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From Silence to Symbols: How Thais are employing language in new ways towards freedom of expression

Read this article in Thai

This article is produced by UNTOE: a group of three friends who worked together as part of EngageMedia’s Youth Advocacy and Communications for Internet Freedom project, which aims to expand awareness and engagement with digital rights issues among youth advocates in the Asia-Pacific.

Graphic provided by article author

Nowadays, social networks have metamorphosed into alternate realms where individuals can transcend their identities, much like the boundless opportunities within a digital universe. Smartphones, an extension of the human experience, serve as the 33rd organ, seamlessly integrated into daily existence. Human interaction in this digital domain encompasses diverse activities, ranging from commentary, critique, and lifestyle depiction to venting grievances about life’s trials. Within this digital expanse, individuals often shroud themselves in anonymity, forgoing the necessity to unveil their true identities. This concealment, in turn, can contribute to a proliferation of negative critiques and the use of profanity. Such individuals may remain oblivious to the potential repercussions of their actions, as they can easily safeguard their private information.

Posting a message or comment in this digital realm engenders a myriad of online phenomena. One such phenomenon is colloquially referred to as “ทัวร์”  or Tour. The Tour phenomenon involves Thai internet users embarking on a virtual journey, akin to a tour, to any post, where they engage in criticism, sarcasm, or even curses, exemplifying the dynamic nature of online discourse.

Today, social networks play a pivotal role in facilitating human communication and expression. In Thailand, an intriguing phenomenon that recurrently manifests itself is the emergence of slang as a substitute for profanity. For instance, the utilization of the term “.” (F.) in place of the more explicit profanity “ค*ย” (fuck) often meant to mitigate the potential consequences of addressing socially sensitive subjects or to evade legal repercussions such as defamation lawsuits. At a time when critical comments against the government – both online and in person – can be weaponized against the public, Thai netizens have turned to unique linguistic alternatives to continue freely expressing themselves online.

Understanding the character “ค.” and the Tour phenomenon

The character “ค.” is often commented on when posts from the government or news outlets report unreasonable government policies. In such cases, comments on these posts predominantly feature the character “ค.” In certain cases, more elaborate phrases like “ค. ความคิดดี” (F. Fabulous) are used.

Dr. Niwes Hemvachiravarakorn, in his commentary for Bangkok Biz News, has observed and remarked on the Tour phenomenon, which entails a substantial number of participants, including modern digital media users and notably on platforms like Twitter. These individuals engage in what can be described as “raiding” posts, actively viewing pictures and videos, and commenting on them.

In a Matichon article, Kla Samudavanija said the “Tour phenomenon” is portrayed as a tool or weapon employed by ordinary people, uniting as a collective force without prior arrangement to gain the influence and capacity to scrutinize, resist, and critique those in positions of governmental authority.

Moreover, Tour has the potential to deter expressions that infringe upon the rights of others or disregard values that are widely accepted by society. This includes offensive content such as dirty jokes and instances of racism, occasionally manifesting in the form of thoughtless advertisements. It can also serve as a check on rights violations and abuses of power by individuals in positions of authority, which may have previously gone unexamined. These could involve instances of severe punishment or illegitimate practices in schools, as well as the abuse of official functions or breaches of duty by government officers. For individuals caught in the act and subjected to the scrutiny of Tour, ensuring a happy ending may prove challenging.

Within the context of the Tour phenomenon, certain keywords often appear in the comments, one of which is the character ค. These keywords carry significant implications within the comment group, further enhancing the collective nature of the phenomenon.

The term “ค.” is emblematic of the fluidity and ingenuity inherent in the Thai internet lexicon. It holds a diverse range of interpretations, encompassing expressions like “ความคิดดีมาก” (Fabulous), “หัวคิดดีมาก” (Fabulous idea), and at times, even “ค*ย” (F*ck/male genitalia). However, it is most commonly associated with a slang term referring to the male genitalia, the usage of which is often withheld due to the concerns previously discussed.

Using “ค.” as a safeguard against legal repercussions

This apprehension extends beyond potential personal repercussions to encompass a broader fear of government actions. This issue implicates the domains of rights, freedom of expression, and freedom to critique. There have been instances of legal action taken against individuals who voiced their criticism, underscoring the underlying problem. Weerachatpong (Doe), despite having a learning disability, faced legal action from Apiwat Khanthong, the chair of a committee tasked with defending the reputation of Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. The charges lodged against Weerachatpong included “insulting the prime minister”, “causing harm to the prime minister”, and the potential to “incite insult and hatred.” Subsequently, he was fined 2,000 Baht, closing the case.

These occurrences shed light on the intricate interplay between expression, criticism, and the potential consequences individuals face when expressing their views, particularly in cases where the government is involved.

At that juncture, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) unearthed a disconcerting pattern. This incident marked the fourth instance in which Apiwat had levied accusations against individuals for criticizing the Prime Minister’s official responsibilities, charging them with libel. This recurring trend potentially contributes to the inclination of Thai citizens to employ coded language like “ค.” as a safeguard against legal repercussions.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in its third segment spanning items 6-27, meticulously delineates the tenets of civil and political rights, encompassing crucial aspects such as the right to life, immunity from unwarranted penalties, protection against arbitrary detainment, and the freedom to articulate one’s thoughts and opinions. The actions of the former government consistently ran counter to these internationally recognized covenants.

In light of the considerations outlined above, the utilization of “ค.” may be perceived as a strategy to evade censorship or the risk of being barred from various platforms. This precaution is not unfounded, given that the term “ค*ย” (F*ck) can be categorized as hate speech under platform guidelines and specific societal norms.

The question then arises: Who holds the authority to categorize certain words as hate speech, thereby potentially infringing upon the fundamental right to freedom of speech?

Finding alternative spaces for free speech online

As reported by TIME, social media platforms have assumed a greater role in regulating the boundaries of free expression. These platforms exercise control by sifting through and filtering the information they disseminate to the world. They establish rules that dictate the perimeters of acceptable discourse, deciding who can participate and who faces exclusion. In wielding this authority, they cannot escape the influence of their own regulations, principles, biases, and overarching philosophies. This, however, doesn’t present us with a binary choice between control and abandonment; the reality is that speech is already under the sway of these platforms.

This dynamic has impelled many to gravitate toward platforms offering a greater degree of freedom, with Telegram emerging as a prominent example. Within Telegram, political communities have sprouted as spaces where individuals congregate to engage in dialogue and share their perspectives. Currently, a myriad of political groups exist within Telegram, encompassing those aligned with the government, those in opposition, and those advocating alternative political ideologies.

These political Telegram groups frequently unite individuals who share a common interest in politics, providing a platform for the exchange of information and opinions. Their overarching objectives often entail creating political waves or disseminating information that remains absent from mainstream channels.

Telegram boasts numerous advantages, including the ability for individuals to join groups with ease and anonymity. These groups can expand without any member limitations, and Telegram offers a suite of communication features, encompassing chat, attachments, and video calls, ensuring convenient and versatile interaction.

However, Telegram is not without its drawbacks. Some groups may circulate false or fabricated information, potentially perpetuating misinformation. It is also possible for individuals’ personal identities to be compromised or for them to face allegations of liability. In certain instances, Telegram may be used to propagate and incite violence.

The prominent Telegram political group at the time of the 2021 youth demonstration was “FreeYOUTH,” amassing an impressive membership of over 300,000 in a remarkably short span.

Upholding freedom of speech online

When we contemplate the fundamental right to freedom of expression, it becomes evident that this right should be upheld and respected, particularly when individuals aim to critique the state or voice the necessity for the state to enhance various aspects of the nation, ranging from its foundational structure. Occasionally, these expressions may take the form of online opinions or demands that employ vulgar language. However, it begs the question: Has the Thai government truly considered the will of the people? Instead of a responsive approach, the government has chosen to curtail the public’s online expressions, compelling the creation of words that shield individuals from potential legal action. Is this indeed the right course of action?

Ultimately, the resolution to preserve online freedom of speech may involve collective efforts challenging the government, including:

  • Abolishing Restrictive Laws: The government must consider repealing laws that impede freedom of speech, such as criminal law sections 112, 116, and 326 through 333, which encompass various criminal laws and the Emergency Decree of 2548 B.E. These laws significantly impede people’s freedom of speech and should either be abolished or brought in line with international human rights standards.
  • Promoting Cultural Respect and Freedom of Speech: The government should actively promote respect for cultural diversity and freedom of speech through education, communication, and awareness campaigns. These efforts should enlighten the public about the significance of freedom of speech and the consequences of its violation.
  • Developing Neutral Content Oversight: Establish neutral, balanced, and independent online content oversight mechanisms to review and regulate content that may infringe upon people’s rights and freedom. These oversight mechanisms should maintain transparency and accountability.
  • Engaging Civil Society: Encourage civil society’s involvement in monitoring and addressing online freedom issues. Collaboration between civil society, government entities, and individual stakeholders can be an effective approach.

In addition, it’s crucial for internet users to be aware of their rights and freedoms and exercise them responsibly, considering the potential impact on others. Such a comprehensive approach is necessary to uphold and safeguard online freedom of speech

Solving the challenges related to online freedom requires the collaboration of all stakeholders, including governments, civil society, and internet users. This collective effort is essential to foster an inclusive society that values and respects the rights and freedoms of its people.