The prime minister’s decision to enter the social media fray is a transparent and cynical move aimed at boosting his popularity ahead of the election. It will likely backfire, since the medium might be new but the message remains the same. It also displays a calculating hypocrisy.
Like many older people, Prayut dismisses the power of social media. Just seven months ago, he said he was enlightened to “real happiness” after deciding to keep away from the online networks. This week he offered no clear explanation for why he suddenly decided to jump on the bandwagon.
Prayut armed himself with personal accounts on Thailand’s most popular platforms – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – as well as a personal websites on Saturday. His Facebook quickly attracted 150,000 followers and 144,000 likes.
But the majority of more than 10,000 comments were not so friendly. Fans, foes, as well as those who claimed they were rarely interested in politics, launched a barrage of criticism, satire, rebukes and even bullying on the page.
Prayut was called two-faced for banning other politicians from reaching out on social media while making full use of it himself. Many commenters demanded an elected and democratic prime minister and called on the general to step down to pave the way for a free and fair election. Typical was a post that lambasted the PM as a burden and deadweight on the nation.
His supporters and the military information apparatus responded by vigorously defending their beloved junta chief, urging him to stay in power as long as possible. But criticism continued to flood in, while pro-Prayut comments reduced to a trickle.
Stung by a justified perception that this is a cynical and politically self-serving move, Prayut should reconsider his foray into social media.
First, the junta and its organs have banned other political parties and politicians from using social media for campaigning. Leaders around the world use the online platforms for political outreach; it is only fair that politicians be allowed to do the same.
Second, Prayut has previously made clear that he dislikes social media, which is also ill-suited to someone with such a short temper and intolerance of different opinions and criticism.
While Prayut made a pretence of open-mindedness on Monday by thanking netizens for suggestions posted to his Facebook page, a government official overseeing the page admitted that a lot of comments had been removed.
Third, Prayut and his crew insist they are not using government resources to manage his social media accounts and website, but his page administrator is Puttipong Punnakanta, deputy secretary-general to the premier and paid from the national budget. Prayut did not say he spent his own money for social media management.
Fourth and most importantly, the junta has used the draconian Computer Crimes Act as a powerful weapon to restrict people’s freedom of expression. Under the junta, netizens have been prosecuted merely for posting dissenting opinions in the social media. Now, Prayut is a user but has all the power. The general has a duty to prove that he will play by the rules. He is, of course, free to block or “unfriend” anyone who annoys him. But can we know for sure these persons won’t be traced and prosecuted later?
We welcome the general to the new world of social media – but only if he leaves his guns at the door. All netizens are equal. They have only brains, hands and a keyboard. Different political ideas are tolerated and even encouraged, but everybody must play fair. If Prayut can’t abide by those simple democratic rules, he should log off now.