Thai riots spark reporting via Twitter, YouTube

Mass use of social networking comes as surprise in a country with an outdated mobile phone network

The serious riots in Bangkok this week have taken a tragic toll out on the streets, but have also sparked an unprecedented emergence of amateur news gathering, shared over YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, which has proved ideal for the fast-moving situation.

The mainstream Thai and foreign media have been overwhelmed by a small army of individuals equipped with mobile phones and Twitter accounts, who are posting continuously from both sides of the barricades. Such grass-roots reporting may be commonplace in the developed world, but has come as a surprise in Thailand, which still lacks a commercial 3G service.

The appeal of online independent media is easy to understand; the official Thai media is slow and selective, as all the television stations are government-controlled and the message they are required to present is carefully tailored. By contrast, Twitter messages are posted within seconds of incidents occurring, followed a few minutes later by photos posted to TwitPic or TweetPhoto. Videos of street fighting between government forces and the Red Shirt protestors are appearing on YouTube within a few hours of incidents occurring.

The use of social media this week is reminiscent of how Iranians turned to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube last June, during the government crackdown on protesters following the disputed elections.

This intrusion of independent online news distribution into what has previously been a government monopoly is being keenly felt in many quarters. First, the Thai authorities have no way of blocking the online activities of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is widely regarded as both the figurehead and paymaster of the Red Shirts.

Thaksin, a billionaire who made his fortune in the Thai telecom market, has been a regular Twitter user since mid-2009 from his forced exile in Montenegro, and now has 96,000 followers. Although Thaksin has a Web site, a Facebook page, and conducts phone-ins and live-video broadcasts, Twitter is apparently his favorite communication method, providing a fast and convenient channel to local media.

Second, the YouTube videos have become instrumental in holding both sides to account for their actions. Acts of brutality and recklessness from both sides have been published, and government television has been forced into broadcasting special programs each evening devoted to analyzing the videos and highlighting what they describe as acts of terrorism by Red Shirts while absolving the government forces from criticism.

All this activity has thrived despite Thailand having the most outdated mobile phone system in South-East Asia. Alone among its neighbors, Thailand has no commercial 3G service, and will be without one until next year at least. Most of the country relies on GSM technology, with GPRS/EDGE available in the cities. Even impoverished neighbors Cambodia and Laos have 3G networks, supplied by Vietnamese company Viettel.

Thailand has yet to hold 3G spectrum auctions, with regulator National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) having cancelled several auctions over the past few years. The reasons for the cancellations range from complications in details of the bidding conditions, disagreements over pricing, and uncertainties over NTC's authority under the hurriedly written 2007 constitution which followed Thaksin's ouster.

The delay, critics say, is more likely due to the patronage-based approach to business favored by existing telecom companies allied to a confused regulatory environment, both of which are symptomatic of the country as a whole.

The horse-trading over telecommunications licenses is, in fact, exactly the kind of elitist and exclusionary process that the Red Shirt protestors claim to be trying to uproot.

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David Legard

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