In this webinar, Dr Janjiira Sombatpoonsiri and Ms Thinzar Shunlei Yi addressed the issue of digital repression in Myanmar and Thailand. They touch on the intertwining of digital and traditional approaches to repression, and its impact on protest movements.
THAILAND & MYANMAR STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
28 June 2022, Tuesday – The webinar explored digital repression in Myanmar and Thailand, the intertwining of traditional and digital approaches to repression, and the impact of digital repression on recent protest movements in the two countries. It considered the ways in which those movements have countered regime efforts to stifle digital activism. The webinar, moderated by Dr Aries Arugay, Visiting Fellow in ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s Regional Strategic & Political Studies Programme, drew 83 attendees via Zoom.
In addressing protest and digital repression in Thailand, the webinar laid out the general characteristics of such repression and its impact — both generally and in the Thai context. In addressing, Myanmar, discussion focused on digital repression on the part of the country’s State Administration Council (SAC) regime following the military coup of 2021 while highlighting the sufferings of citizens under the junta’s draconian rules.
Important points arising in discussion of the two countries included the following.
• Digital repression is an extension of traditional repression, whose purpose is to deter specific activities or beliefs that challenge authorities.
• Whether a country is democratic or autocratic, repression can exist in different forms.
• Digital repression can be classified into five categories; (i) targeted and passive surveillance, (ii) content restriction, (iii) legal persecution of online users, (iv) information manipulation, and (v) Internet shutdowns.
• Using digital tools, authorities can identify threats precisely and efficiently, and even before those threats escalate. This feature of digital repression reduces the political repercussions of repressive measures for the authorities in power.
• In Thailand, the legal prosecution of online users has been utilised more and more frequently.
• Since the military coup of 2006, the Thai security establishment has demonstrated an awareness of the importance of virtual space in mobilising threats to authorities. Thai authorities have therefore collaborated with Internet service providers to make monitoring online spaces easier. Social media platforms must comply with official requests to take down the criticism of the Thai monarchy.
• Thai authorities have used digital surveillance, legal prosecution, information manipulation and content restriction, all of which complement one another in the ecosystem of digital repression. The infamous Israeli security software “Pegasus” was reportedly used by Thai authorities to crack down on political dissent.
• Calls for reform of the Thai monarchy in protests held in 2020 later led to a wave of demonstrations against the military-backed government in Bangkok, spearheaded by young people. The government moved to block access to the Facebook pages of activists and live-streams of protest movements. Several protestors were charged with offending the monarchy, and the passports of some of them were confiscated.
• Those individuals released from detention by the authorities had to wear electric monitoring devices allowing the authorities to keep track of those individuals’ movements.
• Royalist groups patrol the digital space on behalf of the Thai regime. Misinformation campaigns have stigmatised the protestors as troublemakers and lawbreakers.
• This range of acts of digital repression had a clear impact on constraining possibilities for organising and protesting in Thailand.
• Strategies used to crack down on political dissent in authoritarian states are quite similar. In Myanmar, anti-regime activists advocate holding telecommunications companies accountable for their roles in making digital repression possible.
• Myanmar civil society is encountering greater difficulties in operating since the coup, but activists are determined to push back against repression. They are keeping a record of the junta’s atrocities to serve as evidence for use in pursuing justice for wrongdoing such as its scorched earth policy in conflict areas.
• The SAC regime has promoted ultra-nationalism, religious fanaticism, military hegemony and patriarchy through social media platforms.
• The junta is also using the politics of fear to contain the resistance movement, but Myanmar youths are determined to keep the protests alive on the ground.
• The military has reintroduced the “four cuts” strategy originally designed for counterinsurgency operations more than half a century ago. It seeks to block regime adversaries’ access to food, funds, intelligence and recruits. The strategy also entails the use of propaganda to deprive armed resistance groups of support.
• To the original four cuts, the SAC has now added blockage of the Internet and of access to communications, in order to meet the challenges posed by modern-day resistance movements. An Internet shutdown was the first act of the military junta on the day of its coup.
• Starting in 2019, even before last year’s coup, the world’s longest Internet shutdown was imposed on Rakhine State to cover up military atrocities.
• Control of telecommunications service providers and abuse of surveillance technology have expanded the monitoring and targeting of individuals since the coup. The junta abuses Internet shutdowns to enforce the population’s silence.
• Price hikes for data and data provision requirements make it increasingly difficult for people to access the Internet.
• The military junta is also trying to ratify draconian new cybersecurity and broadcasting laws to contain political dissent. Legal tools are being abused to stifle individuals’ right to expression, information and privacy.
The webinar’s question-and-answer session was particularly substantive. It covered topics including the role of Thai courts in digital suppression lawsuits, the effectiveness of digital protests against repression, activists’ means of protecting themselves against the Myanmar junta, the conservative nationalist agendas of Thai and Myanmar authorities, and the implications of the proposed NGO law in Thailand.