Popular party’s disbandment sparks information war
In the third of the series on the rising campus activism, ThaiPBS World’s Political Desk examines how students are using social media as their new political weapon to vent their fury on the powers-that-be.
The recent dissolution of the Future Forward Party has angered its mainly young supporters and triggered an “information war” on social media that is pitting backers against detractors of this once-rising star of Thai politics.
Both sides stand accused of employing information operations, better known as IO, to promote their standpoint and sabotage their rival’s.
University and school students angered by Future Forward’s disbandment have joined a growing nationwide movement protesting what they see as injustice. The students, holding their rallies mainly on campus, blame the government of General Prayut Chan-o-cha and his cohorts for the Constitutional Court’s February 21 verdict.
For the protesting students, many of them first-time voters in last year’s general election, their favourite political party did not deserve such severe punishment.
Many took their campaign online, criticizing the court verdict, accusing the powers-that-be of masterminding the ruling, and attacking government supporters with derogatory terms such as “salim”. The term signifies fence-sitters and refers to people of multiple “political colours” who did not support the rival “red shirts” or “yellow shirts” movement dominant in Thai politics over a decade ago.
The young dissidents are facing a social-media backlash, with posts on Facebook questioning the legitimacy of their cause and suggesting they are being exploited by self-serving politicians who “simply disregard the justice system”.
A number of celebrities with strong followings on social-media voiced support for the court’s decision, pointing out that the party actually failed to abide by the law. On the opposite side, famous supporters of the dissolved party argued that the law was unfairly enforced as other parties committed the same violation without being punished. The opposing standpoints are spawning fiery exchanges and even hate speech in social media.
Thanathorn, now removed as Future Forward leader, threw his support behind the youngsters’ growing dissent.
“It’s time to stand up against injustice. It’s time to tell the powers-that-be that this country belongs to the people. We are not just tenants – we are the owners,” the tycoon-turned-politician wrote on Facebook on February 26.
He said his party’s dissolution was “a price to pay” in the hope of awakening Thais to the “abnormalities in this society”. The protesting students were simply exercising their legitimate right as the owners of this country to fight against those “social abnormalities”.
During last week’s censure debate targeting the PM and his key Cabinet members, opposition MPs accused the government of being behind the military’s IO activities supposedly aimed at discrediting government critics and opposition politicians. General Prayut did not clearly reject the allegation but instead countered that an unnamed political party had long employed IO against his government.
Echoing that accusation, critics of Future Forward said the party was behind the ongoing campus rallies and had mustered an army of “online warriors” to carry out concerted attacks against the government and its supporters.
Organisers of the students’ so-called flash mobs are relying heavily on social media to mobilise participants and support for their campaign, even concocting catchy hashtags to attract attention.
The hashtags in the protesters’ social media posts usually refer to their universities and schools while taking a swipe at “dictatorship”, the court and government supporters.
The hashtag “#ChangpuakJaMaiThon” (or “White Elephants will no longer tolerate it”) indicates a group of Chiang Mai University students. “#LookPhorKhunMaiRubChaiPhadetkan” declares that Ramkhamhaeng University students do not serve the dictatorship. “#BUGooMaiChaiSalim” states that Bangkok University students do not support the government.
The hashtags indicate the protests have spread to universities in all regions of the country. They include Chulalongkorn, Thammasat, Mahidol, Kasetsart and Ramkhamhaeng in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phayao and Naresuan in the North, Prince of Songkla in the South, Burapha in the Eastern Seaboard, and Khon Kaen, Ubon Ratchathani, Maha Sarakham and Suranaree University of Technology in the Northeast. Joining them in the ongoing challenge to authority are pupils from prominent high schools, including Triam Udom Suksa, Satriwithaya, Suan Kularb and Bodin Decha.
But as the student movement gathers steam, their anti-establishment campaign has run into opposition.
The management of many schools and universities have declared campuses off-limits to protesters. Meanwhile some celebrities slammed the “exploitation” of youngsters by “selfish politicians” – though they were quickly branded government lackeys by the movement’s supporters. There were also allegations that students had displayed messages insulting the monarchy during protests.
The ongoing online battle is viewed as a face-off between youngsters who want to see a more democratic Thailand, and the establishment and older generation who oppose any challenge to the status quo.
Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of Ubon Ratchathani University’s Faculty of Political Science, says the young dissidents’ social media campaign seemed to be forcing Thai authorities to listen, although he doubts they will be completely successful.
The academic warns that both sides in the online battle could end up spreading biased half-truths, or even fake news, if they opt to post or share only information favourable to their cause.
“Both sides will get the complete picture only if they are willing or ready to accept information from the other side instead of denying it,” he said.