Patrick Jory reflects on New Mandala, Thailand’s political crisis and whether the Internet can disrupt undemocratic politics.
Around the time when New Mandala started up I was working at the Regional Studies Program at Walailak University in southern Thailand. This was the very early pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-Instagram days of online “chat-groups” and “webboards”. People were still getting used to the online medium.
In Thailand, Nidhi Eeosiwong and his colleagues at Chiang Mai University had already set up the online “Midnight University” in the late 1990s. Midnight University had been conceptualised as an ideal university, free of the problems associated with universities in the Thai bureaucratic system. But probably its most successful feature was its website and online academic resources. The website was administered by a colleague in Art History, Somkiat Tangnamo, who sadly passed away a few years ago.
Midnight University also had a webboard which became popular. It was a forum for academic debate, almost all in Thai. Over time the debates started to get fiery, and in the end the webboard administrators closed down the facility that enabled people to respond to postings. At that time there was not yet any significant discussion about the monarchy.
Many of the contributors to Midnight University’s webboard quickly migrated to a new online academic forum, Fa Dio Kan [“Same Sky”], later Khon Muan Kan [“Same People”], run by Thanapol Eawsakul, the editor of Fa Dio Kan, the liveliest politics-history journal at that time, and his colleagues. The Fa Dio Kan webboard became very popular around 2005, at the time of the beginning of the opposition movement against Thaksin Shinawatra and his government. So much of the online debate now focussed on Thai politics.
Another webboard that became popular in Thailand at that time was called Ratchadamnoen, where there was also a lot of political debate. It included more members of the general public, not just academics.
As calls for a “royal intervention” to resolve the political crisis grew, online debate started to make oblique references to the monarchy. In one debate I remember The Lord of the Rings was used as an allegory for the political situation. The story’s main characters were used to refer to Thai political figures, although there was some ambiguity about precisely whom each character denoted. Was Frodo Pridi, or Thaksin? Or had Thaksin become Gollum? Saruman and his army of Orcs seemed to be Sondhi Limthongkul and the PAD. The Nazguls were obviously Prem and the Privy Counsellors. Everyone knew who “Sauron” was.
In another debate the allegory was from the Harry Potter stories. For some, “Harry”, was Thaksin. Again, everyone knew who “Lord Voldemort” was (“He Who Must Not Be Named”). Other online posters used allegories from Chinese historical novels like Jade Dragon.
The Computer Crimes Act of 2007, brought in after the September 2006 coup, was specifically designed to curb this rapid rise in online criticism of the monarchy. The Abhisit government that came to power in late 2008 later admitted to blocking over 100,000 (sic) websites because of alleged anti-monarchy or republican content.
This was the time that people began to see how the online media could revolutionise academic debate, by allowing scholars anywhere in Thailand or the world to debate with each other free of the normal rituals of respect of the academic seminar room. It also allowed not just academics, but anyone from outside academia, anywhere in the world, to question and challenge and contribute to scholarly debate.
When New Mandala began in 2006 Thailand’s political crisis was in full swing. Quite a few people from the Midnight University and Fa Dio Kan webboards who were able to write in English also began to take part in debates on New Mandala, including Somsak Jeamteerasakul and Thongchai Winichakul. Others wrote under pseudonyms.
They joined academics outside Thailand, journalists, as well as numerous expatriates, some of whom had spent many years living in Thailand and had an excellent idea of what was going on. This was one of the most important contributions of New Mandala – providing an online platform that enabled greater dialogue and debate between academics, students, and others outside academia all over the world who had an interest in Thailand.
By this time the monarchy had emerged as the central issue in the crisis, and New Mandala became the main forum for the academic discussion of the monarchy – certainly outside Thailand.
The debates on New Mandala resembled the political conflict. You could divide contributors roughly into pro- and anti-Thaksin, pro- and anti-monarchy. At that time, the anti-monarchy voices were relatively few compared to now. While New Mandala is sometimes viewed as a “Red” online site, this is somewhat unfair, as royalist and anti-Thaksin voices were certainly well-represented, at least in the early days of the crisis.
New Mandala’s success as the premier blog for critical comment on Southeast Asian politics (and not just in Thailand) raises the question whether online media can in fact disrupt repressive regimes.
The short answer would appear to be, apparently not. We might point to examples not only of Thailand, but also Malaysia, as well as Egypt, Iran, and the other “Arab Spring” countries of the Middle East, or China.
But more accurately we should say “not immediately”. The effects of online media will be medium or long-term. It is true that state censorship, the armies of bloggers and trolls hired by governments to monitor and harass the users of oppositional online sites, and coordinated online attacks designed to “crash” opposition websites, can make life for critical online sites quite difficult.
But there is no doubt that the online media has broken the near monopoly that the “old media” – newspapers, radio, and television – had in shaping public opinion.
For better or for worse, people are now getting their information from a huge number of online sources, often mediated by social media – not the mainstream media.
This is creating a very major disconnect between governments and people. Gramscian ideological “hegemonies” are losing their hold. Already we can see the effects of this problem in Western countries, with the current turmoil in European and United States politics. The effect in the Thai case is that the monarchy is no longer a unifying force. This disconnect between governments and people is likely be a major theme in politics all over the world for years to come.
In some respects the Internet is to academia what the Gutenberg press was to the Catholic Church, only we have not fully acknowledged it yet. Of course, the Gutenberg press did not end the influence of the Catholic Church in Western Europe, but it did play a part in ending its monopoly on religious discourse, thereby contributing to the Reformation – a pivotal moment in world history.
We are still in the disruption phase of this new technology. We do not really know where it is going. We know that it is disrupting existing hierarchies of knowledge but we do not know what will replace them.
On the other hand, if history is any guide, we also know that existing hierarchies over time tend to adapt themselves to new technologies.
In the meantime, I hope that New Mandala can play the role it has played since it was founded, providing informed, accessible, provocative and insightful reporting and analysis on Southeast Asian affairs and an open forum for lively and sometimes “anarchic” debate!
Dr Patrick Jory is Senior Lecturer in Southeast Asian History at the University of Queensland.
The article is a summarised version of a presentation at the New Mandala‘s 10th anniversary symposium, held at the Australian National University on 16 June 2016.