Resistance goes online, Emergency Decree extended, what’s next?

Guerilla message projection and online sharing are being used as protest movements as the Covid-19 Emergency Decree is used to prosecute and prevent offline gatherings, foreshadowing many days which could trigger public discussions and gatherings.

In May, Thai politics has moved online as public events have been prohibited and eventually criminalized during the Covid-19 lockdown.

In Germany, a group called PixelHELPER has been projecting messages onto the Grand Hotel Sonnenbichl in Bavaria and famous landmarks like the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag.

Their messages mainly criticize the Thai King and call for democracy. They are asking online for public donations to help them to keep on rallying.

Meanwhile in Thailand, where the lèse majesté law prohibits discussion of the monarchy, other issues are raised in a similar manner. On 10 May, the Progressive Movement, a group of former members of the dissolved Future Forward Party projected onto sites around Bangkok messages about the 2010 military crackdown on the red shirts. They relayed their message online with the hashtag #ตามหาความจริง (SeekingTruth).

Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, who was army commander at the time of the crackdown said that now is not the time for protest as the Covid-19 outbreak is the main priority. The Metropolitan Police say that they are investigating the campaign. (Source: Thairath)

A student activist group from Bangkok University posted photos of projected laser messages on the university buildings. The messages demand that the University return tuition fees and call for a more inclusive safety net policy from the state during the Covid-19 crisis.

On 22 May, a group including students staged small demonstrations in several places in Bangkok to mark the 6th anniversary of the 2014 Coup. Not many people attended. In some cases, police officers outnumbered participants. They still gained a lot of traffic online.

Emergency Decree criminalizes protest

Offline activities were suppressed and harassed by the authorities using the Emergency Decree which prohibits public gatherings that could lead to infection. This provision in the Decree has been steadily subverted to criminalize public gatherings.

This month, 2 people have already been arrested and prosecuted at events marking the anniversaries of the red-shirt massacre and the 2014 coup. Another public gathering in Songkhla province was banned by police on 24 May. In all cases, the police cited potential violation of the Decree.

On the other hand, the online world has been used to mobilize so-called ‘mobs from home’. People express their opinions in unison via a hashtag. When combined with minor activities on the ground, the messages resonate across social media and are then picked up by news agencies and reach larger audiences.

The real impact is still questionable as this lacks the synergy of the old-school form of protest that created attention by massively disrupting a public sphere. However, this has become a new norm of social movement under the Thai government’s attempts to control Covid-19.

The cabinet decision on 26 May to extend the Emergency Decree to the end of June will overshadow many anniversaries that month:

  • The Tiananmen crackdown in China (4 June 1989)
  • The Siamese democratic revolution (14 June 1932)
  • The mysterious death of King Rama VIII (9 June 1946)
  • The unexplained disappearance of Tanong Po-arn, a prominent labour unionist (19 June 1991)
  • World Refugee Day (20 June)

Parliament is also resume after its regular break on 27 May. Debates will mainly be about the 1.9 trillion baht stimulus plan approved by the Cabinet. But other issues that could shake the government will be brought up by the opposition.

It is still unclear about where this online-dominated movement will take us. It is also unclear how the Covid-19 crisis will be dealt with. For better or worse, it is worth watching.