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Thai political crisis fuels social media boom

world Updated: Oct 24, 2010 08:57 IST
AFP
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When Thai authorities shut down his website, Sombat Boonngamanong turned to Facebook to share political views with fellow supporters of the "Red Shirt" opposition movement.

A year later he has two accounts and thousands of followers on the social networking site, which has become a popular platform for political debate in a country where opposition media have been silenced by the government.

"In Thailand, the Facebook boom has come at the perfect time given the political situation, because it became a convenient tool to avoid censorship," said Sombat, one of the few Red Shirt leaders not in prison or on the run.

"People can express their views freely on Facebook, especially Red Shirt people. Their other channels were blocked by the government," he told AFP.

While Facebook's success is a global phenomenon, debate over Thailand's political crisis has sparked particularly strong growth in the kingdom, which was rocked by deadly opposition street protests in April and May.

Helped by the launch of a Thai-language version, the number of Facebook users in the country has more than doubled since January and now stands at more than 5.7 million, according to Facebakers, which compiles data about the site.

That's almost nine per cent of Thailand's population of about 67 million.

Thai journalist Noppatjak Attanon said the number of people logging onto Facebook and other social media sites such as Twitter surged during the unrest earlier this year because people were "hungry for news."

"Many people created groups on Facebook to express their political opinions and share them with people with the same ideas," said Noppatjak, a newspaper reporter with The Nation and a prolific Twitter user.

Politicians have been quick to recognise the potential of social networking sites. The government has even launched a scheme to teach lawmakers how to use them to reach out to voters.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has more than 480,000 fans on Facebook -- five times more than British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra also regularly uses Twitter to address his red-shirted supporters from self-imposed exile.

But using such sites is not without risks in a country where human rights groups are increasingly alarmed about restrictions on freedom of expression.

"Facebook has become the government's tool to monitor people, searching for its opponents and trying to block these people," said Supinya Klangnarong, an activist with the Thai Netizen Network.

In April, a Red Shirt sympathiser was arrested and charged for allegedly insulting the monarchy on Facebook -- a serious crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail. He remains in detention awaiting possible trial.

"Facebook is a new technology and we don't have any way to control it yet," said Chuti Krairiksh, minister of information and communication technology.

The government "respects the principle of freedom of expression," he told AFP. "But if people break the law then we can take measures against them."

Thousands of web pages have been removed in recent years on the grounds that they were insulting to the Thai royal family.

The editor of the popular Prachatai website could face up to 70 years in jail after she was arrested on charges of insulting the monarchy and breaching computer law -- for comments posted by users of the site.

Even teenagers can get into trouble: a 17-year-old contestant was forced to withdraw from a popular reality television show in July after posting scathing comments on his Facebook page about Abhisit.

"The problem in Thai society now is that we don't accept other people's opinions," said Supinya. "We don't accept the differences or freedom of expression. We forget that people can think differently."

It is a reflection of the deep political divide in Thailand, where 91 people died and nearly 1,900 were hurt in clashes between Red Shirts and troops during two months of protests, which ended with a bloody army crackdown in May.

Sombat's online activities have helped propel him into a high-profile role within the Red Shirt movement, organising weekly gatherings that have recently drawn thousands of supporters.

The authorities have used emergency powers to detain hundreds of Red Shirt suspects and shut down anti-government television channels, newspapers, radio stations and websites.

Sombat was arrested in June while tying a red ribbon on a signpost to commemorate members of his movement slain during the May military assault on their rally base in central Bangkok. He was released two weeks later.

Despite the media clampdown, thanks to sites like Facebook and Twitter political views can still be heard.

"In the past, the small voices of ordinary people were ignored by media," said Sombat.

"Facebook is an open space for these small people where they can express feelings, thoughts and also can read what's on other people's minds. It's a place for the small people to express their opinions," he said.