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Turbulent Thailand

Tech-savvy Thai protesters take page out of Hong Kong's playbook

Russian 'secret chat' app becomes go-to tool among activists

BANGKOK -- They are the digital generation that does not know a world without the internet.

From online crowdfunding to apps that can deliver "secret" messages, Thailand's youth-driven protests have used digital technology to stay a step ahead of authorities, often borrowing techniques honed by their counterparts in Hong Kong.

"Where should we meet today?" a student asked other protesters, using an app called Telegram to choose a rally site, whether it be a shopping center, a rail station or an intersection.

Protesters arrived at the chosen location within hours after the initial posting, and clear out just as quickly once the rally ends.

Telegram, possibly the most widely used app by Thai pro-democracy activists, shields messages from third parties and has become the go-to for communication. The app's "secret chat" feature uses end-to-end encryption to exchange cloud-based messages that can be programmed to disappear after a set amount of time.

Protest organizers have been urging followers to switch to Telegram instead of using Twitter or Facebook, which are closely watched by authorities. The Russian-made app is also the tool of choice among Hong Kong demonstrators looking to operate in secret from police.

Telegram downloads skyrocketed in Thailand about two weeks ago. Daily downloads jumped to as high as 57,000, according to U.S. tracker Sensor Tower, or roughly 30 times before the protests began to intensify.

"I downloaded [Telegram] immediately after being called to do so," said a 19-year-old male university student in Bangkok.

Thai authorities arrested about 20 student protesters on Oct. 15. Yet demonstrations continued uninterrupted thanks to another strategy taken from the Hong Kong playbook: a leaderless movement.

Telegram's digital polling feature serves as a swift decision-making tool that also grants anonymity to organizers. After the Oct. 15 arrests, the hashtag #everybodyisaleader ripped through Thai social media.

Mass gatherings of people tend to give rise to wireless connectivity problems. But demonstrators resolve that issue by using Bridgefy, the U.S. app that creates offline messaging networks between Bluetooth-enabled smartphones. Bridgefy was originally developed for music festivals and sporting events, but it has been employed by Hong Kong protesters.

Social media has been a source of crowdfunding as well. Thai pro-democracy groups have sold T-shirts and other goods through Facebook and organized fundraisers on the platform. The money goes toward purchasing water that is passed out during demonstrations, as well as buying helmets and other items.

Student activists have also taken to social media platforms to form soft collaborations with pro-democracy groups overseas. The parties exchange messages of mutual support as well as expertise on running demonstrations.

Such connections between Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan are known as the "Milk Tea Alliance," a name stemming from the fact that tea is often consumed with milk in those regions.

There are caveats as well. Communication through anonymous channels tends to fuel polarizing rhetoric. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha became a target on social media with disparaging slang that sounds like "I hear too" in English -- the first two words equivalent to English's four-letter expletive, followed by "Tu," which is Prayuth's nickname.

The movement in Thailand has spilled over through social media to neighboring Laos, a country wholly controlled by the authoritarian Lao People's Revolutionary Party. Laotian youths started tweeting messages with the hashtag "if Lao politics was good." Such postings totaled 400,000 this week.

The tweets contained complaints about a lack of freedom of expression, a societal hierarchy based on connections and underdeveloped infrastructure. This outpouring of censure is nearly unheard of since criticizing the government can result in criminal penalties.

"Many people have been dissatisfied with the various inequities" in Laos, said Norihiko Yamada at the Institute of Developing Economies.

Online media and other outlets in Laos have started to highlight how the Twitter postings are illegal, indicating that they are reflecting the intent of Laotian authorities.

As opposed to Thailand, "chances are slim that Laotians will move directly toward action," Yamada said.

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