As mass protests against racial injustice take to the streets of the US and other countries, Thai activists and pro-democracy advocates are flooding Twitter to express their own anger and grief over the abduction of activist Wanchalearm Satasksit.
Wanchalearm, a human rights advocate who had been living in self-exile since 2015, was residing in Phnom Penh when he was snatched on June 4 in front of his home by unidentified men. Witnesses to the attack, which was caught on security cameras, said the 37-year-old was forced into a car and driven away. Wanchalearm was reportedly on the phone with his sister during the confrontation who last heard him crying out “I can’t breathe”.
The disappearance of Wanchalearm, who had been previously accused of breaking Thailand’s strict lèse majesté law prohibiting critical speech of the monarchy, sparked an online uproar among the country’s pro-democracy groups, who pointed to the abduction as only the most recent in a long line of state-sanctioned assault on dissenters.
While democratic factions mobilised mass protests earlier this year to resist the government campaign against the progressive Future Forward Party, the ongoing Covid-19 emergency decree has effectively banned major gatherings. Now, activists are channeling their frustration on Twitter, which has emerged as the chief platform for Thai political discourse.
These online protestors have launched a string of hashtags, including the recent #Cancel112 and #Thaicantbreathe, since the beginning of the year to protest forced disappearances and reflect growing discontent toward both the monarchy and the ostensibly military-dominated government.
“If you go back a couple of years ago, someone went missing and nobody really cared,” said Poon Thongsai, a member of youth organisation Spring Movement. “But now, [Wanchalearm’s case] blew up and everyone talks about it. It’s kind of interesting how things proliferate online quickly.”
On 7 June, the Spring Movement started #Thaicantbreathe to raise awareness of the Wanchalearm case and the wider disappearances of Thai political activists. The advocacy group was formed by Chulalongkorn University students after this year’s flash mob protests against the disbandment of the opposition Future Forward with a mission to spread their message beyond university campuses.
The students are well-versed in the Thai social media strategy of couching criticisms of the government in hashtags rich in pop culture references and satirical commentary.
We actually need to go out there and do something. We might not get it right most of the time but it’s to give a message to people that it is possible
In an interview with the Globe last week, Wanchalearm’s elder sister, Sitatnun Satasaksit, said that kind of online access has “drawn a young audience to this topic. For example, high-school students who are now aware of kidnapping and human rights”.
As hashtags start to trend, more users join in the conversation. Many take full advantage of Twitter’s capacity for anonymity, a feature that distinguishes the platform from others like Facebook. In Thailand, recent twitter hashtags have centered on the shortfalls of the government and monarchy, shifting the discourse on topics that have traditionally been off-limits to the public.
Poon, the activist from the Spring Movement, says the kind of conversations around the government and monarchy now happening online would have been “unthinkable” just five years ago. But, even with a broader range of discourse, he’s concerned that Twitter has yet to prove its value in sparking action among users, as opposed to just raising awareness.
He notes that it’s “tempting to get trapped in with the constant flow of information” without doing anything about it. While the Spring Movement organises real-world protests away from the computer, the path forward for offline action, whether to force a government investigation of Wanchalearm’s disappearance or to affect other vital reforms, is left vague under a government that doesn’t take kindly to critics.
“There’s still a question of how do we get from A to B. I don’t think what goes on in Twitter really gives way to that kind of discussion that much”, Poon said. “We actually need to go out there and do something. We might not get it right most of the time but it’s to give a message to people that it is possible.”