Political Unrest and New Media in Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand - Today is a day of deep political tension here in Thailand. A ruling by the Thai Supreme Court, expected in just a few minutes, will determine the fate of more than $2 billion of Ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's assets. Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon who was popular with many here for his populist policies, was removed from power by a military coup in 2006. He has been accused of corruption and abuse of power, specifically of negotiating business deals favorable to himself and his family while in power. Today's ruling will determine whether $2.3 billion of his family's assets will be seized. Today's ruling is expected to fuel political tensions here.

Since 2006, Thaksin has been living in exile in Dubai. However, he has remained active, and "frequently addresses mass rallies of supporters via video link, statements on pro-red shirt websites, blogs and via Twitter," according to Al Jazeera. Thaksin has over 65,000 followers on Twitter, and frequently uses Twitter to communicate directly with his followers, the red shirts.

In a country where broadband penetration is not especially high, particularly outside of major cities like Bangkok, Phuket, and Chiang Mai (where I'm writing from now), Twitter has begun to figure especially prominently. For while computers and internet cafes are far from ubiquitous, internet-capable mobile phones are everywhere (see this picture I snapped of a monk shopping for a phone). During my travels here, I have been many places without wi-fi, but I've always been able to connect using my (jailbroken and unlocked) iPhone. Everywhere I've been, from near-deserted tropical islands to endless rice paddies in the center of the country, I've had wireless data service (for which I pay just $3 a month). Many of Thaksin's supporters are in the rural North-East of Thailand, so mobile-friendly media are particularly important to their political communication and organization.

I'll be writing more as the situation here develops - Thaksin's supporters are planning rallies country-wide in March, largely organized using new media. Given all the red shirts I'm seeing here today, it should be an interesting few weeks.