The Coup and the Information War in Thailand

Anti-Coup demonstrators in Thailand. Photo by Prachatai via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Anti-Coup demonstrators in Thailand. Photo by Prachatai via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There is an information war on in Thailand. Beyond the martial law and the coup d'etat that the military had declared, there is censorship. The military shut down cable, radio stations, and some TV stations and instructed those on social media to be “very careful” — all before declaring a coup.

So little is being reported in Thailand these days when it comes to political news. Army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha demanded public TV channels only show news from military-approved sources. Re-runs of military announcements are what many Thais are seeing on their TVs, day after day. The “lack” of news is frightening at a time when people are hungry for news. While most Thais are used to curfew — there have been so many in this past decade alone — having some sense of what is happening in their country could help ease the minds of Thais who have been ordered to stay at home. And they have a right to know what is happening in their country.

Although martial law is normally accompanied by restrictions on speech and media freedom, the military was very cautious this time around. Unlike the last coup in 2006, the men in uniform made strong and explicit statements to both the traditional and new media producers and consumers to be careful how they behave. Media and ISP executives were summoned to meetings and warned repeatedly over social media to avoid “improper” conduct.

Of the 19 official statements made by the newly-formed National Peace and Order Maintaining Council, six specifically target the flow of information and news. The military says that it must control TV, radio stations and the Internet as a way to ensure that “truthful” and “correct” information is disseminated to the population. The Council is reportedly most worried about social media communication, where they have the least direct control and they have openly expressed concern that non-censored information flows could pose further challenges to the military rule and the state on the whole.

One statement from the Council demands that Internet service providers monitor online networks and rub out information that could “breed disorder” in the country. The statement reads:

In order to disseminate proper Internet news to the population – void of manipulation that could create misunderstanding or conflict…Internet providers must:

  1. monitor and stop any information dissemination that could breed disorder within the Kingdom or would negatively impact the stability of the state and the morale of the people

  1. be summoned for a meeting at the Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission….

What is the military afraid of? Much anxiety is being driven by the threat of “propaganda to elicit violence by ill-intent individuals.” The military believes there are “underground” groups in Thailand determined to wreak havoc on the country. They worry that unless they control and centralize the dissemination of information, they will not win this battle. It’s not just the battle between the Shinawatra and “the Rest,” but rather between the state and its “subversives.”

Since martial law was imposed, security forces have begun arresting individuals suspected of subversive behavior and turned up reportedly military-grade weapons. Some of these were believed to have belonged to individuals with ties to the warring protest movements.

Is the military takeover of the media warranted? The coup in 2006, while the military imposed certain restrictions on media freedom, it did not result in this level of information lockdown. Many of the commercial TV channels in Thailand were hardly political: they mostly showed soap operas, game shows and music videos. Perhaps the near ban on media is meant to function as a sweeping act of fear-mongering. Or perhaps the military believes it will help suppress the voices of its opposition.

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