Thai war of words on the web

By Martin J Young

HUA HIN, Thailand – The role of the Internet and information technology in Thailand’s recent political unrest and violence was crucial, as both sides took to social networking websites in unprecedented numbers to get their points across and share their images and video of the unfolding events.

In a country where public confrontation is generally avoided, it seems that citizens are breaking away from their chains of tradition and returning to the web to voice their concerns on the kingdoms current plight.

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Facebook became the new battleground as Thailand reeled from two months of political violence, with many of the country’s 3.6 million members of the social networking site using it to hound their opponents and post their pro- or anti-government opinions.

Usage of Facebook in Thailand, which has 16 million Internet users, has doubled in the past six months as political tension has escalated along with government censorship of websites, radio stations and television. This week alone has witnessed the banning of three more publications and Thai newspaper Thai Rath claims that up to 500 websites per day are also disappearing from screens in the country.

Censorship in Thailand has long been practiced by both political sides to prevent anti-government sentiment when they have been in power. Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party heavily censored the Internet and any media that he didn’t control during his tenure.

In addition to strict lese-majeste laws, which can land offenders with a 15-year jail sentence for defaming royalty, hundreds of opposition websites and anti-government pages have been closed in recent months.

Large billboards encouraging citizens of Bangkok to report, via a button on a new government website, any online insurrection or royal defamation are springing up across the city like Orwellian mushrooms.

The censorship of the anti-censorship petitioning group FACT (Freedom Against Censorship Thailand) also shows how much the government is stepping up its efforts to control the flow of information on the Internet, although Wikipedia’s lengthy page on the subject remains viewable at the time of writing.

Reporters Without Borders and other press freedom advocates claim that over the past few years in excess of 50,000 websites have been blocked in Thailand and the current total is over 65,000. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders also said that Thailand has slipped from 65 in 2002 to 130 in 2009 in its ranking for press freedom.

High-profile websites such as Facebook and Twitter are a little harder to block in entirety – though that hasn’t stopped Iran or Pakistan doing just that (see Big Brother caught out Asia Times Online, May 22, 2010) – but specific pages and groups responsible for hate speech and threats have been closed by site administrators and some Facebook pages run by or supporting red-shirts (the group at the center of the recent Bangkok disturbances) have also been blocked.

The anti-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) have been employing their own tactics to counter the ever-growing firewall. It was reported by the Bangkok Post that the UDD has developed a tool bar enabling non tech-savvy Internet users to circumnavigate the traditional URL blocks used by Thailand’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) and download their own broadcasts.

Cloud computing has also been employed by the protest group, which has used a combination of Google Appspot and Microsoft Horizon from servers in two locations in the US to host their content.

The government is working towards implementing an independent office of national cyber-security similar to those already operating in other countries in the region, including Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia and Japan, to combat such online incursions, which it says are crimes against national security.

The evidence is all digital; YouTube video footage of red-shirt leaders inciting violence and encouraging crowds to burn government and commercial buildings is likely to be used in evidence against those captured on camera.

Primarily Bangkok-based pro-government yellow shirt activists have also taken to the Internet and Facebook en masse to deplore the partial destruction of their city and the violence, looting and burning that followed the military cleanup of protest camps.

Twitter has been another key tool in the posting of information; hundreds of Thais armed with mobile phones flooded the micro-blogging website with updates from both sides of the barricades. The relentless flow of commentaries, images and videos on social media websites far out-paced that coming from traditional Thai and Western news organizations, which often tended to lean to one side or the other.

Thailand has one of the more outdated data communications and mobile phone systems in the region; due to government red tape, there isn’t even a fully commercial 3G network for the country yet and most users are restricted to slow 2G data transmissions such as EDGE and GPRS. It is surprising then that the web has been embraced so vigorously in recent weeks when sometimes it is a struggle just to get online.

When the dust settled in the streets of Bangkok, the ripples of the conflict and the vast divergence that has split families and friends in the kingdom continued to resonate vociferously in the online world. A new wave of digital reporters and online social activists has emerged in Thailand, though few seem to be benignly fair and balanced.

The level of hate speech, anger, threatened violence, xenophobia, and general hostility that has ripped through Facebook, Twitter and local forums recently by both sides emphasize that this deep-rooted conflict in what was once known as the Land of Smiles is far from over and a new front line has been firmly established: the Internet.

The only way to get ahead of the mega corporations these days in technology seems to be by forming partnerships, and that is exactly what Nokia and Yahoo have done this week. The mobile-phone giant and the Internet pioneer will be working together in an effort to compete with rivals Google, Apple and Microsoft who are very unlikely to be working together.

Yahoo’s mail and instant messenger services will soon find their way onto Nokia handsets. In return, Nokia gets to power Yahoo’s mapping and navigation services. Nokia is the leading mobile phone vendor in emerging markets but has lost ground in the US to platforms such as Apple, Android and BlackBerry. Both companies hope that the partnership will increase the focus on maps and geo-location technology, which is all the rage across North America, and expand Yahoo’s email and messaging services to a wider audience.

With Google’s Android gaining even more market momentum and powerful new smartphones hitting the shelves, the battle ahead will be a tough one.

The launch of Apple’s iPad, as predicted, has spurned interest in tablet devices, so it is little surprise that models with increased flexibility and higher specifications from other computer manufacturers are becoming available. Dell, the world’s third-largest computer company, this week announced its entrance in the tablet arena in the form of the Streak, a 12.5cm Android-powered unit.

The device will have all the usual connectivity capabilities, such as 3G, WiFi and Bluetooth, along with Android’s standard batch of utilities and tools, and a 5-megapixel camera. It is powered by a 1GHz Snapdragon processor and comes with two gigabytes of internal storage and support for an additional 32GB SD card. These specifications put it closer to the smartphone category in a lineup with Motorola’s Droid and HTC’s EVO 4G. Still, the tablet market is still a relatively empty dance floor with the iPad easily holding center stage.

Hewlett Packard announced its own tablet, dubbed the Slate, earlier this year. The unit was intended to be based on Microsoft Windows, but since the planned acquisition of Palm Inc, HP seems to have delayed production while considering a switch of operating systems


Apple aficionados will praise the iPad regardless, but with alternative devices emerging that do enable you to install non-Apple-approved applications

, remove the battery, use Flash, and save money, the market place for tablets will be heating up and seeing some serious contenders.

Martin J Young is an Asia Times Online correspondent based in Thailand.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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