Information Operation: The Thai Army’s Strategy of Repression
Over the weekend, the Thai-language newspaper Matichon reported on the contents of an article that appeared in the military journal Senathipat, describing the “success” of the military operations at Ratchaprasong in a manner at odds with the government’s narrative (see our earlier post on the subject, as well as an article published on New Mandala post). Aside from describing military strategy, the article references “Information Operations” instrumental to the success of the crackdown, but does not elaborate much on what this component of the government’s strategy entailed.
Following these revelations, a further article from Senathipat (Vol 60, Issue 1, 2011) focusing exclusively on the “Information Operations” carried out before and during the crackdown has came to our attention. This article is entitled “Lessons in Information Operations: The Re-Establishment of Order in the City (March-May 2010).” While the authorship of the previous article was attributed to the pseudonym Hua Na Kuang, this article includes the actual name of the author, Col Boonrod Srisombat, an officer in charge of the Army Training Command. Given that the two biographical notes at the end of each article are identical, it can be concluded that Col. Boonrod is the author of both.
The latest article on “Information Operations” is a comprehensive and detailed account of the campaign of psychological warfare employed by CRES during the crackdown. It includes startling claims, some of which corroborate our contention that the government is responsible for a “strategy of tension” through which it justify its recourse to violence against protesters.
Col. Boonrod argues that the “Information Operation” was aimed at boosting the government’s legitimacy, preserve the appearance of following “the rule of law,” and build public support for decisive military action (p. 74). The success of the operation is attributed to various factors, including:
- The communications skills of CRES spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd and the effectiveness with which spokespeople like Panitan Wattanayagorn communicated the government’s position to the international media, in fluent English, shielding it from international criticism (p. 71).
- The control of coverage offered by government-operated television station NBT, under the leadership of Prime Minister’s Office Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey (p. 71);
Several elements of Information Operation are highlighted as especially instrumental to the crackdown’s ultimate success:
- The emergence of groups supportive of the government in social media like Twitter and Facebook, whose value is equated to having thousands of supporters on the streets. While these groups are described as “spontaneous,” the article notes that they served the Information Operation as well as anything the government had conceived (p. 73);
- The skillful use of images from Red Shirt demonstrations at the Election Commission and the Parliament in early April, which justified the imposition of the Emergency Decree (p. 73);
- The shutting down of the Red Shirts’ television station PTV, which amounted to “shutting the eyes” of the movement and conferred upon the government complete control over broadcast media (p. 74). This was complemented by the blocking of “over 40,000 websites;”
- The “turning point” is described as the government’s portrayal of the “men in black” who fought the troops on April 10 as affiliated with the Red Shirts (p. 72). This allowed the government to claim that “terrorist elements” had infiltrated the Red Shirt crowds and were responsible for killing state officials as well as the protesters themselves (p. 75);
- Allegations of a conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy, the dissemination of the “mindmap” linking the players supposedly involved, and the attempt to encourage the public to draw a connection between the charges of “terrorism” and “republicanism” leveled against the Red Shirt leaders (p. 75);
- The recourse to nationalist songs and propaganda, which succeeded in bringing pro-government protesters onto the streets in the area around Silom/Sala Daeng in late April (p. 77);
- The dissemination of “professionally edited” video clips showing acts of sabotage and rioting by the Red Shirts (p. 75);
- The insistence by all government representatives that the troops had not killed a single protester, and that care was taken to separate innocents from terrorists (p. 76). Admittedly, this required suppressing evidence showing troops firing on unarmed protesters; when such images did emerge, the government would explain that the troops did not fire “without restraint,” but rather did so according to detailed rules of engagement (p. 77);
- Images of the fires that followed the dispersal of the rallies (p. 72), as well as the display of weapons “found” by the authorities in and around protest sites cleared by the army (p. 76).
As should be expected under the circumstances, the article does not explicitly admit to episodes where the government fabricated evidence against the Red Shirts, save perhaps for the anti-monarchy conspiracy, which is discussed exclusively as an instrument of psychological warfare. However, it is noteworthy that some of the incidents described in the article as helpful to the government are known not to have been committed by the Red Shirts. For instance, the article cites the shooting of an army officer “by a sniper” on April 28, 2010, even though it was known immediately after the shooting that the officer had actually been killed by friendly fire. This shows that it did not matter whether the Red Shirts were or not responsible for the acts, what mattered was the perception the public would acquire as a result of the “Information Operation” (p. 73).
In other passages, the article uses language that points to the potential fraudulence of some of the allegations. For instance, the author commends the authorities’ careful dissemination of the evidence, in a way that minimized the risk of turning public opinion against the government (p. 72). Later, the article praises the use of clips that conformed to government statements that “a majority of the people were willing to accept as true in a crisis situation” (p. 73). In other words, the government privileged verisimilitude over the accuracy of the information.
Amsterdam & Peroff’s Application to the ICC, submitted in January 2011, alleges that many of the incidents of violence that took place over the course of the 2010 rallies were staged by the government itself, including dozens of bombings and the arson attacks. Aside from witness testimony speaking directly to the existence of a “strategy of tension,” and the lack of progress in the government investigations, the Application argues that the Red Shirts had nothing to gain by launching these attacks. If nothing else, this new information confirms that the government’s crackdown could not have succeeded, but for the excuse to murder dozens of people that these incidents of violence provided.