand, most of the junta’s detractors aren’t in the city (yet) and are not as big of a force on Twitter. So, the channels stay open.
For now, it seems I can enjoy a few more #ThaiCoupHaikus and links to delightful articles like the “Bangkok Guide to Drinking Under the Coup.” Because, while Bangkok is still Tweeting up a storm, many urban Thais (but, it should be noted, not all) are saying exactly what the junta wants them to.
For more background on the Thai coup, check out this quick-and-dirty backgrounder from Vox. As I ride out my first experience under martial law, I may be posting my own backgrounder later in the week.