The Internet is increasingly being used by many Southeast Asians for various nationalist campaigns. Even government leaders are maximizing cyberspace to promote unity and patriotism in their countries.
This trend is encouraging since it gives ordinary citizens the chance to express a sense of belonging to their larger communities. However, there are also ultra-nationalist online initiatives which prevent the formation of regional solidarity in Southeast Asia.
Perhaps the most controversial website in Indochina today is ilovethailand.org. This website was created by Thailand’s Prime Minister to uplift the country's international reputation. The website also aims to unite and inspire Thais, many of whom are already disgruntled with the squabbles between the country’s major political forces.
Chang Noi identified the website campaign of the Thai government as a mass propaganda technique:
Neither campaign acknowledges that there might be some real causes underlying those divisions. Neither campaign suggests any solutions to such causes. Neither acknowledges that people may have plunged into political activism because they thought it was their civic duty and because they had the country's interest at heart. Both want to sweep real problems under the carpet where they will fester and ferment
The website has sparked controversy because it claims that parts of Cambodia are Thailand’s “lost territory.”
Cambodia and Thailand have been disputing the ownership of the ancient Preah Vihear Temple for several decades already. This territorial dispute has led to several violent skirmishes between the border patrols of the two neighboring countries.
Many bloggers have expressed disappointment that the Thai government has chosen to unite the country by provoking conflict with other nations in the region. They believe netizens should not advance this wrong version of nationalism.
As expected, the Cambodian government has filed a diplomatic protest over the creation of this website. It also led to the formation of a pro-Cambodia website: ilovekhmer.org. This website aims to expose the false statements which are allegedly found in ilovethailand.org.
Both websites, ilovethailand.org and ilovekhmer.org, have become very popular web portals in Thailand and Cambodia. While it is positive that the two countries have brought their border dispute into the cyber arena, it is unfortunate that this virtual war has also fueled racist sentiments in the two countries.
The Malaysian prime minister is another leader who has seen the potential of using the Internet to achieve unity in society. Aside from blogging and tweeting his everyday activities, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has launched 1Malaysia.com.my to serve as an “interactive platform” between the leader and his constituents. “1Malaysia: People first, performance now” is the campaign slogan of the prime minister.
Meanwhile, pro-democracy activists in Malaysia have launched their own cyber campaign with the theme “1BlackMalaysia: Democracy first, elections now.” They believe the new leader has undermined the democratic institutions of Malaysia. Early this month, the group set up Facebook and blog pages encouraging Malaysians to create and upload “Where is democracy?” placards in the web.
Indonesia has proven that a national tragedy can unite netizens. Hours after the deadly blasts hit Jakarta last month, Indonesian twitterrers started sending “We're not afraid” tweets. For several days, the #indonesiaunite hashtag became the most active trending topic on Twitter. Users of Plurk and Facebook changed their avatars by adopting the red and white symbols of Indonesia’s flag. Local bloggers discovered the convenience of using microblogging sites to inspire people to action. Analysts were impressed that apolitical young Indonesians joined other concerned Indonesians in condemning the Jakarta terror attacks.
Filipino plurkers collected donations for Mindanao flood victims through paypal early this year. To honor a former president who died last weekend, Twitter users added yellow twibbons in their profile pictures. Online petitions against the proposal to amend the country’s 1987 Constitution gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures and supporters, especially on Facebook.
There is a vigorous campaign and lobby effort to push for more Internet freedom in Vietnam. Web campaigns showing support for Myanmar’s opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi are numerous. Brunei bloggers have organized various fundraising activities for the benefit of sports teams, flood victims and environmental groups.
The cause of nationalism is a popular but controversial theme on the Internet. Politicians and anti-government groups in Southeast Asia have been consistent and persistent in maximizing the Internet to advance nationalistic activities. This web phenomenon is positive in so far as it expands and improves the political participation of ordinary citizens. But it is counter-productive when it produces racism and xenophopia.
It is also distasteful when politicians use the web to hide their misdeeds by launching questionable nationalist advocacies. The Internet remains a great tool and platform for sincere individuals and groups to promote serious topics like nationalism. Netizens in the region should not allow some individuals to bastardize and defeat the emancipatory potential of the worldwide web.