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    Southeast Asia
     Apr 17, 2009

A tech-savvy rebellion in Thailand
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 supporters.

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 rebellion.

Through Internet-based communications devices and video 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 telecommunications magnate.

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 stations.

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 government.

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 martyr.

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 the MQM.

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 the 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 Gaza Strip.

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.

What Thaksin, Hussain and Mashal have proved is that technological innovations can be used to influence the politics of the street.

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 Iran.

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.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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