This publication is from Carnegie’s Civic Research Network.

Janjira Sombatpoonsiri
Janjira Sombatpoonsiri is an assistant professor on the Faculty of Political Science at Thammasat University in Thailand.

Since the 2014 military coup, Thailand’s authoritarian regime has tightened its grip on cyberspace, ramping up attempts to control the internet and online dissent. To defend internet freedom and maintain pressure, activists have responded with a wave of new campaigns and tactics. Two recent cases illustrate how, and why, some campaigns have been successful and others have not. The lessons learned may offer activists a window into how to maximize their efforts in a highly polarized environment.1

New Controls, New Activism

After the 2006 military coup, the Thai government enacted the Computer Crime Act, authorizing state agencies to block any internet content deemed threatening to national security or contravening public morals and public order. However, the intensity of internet control has increased dramatically since the 2014 coup, which the military undertook to smooth the process of royal secession and preserve traditional elites’ hold on power.2 The resulting junta pledged to take necessary measures, especially through “communication and technological means,” to protect the monarchy from “malicious intent.” The regime blocked access to hundreds of websites in the week after the coup. It set up working groups to monitor and analyze content, identify problematic sites, and combat online crimes, including the dissemination of illegal information. This heightened internet control was accompanied by a dramatic increase in lèse-majesté charges against critics, dissidents, and ordinary citizens.3 Jail sentences for lèse-majesté convictions have become much harsher for noncriminal acts on social media, such as simply “liking” or sharing Facebook posts or chat messages construed as critical of the monarchy.

The junta proposed two measures of internet control in recent years that drew heavy public criticism—the 2015 Single (Internet) Gateway proposal and the 2016 amendment to the Computer Crime Act. The former seeks to monitor internet content by reducing the existing twelve internet gateways to one gateway controlled by the state-owned CAT Telecom. The latter increases sentences against loosely defined cyber law offenders—aiming to instill fear as well as self-censorship among the populace.

In response to these efforts, online activism has intensified. By criminalizing dissidence and exploiting the country’s polarization to strengthen its own credibility as a force for stability, the military has made it more difficult for civic and political opposition forces to stage street protests. Many activists have looked to online activism as an alternative. Some critics have been skeptical that this offers a way forward, insisting that the polarization between Thailand’s red shirt and yellow shirt factions makes it difficult to mobilize online. Yet the public outcry against the government’s recent attempts to control the internet invites a more nuanced assessment.

Rollback of the Single Gateway

When the junta-appointed cabinet proposed the Single Gateway in May 2015, civil society groups argued it would violate digital rights and freedom of expression. More importantly, they argued that it would negatively affect the economy and everyday lives of ordinary citizens, who increasingly rely on the internet for entertainment, communication, public transport, and even food delivery. A representative of Thailand’s Association for Website Protection publicly expressed concerns that the proposal would result in slow internet connections and many failed online financial transactions. In addition, experts warned that the Single Gateway could lead to connectivity failures, obstructed data flows, and compromised data confidentiality—and that these problems would discourage foreign investment in Thailand. For their part, online gamers and computer “geeks” worried that the policy would affect the speed of online games and expose personal data. In an unofficial online poll, more than 90 percent of the five hundred people who responded disagreed with the introduction of a Single Gateway.4

Activists employed three tactics to contest the proposal: an online petition, discussion forums, and clandestine cyber attacks. Civic groups including the Internet Foundation for the Development of Thailand and the Thai Netizen Network created an online petition at Change.org. The page provided information about the effects the Single Gateway would likely have on netizens. More than 150,000 signatures were gathered. Meanwhile, affected business groups handed their own petition to the minister of information and communication technology. Activists created forums to discuss the matter—despite the government’s criminalization of any criticism. Prominent forums on Facebook that captured diverse segments of society included “The Single Gateway: Thailand Internet Firewall,” “Anti-Single Gateway,” and “OpSingleGateway.” The latter quickly garnered more than 200,000 followers, who exchanged views on how the curbing of internet freedom would affect everyday life and how citizens should resist the measure.

The most innovative countermeasure was a series of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks: an anonymous group, Thailand F5 Cyber Army, declared a cyberwar on the Thai government by encouraging netizens to visit listed official websites and continuously press F5 on their keyboards to refresh the pages. The goal was to overwhelm web servers and cause a temporary collapse of the websites of the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, Government House of Thailand, National Legislative Assembly, and Internal Security Operations Command. The group disseminated detailed instructions on the operation to its anonymous activists. It then demanded that the junta cancel its Single Gateway proposal.

Most of the attacks were successful. Activists wanted to demonstrate the government’s technological ineptitude and its lack of capacity to manage the Single Gateway. Arthit Suriyawongkul, coordinator of the Thai Netizen Network, described the campaign as virtual civil disobedience—an online version of the nonviolent resistance practiced by civil rights groups in the United States.

In another case, an activist group called Anonymous launched a #BoycottThailand campaign on Twitter and reportedly hacked government websites, snatched confidential information from official databases, and shared it online.

Put on the defensive by these multiple campaigns, in October 2015, the junta scrapped the Single Gateway proposal.

Expansion of the Computer Crime Act

The regime soon changed its strategy. In April 2016, it proposed a legal amendment supposedly designed to help develop Thailand’s digital economy. Under this scheme, the 2007 Computer Crime Act would be modified to tackle cyber threats to national security. While the Single Gateway tangibly threatened citizens’ everyday lives, the junta framed the amendment to its political advantage. The government presented it as part of a “digital economy” policy package—giving many citizens the impression that it would limit cyber crimes—and, under this guise, cloaked increased sentences against online critics of the government and monarch.

Public debates on the amended law were significantly different from those on the Single Gateway. The business sector, moving away from economic arguments, expressed concern over legal sanctions. For example, Thailand’s biggest internet providers such as True and DTAC were afraid that the amended law would punish internet providers for allowing “distorted” information to be shared and consumed via their servers. This would compel internet providers to install mechanisms for customer surveillance. Similarly, start-up entrepreneurs were afraid that the legal framework would enhance the government’s authority to monitor and sentence them. Some feared the law would empower the government to smuggle the Single Gateway initiative in through the back door. Civil society organizations such as Amnesty International Thailand, the Thai Netizen Network, and Privacy International requested that the government address these infringements on citizens’ rights.

As they did in response to the Single Gateway proposal, netizens actively used online forums to discuss and debate the potential effects of the modified cyber law. Rights groups, including iLaw and the Thai Netizen Network, engaged diverse groups ranging from progressive online magazines such as The Momentum, Way Magazine, and The Matter to environmental activists who have experienced local authorities’ abuse of the Computer Crime Act. The activism campaign was also prominent on Twitter, where users were encouraged to include the hashtag Computer Act (#PhoroborComp) in their posts about the amendment. The hashtag appeared in an estimated 166,000 tweets in mid-December 2016. Meanwhile, the F5 Cyber Army joined the fray, continuing its DDoS attacks on government websites, providing manuals for ordinary netizens to wage the cyberwar, and simultaneously hiding activists’ identities from the authorities.

Popular disagreement with the revised law was mostly reflected in an online petition. Online gamers helped spread the notion that the cyber law would eventually pave the way for the Single Gateway. They were enraged by the prime minister’s characterization of online games as “useless.”5 An expert viewed this insult as a turning point for the anti-cyber law petition that had initially attracted little public attention. The petition subsequently gained more than 300,000 signatures and was submitted to members of the National Legislative Assembly.

Despite these efforts, in December 2016, the National Legislative Assembly passed the amended law by consensus.

Explaining These Successes and Failures

The two civic campaigns yielded different results largely because of political polarization. Debates around the Single Gateway concentrated on a significant slowing of internet speed—which would have had a practical and universal impact. The potential consequences for the economy and everyday life were obvious. Many people who were not politically active and disinclined to define themselves as the opposition could nevertheless see the downsides to the junta’s proposal. This was the case for Bangkok’s middle class, which has broadly backed the army in the belief that it can bring back order and national unity after a decade of political conflicts and which constitutes key supporters of the conservative, royalist movement or yellow shirts.6 Although the middle class’s values are oriented toward the preservation of order and social harmony, their livelihood and everyday convenience depends on Thailand’s economic growth and global connections. The internet has become a basic necessity for these citizens. They were not bothered much by the Single Gateway’s threat to privacy rights and freedoms, but they did care about its potential to damage the economy.

The dynamics changed when the government moved to repackage its internet control policies using a law-and-order approach. The 2016 amendment to the Computer Crime Act was framed as a response to the growing problem of cyber insecurity. The government was able to claim that those not engaged in criminal acts had nothing to fear from the revised law. A government mouthpiece even went so far as to blame red shirt leaders for stirring up unjustified public concern over the new cyber law. Unlike the Single Gateway, there would be no indiscriminate impact on internet speed. As a result of this legal framing, activists argued that the cyber law would violate privacy rights.7 Similarly, the business sector focused on the legal impact the new law would have on its services. In Thailand, these kinds of rights-based discourses are often associated with pro-democracy, pro-Western, and red shirt sympathizers. This enabled the junta to play divide and rule and prevent a broad alliance from emerging against the amendment—opposition to the law was instead dragged into the red-versus-yellow political struggle. This took some pressure off the regime, enabling it to gain a consensus.

These examples show that cyber activism is on the rise, but that its tactics and messaging need to be fine-tuned. The failure described above illustrates the importance of developing cyber-related campaigns that connect specific, core issues to those of broader concern. In the Thai case, the economy and the internet speed, as shown in the anti-Single Gateway campaign, are examples of these broad issues. Such campaigns can expand the pool of allies beyond the usual suspects, inhibiting the government’s polarizing tactics. Whenever possible, activists should strive to create messages that resonate across Thailand’s socially and economically diverse populations. Recent experience in the country suggests that cyber activism has some potential to circumvent the restrictions and rivalries that hinder more traditional political activism but that it can also be drawn into and even magnify existing societal battles. While many activists employ rights-based narratives, some segments of society interpret this language as having underlying political motivations. A more broad-based coalition has a greater chance of success in restraining the government’s cyber repression. For now, cyber activism works as a useful complement to other forms of activism but not as a decisive game changer for Thailand’s bitter and corrosive political divide.

Janjira Sombatpoonsiri is an assistant professor on the Faculty of Political Science at Thammasat University in Thailand. She is a member of the Carnegie Endowment’s Civic Research Network.

Notes

1 This article expands on an earlier published piece by the author; see Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, “As Thailand Restricts Internet Freedom, Cyber Activists Work to Keep an Open Web,” The Conversation, July 26, 2017, http://theconversation.com/as-thailand-restricts-internet-freedom-cyber-activists-work-to-keep-an-open-web-80911.

2 King Bhumibol Adulyadej reigned in Thailand for more than seventy years. He passed away on October 14, 2016, and in December that year, his son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, ascended to the throne.

3 See, for example, “March 2016: three court cases of computer crime, article 44, detention of influential figures and summoning of villagers” [in Thai], iLaw, April 5, 2016, https://freedom.ilaw.or.th/report/มีนาคม-2559-พิพากษาสามคดีพรบคอมพวิเตอร์ฯ-ใช้มาตรา44-คุมผู้มีอิทธิพลแต่เริ่มเรียกชาวบ้านรายงานตัว; “3 years of the NCPO, standing still” [in Thai], Way Magazine,May 22, 2017, http://waymagazine.org/3rd_ncpo/; Thaveesak Kerdphoka, “Top five cases of 112 charge in the age of the NCPO” [in Thai], Prachatai,June 28, 2017, https://www.prachatai.com/journal/2017/06/72156; and “Court cases against environmental activists” [in Thai], iLaw,December 31, 2016, https://freedom.ilaw.or.th/blog/ตารางคดี-ปิดปาด-นักเคลื่อนไหว-ด้วยพรบคอมพิวเตอร์ฯ-มาตรา-141.

4 This is an unofficial survey published on a Thai website called Kapook. Independent and official polls are virtually nonexistent in Thailand under the current junta. The government often fabricates polls to solidify its legitimacy to rule. See, for example, David Eimer, “Thai government poll apparently shows 99 per cent of citizens are happy with the leadership,” Telegraph, December 23, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/thailand/12066647/Thai-government-poll-apparently-shows-99-per-cent-of-citizens-are-happy-with-the-leadership.html.

5 Private conversation with an anti-cyber law campaigner and legal expert, July 3, 2017, Bangkok.

6 See, for example, Nidhi Eoseewong, “The Thai Cultural Constitution,” Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, no. 3 (2003); Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, “The 2014 Military Coup in Thailand: Implications for Political Conflicts and Resolutions,” Asian Journal of Peacebuilding 5, no. 1 (2017): 131–54; Marc Saxer, “The Middle Classes in the Vertigo of Change,” Social Europe, August 20, 2014, https://www.socialeurope.eu/2014/08/vertigo-of-change/.

7 See, for example, “Watch out new Computer Act, concerns over restricted freedom of expression” [in Thai], Naewna,November 1, 2016, http://m.naewna.com/view/highlight/242633; Gimme (pen name), “Cyber security law—no more privacy and we have to stop this” [in Thai], Droidsans,January 29, 2015, https://droidsans.com/stop-cyber-security-law.