Global Voices Southeast Asia Editor Mong Palatino contributed to this article.
The Royal Thai Army launched a coup on May 22, 2014 after several months of intense clashes between protesters and government supporters. It was the 12th successful coup staged by the army; the last one was in 2006. The coup regime quickly seized control of media outlets, imposed a nighttime curfew, suspended the Constitution, and ordered the temporary detention of many Thai politicians. The army vowed to implement electoral reforms and to stabilize the country’s politics. Although the curfew has been lifted in many places, the media is still strictly regulated. The junta has also banned protests and the public gathering of five or more people.
Global Voices’ Jannie Lung conducted the following interview with a Thai citizen currently living in the United States. For security reasons, the interviewee has asked to remain anonymous.
What is the impact of the coup on ordinary people in Bangkok and outside the capital?
This does not have significant impact on ordinary people [who are not active politically]. They can still carry on their lives as normal for the most part. I talked to my mother [who lives in Bangkok] this morning and she is happy and able to carry on her normal life. Their access to the news and certain websites is definitely limited, but thankfully social media has not been banned.
On the other hand, for those who have disagreed with the coup or are active politically, whether at the present time or in the past, throughout Thailand or abroad, whatever they say will be reported to the junta. There are two major parties, roughly evenly split: Pro-royalists who support the coup and the pro-democracy group who are opposed to the junta.
The junta tried to block Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube for one hour two weeks ago, but because of the popularity of these sites, they decided ultimately not to block them in order to appease the middle class, pro-royalists.
How do Thais share information about the coup? How is social media facilitating the spread of information? Is social media being used to organize protests?
Facebook is the preferred method of sharing information about the coup and protesting against it. Facebook offers a level of anonymity because Thai users are able to sign up using a fake name. However, it is often difficult to distinguish fact from rumor, and there is a danger of reinforcing existing beliefs and false information because our newsfeed consists primarily of similar/like-minded opinions. [The interviewee has two Facebook accounts, one real and one using a fake avatar in order to protest the coup. See Editor's note below on Facebook real name policy.]
One of my sources for news on Thailand was the YouTube channel of Amarin Newsnight. Unfortunately, the host of the show, Pinyo Traisuriyathamma, has decided to suspend his short-lived news broadcasts after the imposition of the coup. Last year, he hosted a five-part series on the Thai monarchy, in which the final episode was banned.
Do Thais support the coup?
Those who actively participate in politics are few due to fear of imprisonment or punishment. The Thais who live outside the country have mixed views about the coup. Again, most Thais do not choose to disclose their political views.
What do you fear personally will happen to you as a result of publicly sharing your political views?
That my name will be called by the junta through government media, that I will be asked to turn myself in, or that I will be blacklisted and unable to freely travel to and from Thailand. There is a lot of public shaming for this within Thai culture. You will receive a lot of grief from family members for having your name called out by the junta because you will have brought shame or bad luck upon the family through your “bad behavior”. For those who have been arrested, even if they are released they will not be permitted to leave the country.
What are the prospects of the junta allowing a new round of elections?
The coup leaders are the most powerful military group in Thailand, Burapha Payak. They have staged several coups in the past. No one should feel confident that there will ever be an election again. In order to stay in power, I think the coup leaders will either block future elections, rewrite the constitution, or eliminate their opposition by imprisoning other potential candidates to keep them from running in future elections.
What are examples of human rights violations being committed by the junta currently?
Freedom of speech violations and wrongful imprisonment are the biggest ones. Some of those who have been summoned by the junta were critical academics, former government officials, and journalists. In terms of killing or torture, I am not aware of any such incident. However, I've noticed that when prisoners or detainees are released, they are strangely silent about what happened to them while in prison.
Editor's note: Facebook requires that users register under their real names. There has been much criticism and debate about the efficacy of this policy in the human rights community. As the interviewee notes here, Facebook offers a vital platform for the exchange of information but many users only feel safe engaging in this kind of exchange when they can do so using a pseudonym.