Arthit Suriyawongkul, frontman of Internet group, the Thai Netizen Network, is a firm believer in freedom of expression
The recent proposed police surveillance of popular Internet chat application Line and the Yingluck Shinawatra government’s warning against clicking Like on Facebook to any postings hinting at rumours of a coup, have met with outraged criticism from Thais, and no more so than on the social media.
Much in demand to explain what’s at stake is Arthit Suriyawongkul, the face of Thai Netizen Network, a relatively young group of Internet freedom advocates, who has been interviewed by several media over the past 10 days or so.
Despite his new-found fame, Arthit has fielded the questions calmly and thoughtfully, though he admits he is pleased at the public’s reaction, which bodes well for the future of cyber freedom in Thailand.
“I’m rather optimistic. No matter how bad it gets, people on the ’Net are making noise. There isn’t the usual indifference,” he says, adding that the desire to defend the right to communicate freely on the Internet is a good sign.
“It’s a signal that people are paying attention to this issue but whether this will lead to concrete actions or not depends on NGOs and civil society. It does give us something to work with.”
Like many other politically aware folk, Arthit has noticed the absence of comments from pro-government netizens who have traditionally spoken out against the lese majeste law and the Computer Crimes Act (CCA) and the fact that many of the expressions of outrage have come from those in favour of the lese majeste law. This would seem to suggest that a good number of people are not fully committed to the principle of freedom of expression for all.
“There’s no doubt that a lot of Thais are selective in the fight against censorship,” he says.
“I think these people understand freedom of expression but they still have this frame of mind that insists on certain exceptions – just like in families where parents will always apply for bail for their child no matter how wrong he or she may be. There’s a point where that principle stops.”
He’s also aware that Thai Netizen Network’s overt stance against lese majeste law, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years, may have given the majority of Thais the impression that the group is made up of red shirts and anti-monarchists.
“I suspect that this is an obstacle to the group gaining broader trust and support,” he says. “But I do try to emphasise that this is not about the lese majeste law but has everything to do with freedom of expression.”
The Thai Netizen Network, with four staff and fewer than 10 active members-cum-activists, do not shy away from criticising the Yingluck administration or defending victims of censorship and government harassment who themselves may support different form of censorship on others.
“There appear to be very few who oppose censorship in all its forms. I don’t know why. But we can work with others.”
However, the complicated political landscape is not Arthit’s only challenge. The Bangkok-born 34 year old, who holds a master degree in social anthropology from Thammasat University, also has to face up to opposition from his parents,
“Since the group was founded in 2008, they’ve been worried about whether I’ll ever be able to make ends meet and attain a level of income security,” he says.
His parents run an office furniture supply company and have what he describes as “the typical business mentality.
“They wonder if working for a little-known group of activists dependent on foreign funding from organisations from Germany, the UK and Canada will ever be profitable”.
Arthit, who earns between Bt20,000 to Bt40,000 a month depending on the projects on which he is engaged, says he is happily surviving on his income, but admits with a wry grin that much of this is because he lives with his parents near the Golden Mount in old Bangkok and thus doesn’t have to fork out for rent or mortgage repayments.
And, with the group gaining wider public recognition, things are looking a little brighter for Arthit. His parents, he says, rooted for their son defending Internet freedom when they accidentally tuned in to a recent debate on Thai PBS, the kingdom’s public television station.
“They’re okay with it and support what I said on television,” he says, sounding pleased.
But it hasn’t stopped mum and dad from wondering out loud why Arthit can’t work for a more secure and established not-for-profit organisation like the United Nations.
“I told them I had no clue what I could possibly do at the UN,” he laughs.
And Arthit also had no clue as to how so many people have gained access to his home telephone number.
“The phone never stops ringing these days,” he says.