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THAILAND: Social Media Provide Space for Arguments, Catharsis

BANGKOK, May 29 2010 (IPS) - After months of turmoil, silence – albeit an uneasy one – has finally fallen over the streets of Bangkok. But the shouting continues in cyberspace as Thais and even foreign residents bicker and debate over what this South-east Asian country has just experienced, as well as about the challenges it continues to face.

Nearly two weeks after the army crackdown on anti-government protests, many continue to use the Web as a convenient place to unload their emotions and thoughts about one of the most painful moments yet in modern Thai history.

Reflecting the sharp and emotional divide in the country, posts on Facebook and other social networking venues range from those saying ‘we love the Thai army’ to those sympathising with some of the grievances by the protesters with the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD).

Some conversations centre around praise or criticism of the government and the UDD. Others ask how reconciliation can be done after the most violent episodes of political unrest in this country.

Still others rue the burning of buildings around Bangkok on May 19, the day the army went through the barricades around Rajprasong shopping district to break up a campsite that the UDD had set up since early April as part of its campaign to demand a fresh election by the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Wrote Patnaree Wongsuwan on the Rajprasong Facebook page: “So sad to see many memorable places burn down…Very quiet and smell still there. I feel lost in downtown and (feel it’s) haunted there.”

More than 30 buildings across Bangkok – including the upscale Centralworld mall – smouldered after being torched by what officials say were UDD supporters angered by the surrender of their leaders earlier on May 19.

There is even an ‘I Love Centralworld’ Facebook page, gathering thoughts such as ‘Even if they burn us 1,000 times, we’ll build it 10,000 times… and I’ll go 10,000 times more’ that others have called misplaced given the number of lives lost in the government operation.

Some 88 people have died and 1,885 injured in the government operation from May 13-19, according to official figures. Most of the fatalities were civilians.

The UDD red shirts, called such because of their protest colour, argued that a new poll was needed because the incumbent government came to power in December 2008 through a parliamentary vote assisted by the military instead of a national election. Since that tense week in mid-May, when street battles raged in some areas amid the sound of gunfire and the fear of snipers, many Thais have been going online, whether it is because they are frustrated by local media reports, because of what some perceive as biased reporting by the some international media outfits or because they want to exchange views with others.

A political analyst and blogger who goes by the handle ‘Bangkok Pundit’ says that an “information deficit” had pushed people into cyberspace.

One of the more popular English-language Tweeters in Thailand, Bangkok Pundit comments, “The most important role that online media played in the recent crisis was providing timely information. Many TV stations broadcast normal programming — a mixture of game shows and soap operas — even on the day of the crackdown and riots.”

He adds that on Twitter at least, “there is instant feedback so people can quickly challenge the accuracy of reports”.

Given the free-for-all nature of the Net, however, some posts have ignited feedbacks so passionate that verbal fisticuffs have all but broken out in many blogs, websites, Facebook pages, and even in tweets.

Some Netizens have been apparently irritated and angered enough to open fresh Facebook pages in retaliation, among them one calling for the sacking of a Cable News Network (CNN) reporter who has been accused of biased reporting in favour of the red shirts.

Pakorn Lertsatienchai, researcher at Chulalongkorn University’s Social Research Institute People, says join groups online to be able to “get some frames for analysis of the situation”. But unfortunately, he points out, the frames are not neutral.

Indeed, many now say that that sifting the truth from an overwhelming deluge of information online is a must.

Even Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s secretary general Korbsak Sabhavasu — a Tweeter himself — was quoted at the height of yet another attempt at talks with the red shirts as expressing concerns about social networking sites and their less than accurate information adding to the tensions.

Asawin Nedpogaeo, communication arts dean of Dhurakij Pundit University, explains that while social media can act as an alternative source of information and fill a void the mainstream media cannot do, “the viewpoints expressed here tend to be extreme and limited among groups of people who share the same idea”.

“Social media allow people to seek their own interest as this is such a huge space for information, help them shut down to things they don’t like, and just go for what they’re comfortable with,” Asawin says.

In two weeks in April alone, before the Rajprasong crackdown, reported 288,360 new registrations in this country of 2.7 million Facebook users.

This was even as the government, under a state of emergency put in place in early April, began blocking websites, including independent news site Local media reports say that there are now than 1,000 websites blocked since May 19.

As for online media being a venue of fair debate in lieu of a politically divided mainstream media, Pakorn is not quite sure. “It depends on your ability to search for information and justify information as fact. Fair debate must be based on facts,” he says. “The Internet contains a lot of rumours, organised ones.”

He says that online information is best used for “humanitarian aid or voluntary groups” such as the post-crisis cleanup campaign for Bangkok, where thousands showed up to volunteer after May 19. That, adds Pakorn, is “a good sign for humanity”.

*The Asia Media Forum ( is a space for journalists to share insights on issues related to the media and their profession. It is coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific.

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