Opinion: The Irony of a Facebook Group Critical of the Monarchy

A screencap of ABC's interview with Pavin Chachavalpongpun

That the Thai government’s initiative to pressure Facebook to geo-block a Facebook group critical of the monarchy in Thailand has backfired big time is for all to see.

Less than a week after the Thai government of Gen Prayut Chan-ocha ‘successfully’ threatened Facebook to block access to “Royalist Marketplace” in Thailand on Monday night or face a legal battle, Facebook caved in. A new marketplace was created and attracted members even faster than the last one.

It was nothing short of a full-blown Streisand effect. The Thai government’s attempts to regain cyber sovereignty have utterly failed, even though the Digital Ministry deputy permanent secretary said last week that the group shared false information deemed a threat to national security.

The situation is worse now with the world watching and organizations like Human Rights Watch decrying violations of people’s right to free speech.

The man behind the group with a million members is Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun who lives in Kyoto. He ends up being sought out for interviews from media around the globe over the past days, from The New York Times to Berlin’s leftist Taz newspaper and even a Singaporean TV station. 

It helps promote a new marketplace as yet to be geo-blocked as of press time in Bangkok. The icing on the cake was probably an invitation for him to speak at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. He does not face any real threat of extradition to Thailand, regardless of what the Thai government may claim.

As of press time, the newly created political ‘marketplace’ is less than a week old, but it has already gained nearly 900,000 members. One cartoon compared Pavin to the new Moses, leading the monarchy critics in an exodus to the new Promised Land. 

On Wednesday, I was alerted to a pending invitation by a member of the new marketplace to join. I posted on Facebook and Twitter asking for the views of my friends and followers whether I should accept the invitation and join. The answer was an overwhelming ‘yes’ and ‘what are you waiting for!’.

So I did. Then I tried posting this message:

“May I remind that everyone should try to use factual information as much as possible. And not accuse anyone without substantiation, so the the new Royalist Marketplace would not end up being assumed by Facebook to be like what the Thai government’s accused it of. And so it could be a centre for learning.” 

The post never appears on the new ‘marketplace’.

It tells me that the group is Pavin’s fiefdom, after all. This is not a real marketplace of ideologies where people argue and communicate freely, it’s merely Pavin’s virtual ideological dominion. 

As admin of the group, Pavin decides what he likes to appear or not appear on the market place. The group might be more aptly described as Pavin’s Ideological Marketplace and not a true marketplace of exchanges of ideas and views.

In the end, after days, that simple gentle reminder was not ‘approved’ by Pavin to appear on the new marketplace. He basically blocked the post. No, he didn’t block. Pavin, while crying foul for violations of freedom of his group’s speech instigated by the Thai government, simply decided my message was not fit for print.

Probably he found it potentially sobering, or even demoralizing as the place is pretty much a free-wheeling venue of frenzies for anyone wanting to not just criticize but trash the monarchy, even when there’s little or no substantiated evidence. 

Hey, I get it, it’s free speech! But free speech not for all? At least not in Pavin’s royal marketplace realm. Even in the old realm which is now geo-blocked by Facebook, Pavin had earlier declared some intruding members from the other side of the political camp as persona non grata and deported a few from memberships, thus they won’t be able to even type comments following numerous Pavin-approved status made by others. 

(I am strangely reminded of ultra-royalist Thais who say if you don’t love the king, then leave the kingdom!) 

While acknowledging the invaluable importance of the ‘marketplace’ in opening up critical debate about the monarchy, it’s also disturbingly similar to the Thai semi-military government desire to be able to control what contents can appear in Thailand and what must not. 

That’s why they pressured and threatened to take legal actions against Facebook to begin with. And this led to the geo-blocking of the Pavin’s original marketplace.

Thank Buddha that the best Pavin can do is to kick me out of being a new member of the new marketplace and I can still see most of the posts as a spectator. No lese majeste law protecting Pavin though.

The supreme Facebook group administrator still tolerates me as a member, and thus spectator of his influential group as of press time.

Ironic isn’t it. A man who is fighting for greater freedom for Thais to exercise online freedom of expression is also a rather active gatekeeper, keeping away what he doesn’t see fit to be published online in his marketplace from appearing. 

Pavin simply can’t bear anything that’s off message on his virtual realm. There he rules supreme, absolute, not answerable to anyone as the Facebook group’s administrator except to Facebook itself.

Long may Pavin rule and reign his new royal marketplace with populations, oops members, the size bigger than some Pacific island nations. Under his dominion with foresight and righteousness, he shall bestow us with what we should read.

I’d end this column by being fair to Pavin and conceding that the ‘marketplace’ also offers a place for Thais to scrutinise and criticise the monarchy and more in an environment where Thai mainstream mass media self-censored itself on anything mildly critical of the institution. 

In this regard,  it serves as an invaluable virtual space for much-needed expressions. And credit goes to Pavin with the reservations I am pointing out about in this column.