A tech-savvy rebellion in
By Sreeram Chaulia
Exile was once an effective ploy used by governments to
deprive political opposition figures of their audience.
Banishing a politician from the homeland in the
pre-information technology (IT) era was often enough to
break the link between that individual and any of her
By physically kicking enemies out, governments in those days
could reasonably hope to suppress unwanted personalities.
Exile therefore sat alongside arrest, detention, co-optation
and assassination in the toolboxes of regimes trying to ward
off threats to their survival.
But the advent of Internet technologies leaves in doubt the
usefulness of political exile. In early April, ousted former
Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose "red shirts"
recently shook the wits out of not only the incumbent
government but also visiting Association of Southeast Asian
Nations (ASEAN) dignitaries, showed he is a perfect exponent
of the new phenomenon of long-distance, tech-savvy
Through Internet-based communications devices and
links, Thaksin - who was deposed from
power in a 2006 military coup - has continued to script Thai
politics from exile in London, Dubai in the United Arab
Emirates and Hong Kong.
The ability of Thaksin's backers in
Thailand to screen his speeches and public
addresses live, via advanced net-enabled technology, has
given him a platform to urge the Thai people to overthrow
what he has labeled an illegitimate government. By
harnessing mass communication that can traverse continents,
Thaksin has more than lived up to his pedigree as a
The current uprising against the military-supported
government by the "red shirts" may not have materialized
without the provocation of Thaksin's tired but angry face
rallying spirits from video screens erected on the streets
of Bangkok and broadcast on satellite-based television
Instead of the man in flesh and blood, his supporters took
inspiration seeing him via satellite imagery. When Thaksin
thundered on the giant viewing panels that "negotiations are
impossible", the assembled red shirts howled back in
agreement and took to the streets after his call for a
"people's revolution" against the Abhisit Vejjajiva-led
For followers of Thaksin, the sight of their leader
appearing before their eyes in crystal clear picture and
sound quality is a powerful image, perhaps more so than if
he were physically present at the gatherings.
The electronic medium served as a stirring reminder to the
red shirts, who feel their leader had been persecuted and
should be brought back to head the country. The
video-linking not only substituted for lost political
opportunities due to Thaksin's self-imposed exile - he was
sentenced in October 2008 to two years in prison on conflict
of interest charges - but also gave him the halo of a
Thaksin is not the first Asian politician to organize
Internet-based revolts. Altaf Hussain, the leader of
Pakistan's mohajir community that migrated from India to
Pakistan during and after the partition of 1947, has been in
exile in London since 1992. A colorful politician who was
once a taxi
driver in New York City, Hussain's
Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has long remained Pakistan's
third-largest political party behind the Pakistan Muslim
League of Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP)
of the Bhutto dynasty.
Hussain has a murky history as a creation of the Pakistani
military to weaken the PPP's hold over the Pakistani
southern port city of Karachi in the province of Sindh.
During Nawaz Sharif's first term, he was persecuted under
the bloody "Operation Clean Up", a military offensive to
cleanse Karachi of "anti-social elements", a codeword for
the MQM. After escaping the state's dragnet, he settled in
London and began a new career as a long-distance leader of
Like Thaksin today, Hussain has directed his political
machinery on the ground in Pakistan through regular public
teleconference broadcasts from London. In
moments of great violence and disturbances in Karachi,
Hussain issued video-link highly emotional speeches
challenging various Pakistani governments of the past two
decades for labeling him a "terrorist", and telling his
supporters to fight for their rights.
With advances in IT applications, MQM's media wing has grown
quite sophisticated in shooting video clips that purportedly
show rival political parties indulging in mob violence on
its party members. The clips are released in Pakistan via
Internet and television channels and used
to challenge the official version of riots and gang warfare
in Karachi. Hussain has even conducted full-length election
campaigns for the MQM through audio and video messages that
his candidates play at mass gatherings.
Laced with songs praising Hussain as a fearless fighter
against oppression, the videos are highlights of the MQM's
political rallies. Improvements in web-based technology have
allowed the MQM to graduate from the recorded messages of
the 1990s to live addresses in which he invites a virtual
audience of thousands in Pakistan to shout back, dance and
cheer with fanatic devotion.
In the Middle East, Hamas' exiled leadership in Syria has
also benefited from the Internet to overcome the handicap of
living outside the Palestinian Occupied Territories. The
speeches and political commentaries of Khaled Mashal, Hamas'
political bureau chief in Syria, are often relayed via Arab
television and satellite links to Palestinians inside the
In January 2009, at the height of the Israeli offensive on
Gaza, Hamas launched a new channel on the video-sharing
website YouTube disseminating the al-Qassam Brigades'
successful military attacks and clashes with the Israeli
army. Dubbed the "PaluTube" or "AqsaTube", the channel
presented an alternative picture of the 22-day war on Gaza
in which Hamas' forces were depicted as brave, dexterous and
victorious. Some of the clips on the channel portraying
guerrilla attacks on Israeli soldiers were shared
exclusively with the Arabic TV station al-Jazeera,
increasing their outreach and impact.
Social networking websites like Twitter and Facebook, and
video-sharing websites like YouTube, now form part of the
arsenal of political movements, from Barack Obama's election
campaign in the United States to the opposition Pakatan
Rakyat alliance in Malaysia's polls last year.
When the charismatic Argentine politician Juan Domingo Peron
was exiled by a military dictatorship between 1955 and 1973,
he remained relevant to Argentine politics via hand-written
letters sent from Venezuela, Panama and Spain. Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini was exiled from
Iran for 14 years (1965-1979), but he too
persevered from Iraq and
France with audio cassette recorded
tirades against the shah's regime that were smuggled into
Thaksin appears to have been able to inflict as much
political damage to the current Thai government from his
unconfirmed location in Hong Kong or Dubai. The Thai
government finally pulled the plug on the satellite
broadcasts, claiming they had caused "chaos". But the
quantum leap in global communications of the past two
decades is a boon for exiles and a bane for regimes caught
up in obsolete methods of survival. Look no further than
Thailand for confirmation of how technology is altering
political landscapes and rattling rulers.
Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international
affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public
Affairs in Syracuse, New York.