September 15, 2016 12:00 pm JST

Southeast Asian governments struggle to cope with the online social revolution

A park in Ho Chi Minh City -- smartphones have revolutionized the way people communicate. (Photo by Nozomu Ogawa)

BANGKOK Over 700 years ago, Thailand's King Ramkhamhaeng is reputed to have hung a bell at his palace gate which subjects seeking justice could ring at any time. Among modern leaders, Prime Minister Hun Sen invites Cambodian citizens to air their concerns on his Facebook page.

In early August, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Vietnam's prime minister, was obliged to apologize after a dozen blue-plated official limousines were exposed on Facebook violating a pedestrian precinct in Hoi An. He was attending a conference to promote tourism, and photographs had been innocently posted on the official government information page. It was a telling reproach for a government one prominent U.S. human rights advocate has described as "among the most repressive in the world."

In late 2014, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had to issue two emergency regulations restoring the public's right to vote for mayors and governors. Parliament's cancellation of that right the previous month sparked a trending topic on Twitter with the hashtag #ShameOnYouSBY that allowed netizens to vent outrage.

Following the fatal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi in late 2012, a public furor on Facebook and Twitter led to street protests and vigils. The Indian parliament finally passed tougher laws a few months later, with life terms and the death penalty. An OECD Development Center report later praised social media as a powerful tool for winning wider attention for women's rights.

Somewhere amid all these tales of new accountability, a tectonic plate has shifted in national dialogues, even under repressive regimes. Riding the wave of information technology, people find themselves able to communicate collective ideas, intents, desires, frustrations, identities, resentments, tastes and consumption preferences as never before.

This social revolution is not new, but it is a gathering storm. It is much more than dating apps, restaurant, shopping, or fashion tips, and unrelated to fads like "Pokemon Go." It spreads naturally through a wired generation that "does what it does" without consciously being revolutionary. The consequences are not all good, and governments are both threatened and empowered themselves. As they struggle in the hidden reaches of this irresistible undercurrent, they are also getting to hear more intimately than ever before how the governed themselves actually feel -- what preoccupies them. On this two-way street, insecure governments, fearful of disorder, do not always like what they encounter.

Compared with Myanmar, few countries have seen such positive and negative extremes of social media, fueled by the astonishingly sudden increase in internet access. Less than 1% of the total population of about 53 million had access in 2011 compared with well over 20% today.

"Facebook has transformed how people access information and connect with others in Myanmar," said Sarah Oh, head of strategy at Phandeeyar, Myanmar's leading IT hub and tech incubator. "It's hard to capture the scale of this change in a place where our colleagues used to get their news from one radio station."

DAILY VOTING The days of foreign radio stations being the only sources of news are indeed gone, and Myanmar's sudden opening is in some ways unique. People there are leapfrogging from no telecommunications at all straight to cheap but functional smartphones from China and India. "We are living in science fictional times," Richard Morgan, the author of "Altered Carbon," recently told the BBC. "If you look at the technology we have all got our hands on [with smartphones], these are things that even about five or 10 years ago would have seemed science fictional -- and they are now just part and parcel of day-to-day existence."

Internet evangelists naturally focus on the real opportunities these technological vaults offer. At a town hall meeting in California with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi equated social media to voting on a daily basis -- effectively removing the gap between government and people. The government, he said, could now correct itself every five minutes rather than every five years at election time.

But others suspect the gullible were born to be devoured by the internet. According to Symantec's Internet Security Threat Report, India suffered a 156% increase in social media scams in 2015. "Every sixth scam impacted an Indian, making it the most targeted country in Asia and second in the world," it said. "India's burgeoning social media population remains a favored target of scammers, as they seek to leverage the trust people have in their own social circles to spread scams, fake links, and phishing."

"Facebook is the internet in Myanmar because of the strength and 'stickiness' of the app, and because the vast majority of people in Myanmar are accessing the internet on their mobile phones," Byron Perry of Coconuts Media, which runs news websites in eight Southeast Asian cities and Hong Kong, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

In Myanmar, Facebook has been used as a vehicle for hate speech, intimidation and worse, mainly aimed at the minority Muslim population. Rohingyas already denied citizenship have been a particular target. They were attacked by ultranationalist Buddhist groups in 2012 and 2013 who posted Islamophobic rhetoric and spread wild rumors. "That all needs to be investigated by police," said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. He believes the attacks were coordinated by a mixture of security forces, local thugs, the Buddhist sangha of Rakhine state, and a local political party.

Social media played an important role in this sectarian violence. Lists were posted of companies to boycott, organizations to harass, and names and addresses of people accused of attacking Buddhism. Stories proven to be false were seldom if ever retracted. Purported news services continue to post updates and picture stories straight to Facebook, with no link to a home page.

DARK FORCES An academic who specializes in analysis of Myanmar, but declined to be identified, believes the impact of social media on Myanmar society is "self-generating, and in step with growing internet penetration rates." The concern is that this is "fueling the rise of dark forces that will be very hard to put back in the bottle."

In this new world, governments often find themselves grabbing at straws in the wind. Thai authorities have arrested people for as little as a Facebook "like." Phout Mitane, a 26-year-old Laotian, was detained for a week after posting a picture of her brother being extorted by police for a traffic violation. The authorities said he was merely being fined for missing papers. Three other young Laotians working in Thailand were recently arrested when they returned home to renew their passports. Their offense, recanted before television cameras, was posting against the government.

In late 2014, the Laotian government issued a decree imposing criminal charges for people posting "untrue information" for seditious purposes and requiring internet users to identify themselves. The military-installed government in Thailand also sought to regulate internet use with the Computer Crimes Act of 2007, which carries criminal penalties, as do Thai defamation laws.

In 2013, Singapore's Media Development Authority implemented a new licensing framework for online news sites. Social media critics decried it as an attack on freedom of speech. Sites breaching content standards are required to take down offending material within 24 hours of notification by the MDA. Prohibited content includes anything deemed counter to the public interest, national security, or national harmony -- which critics say can be highly subjective. The sites were also required to post a bond of 50,000 Singapore dollars ($36,800).

Although as prone to online bickering as anywhere, communist Vietnam has more than most countries seen social media push positive boundaries. With a state-restricted media, Facebook has played the leading role in promoting public awareness there. Frustrated journalists often resort to releasing material that cannot be published, including live streams of press conferences or events of special interest -- even parts of the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama in late May.

POISON In early April, postings revealed that fish farms along the coast of Ha Tinh Province had seen their shrimp and fish stocks decimated.

More reports of poisoning followed from areas up to 400km further south along the same sea current. Alerted, the Vietnamese media suspected a toxic discharge from Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a steel plant owned by Formosa Plastics Group in Taiwan in the nearby Vung Ang Economic Zone. Interviews with fishermen suggested that some kind of yellow toxic waste had been discharged straight into the sea. Late in the month, the company issued a statement on the "unknown pollution" in the waters off Ha Tinh and Quang Binh. "At this point, we cannot understand what has caused the death of the fish."

In a country of over 94 million with some 35 million Facebook users, many had no such doubts. The public was enraged by the slow government response as ministries failed to liaise. Warnings were not issued for three weeks about contaminated seafood or byproducts entering the food chain.

On May 1, after at least 70 tons of dead fish had been cleared from the beaches and a diver who worked on a breakwater near the plant had died, demonstrators took to the streets of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Vung Tau, brandishing placards that read, "I choose fish," and "Fish die today, we die tomorrow." Initially, the protests were allowed by authorities with a low-key police presence. Many of the demonstrators were far too well dressed to be dismissed as a rabble.

It was a remarkable chain of events in one of the most politically repressed countries in Southeast Asia. Facebook was instrumental in creating awareness of the environmental catastrophe, goading an impaired media, forcing a government response, pinpointing a culprit, and marshaling a public reaction. All of which unnerved the authorities. Social media users were soon complaining of blockages and difficulties using Facebook and Instagram. There was a surge in virtual private network usage to bypass the blocks. Hola, an Israeli proxy service, reported an increase in downloads of its app.

By midmonth, the authorities were actively suppressing further demonstrations. In Ho Chi Minh City, there were 300 arrests and numerous injuries in a confrontation in Paris Square when a third rally was attempted. "We are concerned about the increasing levels of violence perpetrated against Vietnamese protesters expressing their anger over the mysterious mass deaths of fish along the country's central coast," said the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. Hanoi slapped Formosa Plastics Group, one of the country's largest foreign investors, with a $500 million fine.

Facebook in Vietnam also brought to light the threat to Son Doong, the world's largest cave, in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a pristine UNESCO World Heritage site with a natural history of incalculable worth. Local authorities were considering a proposal by Sun Group for a 10.6km cable car system that would open the cave to mass tourism, delivering thousands of visitors to a resort. The devastating project would generate "thousands of jobs for the poor local people," the company said.

An earlier plan to replace nearly 7,000 ancient trees along the streets of Hanoi triggered three demonstrations in a week. These had survived U.S. bombing and urban redevelopment schemes. Protests, organized on Facebook, led to the disciplining of officials involved in the project.

Other projects have been suspended to placate the public while proposals receive further scrutiny. Facebook fan pages have attracted thousands of hits and "likes" from a wide range of people, encouraging mainstream media to be critical of what would normally be considered sensitive. Foreign support has been enlisted on occasions, but is not the main driver. Vietnamese officials and businesspeople may now find themselves penalized for ill-considered decisions on unsound projects that take no account of public sentiment.

Even if the outcomes have been imperfect, Vietnam's civil society has been nurtured in the back of a cave -- a social revolution in a dark place.

(Nikkei)

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