How Slacktivism Can Make a Change Under Military Rule

A protester flashes the 'three-finger salute' at a June 1, 2014, anti-coup demonstration at Terminal 21 Mall in Bangkok. After the junta cracked down on physical protests, many activists relied on virtual campaigns instead.

BANGKOK — Warisara Sornpet, the Campaign Director of Change.org, said she was surprised when she found out that the online petition calling for the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly to outlaw possession of child pornography was actually started by a member of the assembly. The petition succeeded in May.

“She was one of the decision makers but she still used our platform to campaign,” said Warisara. “She said she wanted the assembly to know they are being watched by many people.” 

Change.org first set up a branch in Thailand four years ago. Warisara said the number of petitions started, significantly dropped in 2014 when that military seized power, but surprisingly the number has  increased by 120 percent this year. Though there are a number of other factors behind the current growth trend, Wisara believes suppression by the junta is no doubt one of them. 

“Whenever society becomes less open, people will be eager to find a way to speak,” said Nattawat Suttiyotin, a communication arts professor from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University. 

Despite the infinite power of the internet, online activism around the world currently faces criticism that it is actually just “slacktivism”. By signing, liking or changing profile pictures, people are not required to devote much time or thought to supporting issues. Yet, under the current political climate, with public discussion banned and official petitions unreliable, clicktivism seems to serve some semblance of basic rights ripped out under the junta rule. 

Seven months ago, Prachamati.org (‘referendum’ in Thai) was formed to voice both sides of public opinion about the drafting constitution. Even though internet in Thailand is not guaranteed 100 percent safe, website admin said it is still the safest place to talk at the moment. 

“There was an attempt from the group called Citizen Forum, to hold a public discussion about the constitution and they were finally requested to end it by the military,” said site staff member, Narongsak Niamsorn. “So it is clear that this conversation cannot happen offline.”

The era of social movements often led by NGOs, has been transformed by cheaper smartphones and lower-cost internet packages, transferring power to anyone who identifies themselves as an active citizen.

“This year our platform tends to be used more for campaigns about national discourse,” said Warisara. “Some said our open platform [on Change.org] is a game changer.”
 

Not all campaigns are equal

Compared to those who protest on the street, signing an online petition comes with minimal cost. But does the number of names signed by lazy slacktivists lead to nothing, media experts argue this is not always the case. 

“The number [of people who sign an online petition], can be used as measurable evidence which increases the power to negotiate,” said Nattawat. “Especially when it was endorsed by an online opinion leader.” 

While the petition against the government’s attempt to create the single internet gateway, attracted more than 150,000 signatures and had some sway, the campaign against the junta’s ambition to build a promenade along Chao Phraya river could also slow down the project with only 16,000 names supported. 

The campaign initiator, Yossapon Boonsom, believes that to achieve their aims, online petitions still need to be supported by offline action to engage with followers and ensure the issue reaches a wider audience.
 
“People online are usually middle class and students,” said the landscape architect. “Those who live in local communities, affected by the issues didn’t receive information from our Facebook page, but rather from the leaflets we gave to them directly.”

Change is irreversible

While  suppression by the junta was one of the obstacles to public discussion, according to the experts who have been monitoring the petitions for the past four years, it was apparently not the biggest.

“The biggest challenge to change  is not the coup, but actually our Mai Pen Rai culture,” Warisara said, referring to Thailand’s common trait.

With the idea that the little people cannot make a big change firmly entrenched in society and made worse by the threat from people in power, Warisara said, “For some petitions, we consider it an achievement already just when people dare enough to sign it.” 

In days when the government channel proves to be ineffective and mainstream news shows on TV rely on the kingdom’s biggest discussion webboard Pantip, for their agenda, both media experts and Change.org’s campaign director argue – why can’t the internet be the new standard platform?

“Looking back over the last five years, have you ever seen any petition call for removal of a politician, achieve success, even when they received more than the 50,000 required names for support?,” asked Nattawat.

“The world has already changed and it will not go backward,” said Warisara. “With the internet, the power is now in everyone’s hands and it has proved that it can work.” 

 

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