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Social media's influence

Interview: Rodion Ebbighausen
July 2, 2014

Some one and a half months after the country's military seized power, it presents a roadmap for democratic reforms. Journalist Thepchai Yong tells DW about the current developments and the media's role in the country.

Thailand Militärputsch 24.05.2014 - epa04221784 Thai soldiers secure the road during an activist rally against the military coup in Bangkok, Thailand, 24 May 2014. Human rights groups condemned the detention of scores of Thai politicians and activists by a military junta that seized power this week. More than 150 people have been detained at army sites by The National Peace and Order Maintaining Council, including leaders of both pro-government and anti-government protest movements. EPA/PONGMANAT TASIRI
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The coup d'état in Thailand is entering its second month. The military recently presented a roadmap to draft a new constitution and announced that elections will only take place after October 2015.

In a DW interview, Thepchai Yong, chief editor of Nation Multimedia Group, the second largest English-language media publisher, says that the political turmoil in the Southeast Asian nation is not just a matter of the poor versus the rich as major international broadcasters tend to portray the situation in the country.

DW: Thailand's military emphasizes its neutral role as an organizer of reforms. Do you agree?

Thepchai Yong: Under normal circumstances I wouldn't want to trust those men in uniform, because their attitude towards democracy is quite different from the rest of the society. But this time it seems to be different. At least the military junta has put forth a so called road map that is supposed to pave the way for Thailand to eventually return to democracy after the general election, which will be held only after 15 months in October next year.

Members of the Thai society are divided over the timeframe. Thai people are facing a dilemma. While many say 15 months are too long, others are of the view that as the military is doing a good job, it's alright if the elections are delayed.

The junta has also promised certain commitments that must be met. For instance, it promised to set up an interim civilian government within three months and then an assembly to draft a new constitution.

Thailand General und Armeechef Prayuth Chan Ocha - Thai Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha makes a gesture of greeting as he arrives ahead of a meeting to discuss the 2015 national budget at the Army Club in Bangkok June 13, 2014. Thailand's military leader General Prayuth said on Friday that the ruling military council had no immediate plans to maintain a costly state rice subsidy scheme initiated by the country's ousted government. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha (THAILAND - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY BUSINESS AGRICULTURE)
Thai military recently announced that the elections will only take place after October 2015Image: Reuters

More importantly they promised to set up a council that will undertake comprehensive reforms. Therefore, I have currently no reasons to question the junta's commitment, although it remains to be seen whether they will end up being reformist as they promised or not.

How do you estimate the impact of recent developments on Thailand's democracy?

The diametrical data came as a big shock to most Thai people. But for many Thais the power seizure brought some relief as they are aware that the alternative would have been worse, particularly due to the ongoing political conflict that had the potential to develop into a violent confrontation.

If we believe in what the junta is saying, we see possibilities of the country returning to democracy in 15 months. I believe the positive side of this development is that we have seen a more politically active Thai public.

Young people, who otherwise would have been very passive about politics, got up and joined the protests this time around on either side of the spectrum. I think this is a clear demonstration that we are seeing a more politically active public. That will be an important force in Thailand's politics in the future.

Can the media in Thailand still fulfill its watchdog role?

We have to admit that we are operating under restrictions. There is a standing order imposed by the junta that restricts media freedom. But in practice things are different from what is seen from the outside. Naturally the junta wants the media to be on their side, but they have been very diplomatic in handling the media.

So they may give you a phone call once in a while when there are stories that do not please them but I haven't seen any obvious attempt by the junta to clamp down on the media as such.

But I have to admit that we are operating under circumstances we are not comfortable with. I believe, however, that the media have been able to play a certain role by reflecting the views of the public.

What role is social media playing at the moment in Thailand?

I think the influence of the social media had been tremendous even before the latest political conflict and the power seizure. Like in most countries the traditional media are being challenged. With the political conflict the influence of the social media has increased because the young people who ignore the mainstream media go to social media to share their views and to talk among themselves on topics they are familiar with.

As far as the political conflicts are concerned, we see a new generation of people who otherwise would have been very passive or ignorant about current affairs. They are getting more active on social media, exchanging views on political situation and expressing their opinions where they want the country to go. It is an important force that will be helpful for Thai democracy.

How do you evaluate international media coverage on the events in Thailand?

The situation in Thailand is very complex. I understand the difficulty of international media to really try to reflect what happens in the country. So far the international media has not reflected the real gist of the issue in Thailand. They may be able to reflect the events as they unfold and as they see them, but they have not been really able to explain what is behind the whole issue.

For example, most of the major international broadcasters tend to portray the situation in Thailand as a battle between the so called Bangkok elites and rural poor. In fact I have to admit there is some inequality between the city and the rural areas, but the inequality is not the real or the only reason why the people didn't see eye to eye on the political issues.

This is one example why the international media miss the gist of the situation. It is not easy for them to talk to people more and get in depth information and understanding of what really is going on.

What is the core of the conflict in Thailand then?

The whole thing has been the result of a new political awakening of Thai people. It doesn't matter which side they support. The thing is important that they wake up and think they need to be actively involved in the future of the country. That is where the confrontation begins. It is not just a matter of the poor versus the rich.

Thepchai Yong is group editor in chief of Nation Multimedia Group, Thailand's second biggest English-language broadcaster and publisher.

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