From Village Scouts to Cyber Scouts

In a week when lese majeste convict Suwicha Thakor was granted a royal pardon after serving more than a year in prison the Thai government’s approach to the Internet should continue to get the attention it deserves.

Before the digital era, the implementation of national security policy in Thailand could rely on the various terrestrial military, para-military, police and civilian organisations tasked with protecting the realm. There is, of course, much that can still be said about how these organisations have contributed to the retardation of democratic culture and practice.

On that point, one of the most controversial of these organisations, particularly during the 1970s, was the Village Scouts (ลูกเสือชาวบ้าน). Even though their hey-day is now a dim memory the Village Scouts have not in fact fully disappeared. Today they are a formal component of the Border Patrol Police apparatus and the Village Scout Operations Center continues to play its traditional mobilisation and propaganda role. 2Bangkok provides some indicative pictures of the Village Scouts in their contemporary incarnation, as does this official photo album.

The lineage of such “Scouts” within the security bureaucracy ensures that the term can be deployed and re-deployed to continued effect.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s recent announcement of a “Cyber Scout” organisation (the Thai gloss, ลูกเสือบนเครือข่ายอินเทอร์เน็ต,doesn’t have quite the same ring to it) is the latest in a long list of efforts to police Thailand’s Internet. According to reports, the 200 Cyber Scouts will include “students, teachers, government officials and the private sector, who have computers and Internet literacy”. No doubt gung-ho recruits will be looking to get their hands dirty. The usual suspects will probably be targeted as they “monitor websites that compromise national security as well as the royal institution”.

Even though the announcement of this new initiative has been greeted with the customary official fanfare it remains to be seen whether this is anything but a token headline-grabbing gambit.

Previous Thai government efforts to police the Internet have enjoyed mixed success. Websites are blocked. But they tend to re-emerge at new addresses and with new cohorts of Internet users made aware of the counter-measures and work-arounds that exist. Contentious content is copied, redistributed and made more attractive by its illicitness. More subtle efforts to block single pages of large websites are often detected and mocked.  Banning material probably makes it more popular, and it serves to encourage a devil-may-care nonchalance among those who sail closest to the prevailing winds.

And, to complicate matters, it also serves to convince some people that when the time comes the Thai authorities will be capable of controlling the potentially huge surges of critical, satirical and confronting commentary that lurk over the horizon. I remain unpersuaded that these efforts will actually prove fit for purpose and may, once all is said and done, actually further undermine the credibility of some of Thailand’s key institutions.

What is clear is that the circulation of contentious Internet material continues and it may, indeed, have recently picked up speed.  A year ago question 15 on this list wondered aloud about how the velocity of any gossip or discussion can be measured.  An answer to that question doesn’t settle the matter. We may still want to know: how many Cyber Scouts will the Thai government ultimately need?

About Nicholas Farrelly