Become a cyber-scout, clean up Thailand’s internet!

By Saksith Saiyasombut

In an everlasting attempt to uphold its image as a fierce defender of the royal institution and thus effectively controlling a national narrative, the Thai government has now sets its sights on the online world. The ministry of justice, where the Democrat party is in charge, has set up a so-called ‘Cyber Scout’ training programme for next week December 20-21 at Kasetsart University. On their website, the organizers laid out the following goals (translated by me):

Objectives of the project

1. To create a Cyber Scout volunteer network […] that observes […] [online] behavior that is deemed a threat to national security and to defend and protect the royal institution.

2. To collect the work of the Cyber Scout volunteers.

3. To set up a network of Cyber Scout volunteers to contact.

4. To promote the moral and ethics with the help of the volunteers, to ensure the correct behavior, build reconciliation and awareness towards the use of information with regard to morality and safety of individuals in society.

5. To promote and support to various sectors of society to careful and responsible usage of information technology.

6. To create a society of sharing and knowledge about security and decency of society.

The seminar is open to every volunteer, but specifically targets students and generally young people. But, in a story by The Nation in July, ICT Minister Chuti Krairiksh said that initially 200 people will be recruited (!) “from around the country, including students, teachers, government officials and the private sector, who have computers and Internet literacy” – that pretty much covers nearly all walks of lives!

Let’s look at some highlights on the schedule and what you can learn at this seminar:

Monday, 20 December 2010

10.00h to 11.45h : “Joint group to defend and protect the royal institution” by Boworn Yasintorn [president of the Network of Volunteer Citizens to Protect the Monarchy on Facebook] (program points: “The monarchy in Thai politics” and “Defending the institution”)

11.00h to 12.00h : “Computer usage ethics” by Asst Prof Dr Nuanwan Sunthornphisat (program points: “Computer-related laws” and “Case studies of actions that are considered unethical acts”)

13.00h to 14.30h : “Thailand’s monarchy” by Asst Prof Patcharaporn Suwannakut (programs points: “His Majesty the King’s talent in various fields” and “Royal duties and important royal projects”)

14.45h to 16.30h : “How to correctly use the computer and the internet” by Dr Pakaket Wattuya 

On Tuesday you get the light version of the seminar with three of the speeches listed above. 

My take: It’s easy for us to get all Orwellian over this project and it’s probably easy for them to dispel such concerns as a simple overreaction, since PM Abhisit highlighted the project has only the best intentions to “also help bridge the digital divide between people who have and those who do not have a chance to access the internet” and that this project would also be in line with “the government’s promotion of a knowledge-based society.” (Source)

But it is quite clear that this is a general trend of over-emphasizing the loyalty by all means and more than a sudden urge to protect the royal institution against a perceived, invisible threat. And since the internet is a quite an anonymous place, it’s an even more frightening threat. Thus these mental and cultural barricades are built with the recruited man-power and the social dogma of loyalty – both off- and online. The term ‘Cyber Scout’ reflects some historical parallels to the ‘Village Scouts’ of the 1970s, which were set up for almost the same reasons in order to battle a perceived communist threat.

The results of this over-protective mood can already be seen by simple numbers: at least 113,000 websites have been blocked so far, most of them for lèse majesté and by the looks of it, this number will continue to grow. It has yet to be seen though, how successful and effective the seminar will be and whether a network of volunteers will help the government to reach its goals.

Generally speaking, using the internet is like teaching someone to ride a bicycle – you can try to tell what the person has and can do, what obstacles and dangers he or she has to avoid, but ultimately the rider is on his or her own out there. You can either stick to the known paths or branch out and discover more new things, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. But to in order to build a knowledge-based society, which the government eventually wants to have, you have to allow the freedom to collect the knowledge by yourself and not shove it into the throats.

P.S.: You might think that such a government-sponsored event would a more professional looking email-address than Just sayin’…!

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith