The content in this page ("Young and Fear(less): Becoming a brave citizen in a culture of fear" by Wirada Saelim) is not produced by Prachatai staff. Prachatai merely provides a platform, and the opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of Prachatai.

Young and Fear(less): Becoming a brave citizen in a culture of fear

“Last sentence perhaps a bit too activistic for an academic paper.”

I laughed at this comment from my thesis supervisor at the University of Amsterdam. It might be bad for my grade (which surprisingly turned out ‘not bad’), but it is exactly what this thesis was intended to be. Well, maybe a little bit less obvious.

Let’s see if you would agree with the comment. Here is that last sentence my supervisor was talking about:

“…Because in the contemporary politics of the Democratic Regime of Government with the King as Head of the State, young citizens have utilized social media to express that the sovereignty of the country should belong to the people, not the monarchy.”

The end of my thesis was supposed to circle back to its introduction:

“In Thailand, one important question has remained unanswered. Under the Democratic Regime of Government with the King as Head of the State, who does sovereignty belong to? The king or the people? This ambiguity is argued to be at “the heart of the Thai political malaise” (Tejapira, 2016, p. 228) that has never been directly discussed in the public sphere: Due to the lèse majesté law, known as Article 112 of Thailand's criminal code, the royal family is protected from criticism. It is considered the strictest lèse majesté law in the world with a harsh jail term of from three to fifteen years (BBC, 2017). The prosecution of this law is supported by the notion of “defending the monarchy, the center of Thai people’s hearts,” which has been embedded in Thai culture and identity by past and present military dictatorships (Farrelly, 2016).”

Method and Empirical Background: Hope, pain, bravery, and fear

My thesis is about the Twitter Thailand phenomenon. That’s how I would begin when asked by people at the university.

My thesis is about hope and pain, bravery and fear of the young generation in Thailand. That’s how I’m personally telling you. Although hope, pain, bravery, and fear can be seen and felt when scrolling through tweets of young users, I was required to find them through an academic approach. Therefore, I used qualitative content analysis method to study five datasets selected from top-trending hashtags over a one-year period.

Now, allow me to walk you through the ‘Empirical Background’ part of the thesis.

The first hashtag of my study is #โตแล้วเลือกเองได้ (#WeGrownUpsCanVoteForOurselves). It was trending on the eve of the national election in March 2019 after the release of the royal announcement about supporting “good people” to rule Thailand. The second hashtag, #ขบวนเสด็จ or ‘Royal Motorcade,’ was trending on Twitter Thailand from October 2019 and sometimes popped up again throughout January 2020. Many tweets expressed how daily routines are affected by the way the motorcades are organized. This hashtag was also used to engage in many topics related to the monarchy.

The third hashtag was created in response to the arrest of ‘Niranam’, a 20-year-old Twitter user with an anonymous account who tweeted controversial information about the Thai monarchy. On 19 February 2020, he was identified and arrested by the police. Instead of the lèse majesté law, he was charged with violating Section 14 of the Computer Crime Act, which bans importing information that threatens “national security”.  Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, the non-profit organization who followed the case and helped Niranam, reported that the police printed tweets from his account and asked him to verify account ownership. After that, he was forced to give the account password to the officers. This is the first time that an ordinary citizen, using an anonymous account on Twitter, was charged for tweeting about the monarchy. Subsequently, #saveนิรนาม (#saveNiranam) was trending. Only 27 hours after the arrest was publicized on social media, Thai netizens (both on Facebook and Twitter) raised two million baht for the family to have him released on bail.

Just two days after this arrest of ‘Niranam’, Thailand’s Constitutional Court dissolved the Future Forward Party. This incident led to flash mobs organized by students from at least 36 universities throughout the country. Twitter was actively and used as the main platform for people who were at the scene and for those who wanted to virtually follow the situation. Each of the 36 demonstrations had its own hashtag name. I explored two of these hashtags (#เสาหลักจะไม่หักอีกต่อไป and #ธรรมศาสตร์และการชุมนุม), which were trending on Twitter in that period of time. The last hashtag examined in this study is #กษัตริย์มีไว้ทำไม (#WhyDoWeNeedaKing?) created during the Covid-19 crisis by the prominent Thai monarchy critic and scholar who has been in exile since being charged under the lèse majesté law, Somsak Jeamteerasakul. After a year of active engagement on royal issues, the name of this hashtag has been the most explicit ever ranked as top trend on Twitter Thailand.

Beyond a research question

Every thesis needs a good research question. I don’t know how good mine is, but it has given me some significant findings. Within a bigger picture of the country’s democratizing struggle, my thesis asks: In what ways have young Thai citizens utilized Twitter to engage in the issues related to the monarchy?

But to tell you the truth, there is another question that I care more about. As part of the young generation who want to live in a society where thinking differently, engaging in politics, and standing up for human rights are not a crime, I ask myself: What can I do?  

As you may see how desperate it is. There is this Thai person pursuing her Master’s degree abroad who saw her thesis assignment as an opportunity to do what can’t be done in her country. To express, to discuss, to ask, to exercise a right, something so normal in democratic societies where freedom of expression exists. There is one part in my thesis explaining how Twitter is a space where young citizens can share and discuss controversial information about the monarchy that Thai mainstream media don’t report and Thai teachers don’t teach. Knowing that the main audience of my paper are living in democratic countries, I have to literally write:

“These practices might be seemingly normal in a democratic society when people generally use online platforms to share political content. In Thailand however, such activities of sharing alternative information about the monarchy put users at risk considering the fact that there was an activist charged with lèse majesté for just sharing a BBC news article written about the bibliography of the king.”

Giving such supporting detail in an academic paper, I thought of my friend.

Pai Jatupat spent more than two years of his youth in jail for sharing the BBC Thai article. I was there at the court in Khon Kaen when the verdict was given. I saw Pai in a prison uniform, crying. I remembered grabbing his mother’s hands. I have carried one question with me from that day, what can I do? The same question young people on Twitter who used #SaveNiranam asked each other when trying to help a 20-year-old friend whom they feel related to without having met before.

“Should we create #SaveNiranam?” one user suggested.

This tweet was one of my research samples. It didn’t take them long to collaboratively interact with each other before #SaveNiranam soared as the No.1 trending hashtag. Within a day, almost two million baht was fundraised, enough to help release Niranam on bail without mainstream media reporting.

What can I do? One tweeted to give away free books (1984, Animal Farm) for those who retweeted the information of how to help Niranam.

What can I do? Another user offered a free picture of her breast for those who donated.

What can I do? One mentioned all prominent international media outlets in a tweet asking “Can you pay attention to this issue?” “Can you help…” because our mainstream media don’t.

What can I do? Many joined flash mobs (where they finally got to really sing “Do You Hear the People Sing” out loud – from my content analysis – it was a huge thing to them) full of uniformed and un-uniformed guards patrolling.

What can I do? Many who couldn’t go to the protests took a picture of their three-finger salute and tweeted it to show solidarity.

What can I do? Many fought over their own fear and tweet their honest thoughts.

What can I do? Many shared information while mainstream media self-censored.

What can I do? Many retweeted to advocate human rights and democracy.

What can I do? We ask ourselves and ‘do something’ to answer.

Findings: Young and fear(less) seeking freedom

Twitter Thailand is an active community of like-minded-but-anonymous friends, using anonymous accounts to tweet real thoughts. It is a loose network that is capable of achieving some civic and political goals. It is full of inexplicit expressions in the form of in-group codes, sarcasm, and jokes. Through dark humour, they support and inform each other. Through funny memes, they advocate human rights and freedom of expression. Through ‘just a movie review’, they ask serious questions that challenge the status quo.

While the mainstream media are self-censored, the young Thais use Twitter to collaboratively share the censored information and stories. Trending hashtags are the people’s agenda set by an active engagement of friend-like strangers that share the same frustration, trying to make their voice heard under state repression. Tweeting from their beds late at night, they are always informed and passionately engaged in politics. They share hope and pain by expressing them. They have built a collective identity while negotiating their individual bravery and fear. Together they have created a public sphere that is unthinkable in an offline society.

“The digital sphere is, so far, the space that offers autonomy and security for young dissidents to push Thailand towards democratization.”

That was in my Findings and Discussion part.

One the same day I just submitted my thesis, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a pro-democracy activist living in exile in Cambodia, was abducted. One day after receiving my thesis grade, Rangsiman Rome, a representative from Move Forward party addressed #Cancel112 that was trending following #SaveWanchalearm.

I watched the live stream when Rome responded to the military-led government:

“If you said this issue is not important, can you explain to me why it is No.1 trending on Twitter? This is an important matter that citizens are paying attention to. There is a lot of evidence that shows how Section 112 is problematic in the Thai judicial process. Although people who are charged under it are not a majority of this country, they are affected by the judicial process and human rights violations.”

Today as I am writing this article, #SaveRome is trending on Twitter Thailand.

I’m certain that many of us out there have just asked ourselves once again, what can I do?

Young and fear(less), as a Thai citizen, we seek and fight for freedom of expression through whatever way we can from tweeting with anonymous accounts, writing a school thesis, organizing political events (despite being threatened and sued by the state), to speaking in the House of Representatives. In this culture of fear, we are working on shaking the fear away. We are working on being brave. We are making ourselves committed to our duties and rights as citizens who long for democracy.

And if you are still afraid, you are not alone.

Let me soothe you with the most popular joke on Twitter Thailand (which I call the ‘jail joke’ in my thesis). The young generation of Thailand comfort and show solidarity with each other by using dark humour that I find very deep and the best reflection of the hope, pain, bravery and fear they have experienced living in the country. They say:

“Don’t you worry, jail is not big enough to fit us all.”

References from the thesis:

Farrelly, N. (2016). Being Thai: A Narrow Identity in a Wide World. Southeast Asian Affairs, 331–343. Retrieved from https://muse.jhu.edu/article/627466

Tejapira, Kasian. (2016). The Irony of Democratization and the Decline of Royal Hegemony in Thailand. Southeast Asian Studies, 5(2), 219–237.