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THAILAND: Digital Divide Surfaces in Polarised Politics

Analysis by Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, May 6 2010 (IPS) - Nearly eight weeks after anti-government demonstrators occupied the streets of this modern metropolis, virtually crippling two iconic areas, the rage it has generated in the media has exposed another fault line cutting across this kingdom – a digital divide.

The division pits Thais who have turned to the new media for political information and expression – from Facebook and Twitter to blogs and websites — against those who are rooted in this South-east Asian nation’s oral tradition, where the old media, like radio, are sought.

It is a divide that adds to other chasms that have surfaced since mid-March, when supporters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) arrived in their thousands from the rural, rice-growing provinces to stage street protests. The confrontation between the economically and politically marginalised supporters of the UDD against a government backed by Bangkok’s elite has invited comparisons of a class war and a town versus country divide.

Violence that erupted since Apr. 10, when a botched military crackdown on the protesters led to 25 deaths and left over 800 injured, even prompted the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, to warn of the country slipping into an “undeclared civil war.”

The digital divide hardly surprises analysts, who attribute it to the anger the round-the-clock street protests has triggered. The surge in the number of Facebook users in Thailand last month is directly linked to politics on the streets.

Facebook.com reports that this country has 2.7 million people using the social networking site, of which 288,360 new members came on board in April. Facebook’s spread in Thailand, which has 16 million Internet users form among its 66 million people, has been rapid since the beginning of 2009, when Facebook users had been an estimated 200,000.


“Facebook has become a key place for political discussion, news reporting and political organisation,” writes Jon Russell, a digital media blogger, who is based in central Thailand. “Considering 500,000 new members joined between January and April this year, a 280,000 plus new additions in two weeks (in April) suggest politics had led many Thais to join Facebook to take part.”

The majority of the Facebook share a common profile. They are educated, urban and hail from the country’s middle and upper classes. Their political sentiments have a uniformity, too, say media analysts, pointing to the wave of anger directed at the UDD’s supporters in the comments.

“You will see how divided Thailand is by following Facebook, blogs and Twitter,” says Supinya Klangnarong, vice-chairperson of Campaign for Popular Media Reform, a media watchdog. “When the political crisis began in March, Facebook became popular for the Thai urban, middle-class educated people to express their opinions and anger.”

The political content crackling on social networking sites marked a shift from the way Thais had used Facebook before, Supinya tells IPS. “It was light stuff earlier. People talked about the weather, lifestyle, restaurants they ate at and posted photos from holidays.”

But the anger on the social networking sites towards the red shirts, as the UDD’s supporters are known because of the colour of clothing they wear, has been matched by a similar rage directed at the 17-month-old government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on community radio stations. The red shirts are pressuring the military-backed Abhist administration to dissolve parliament and call a general election.

An expanding number of community radio stations, which have topped 6,500 since their introduction to the local broadcasting culture nearly a decade ago, has gone from being voices for grassroots social and cultural concerns to championing the cause of the UDD in the provinces.

“Community radio stations and Internet radio have been more popular with the UDD,” says Naruemon Thabchumpom, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “The information they spread is what their supporters believe in. It is to enhance the UDD’s view.”

The power of these radio stations in the provinces has created a new following of listeners, upstaging the previous information order, adds Ubonrat Siryuvasak, a former professor of communications at Chulalongkorn University. “Before community radios’ arrival, the government had control of all the information that flowed to rural areas through radio.”

“The pro-government views that are spread in the mainstream broadcast media have not helped,” she tells IPS. “Pro-UDD community radio stations have attracted a following as a result.”

Thailand currently has 524 licensed radio stations, of which 220 are under military control and 140 belong to the public relations department.

But a plan unveiled on Monday by the Abhisit administration to restore political peace in the country confirmed the one unifying feature shared by those on either side of the country’s digital divide. They have been fanning hate speech.

“The media must have freedom, but such freedoms should be regulated by an independent mechanism in order to ensure that they are not misused to create conflict and hatred, thereby leading to violence,” stated a summary of Abhisit’s five-point ‘roadmap for reconciliation’, of which the third focused on the media’s role in the current conflict

“The media – be they the Internet, satellite television, cable television or community radios – have at times been used as political tools by exploiting loopholes,” added the third step in the government’s peace plan. “Even state television channels have been criticised as playing a part in the conflict.”

 
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