2 Oct 2018 at 04:00
WRITER: STORY: PASKORN JUMLONGRACH AND KONG RITHDEE
The 250,000-member ‘Ha Kariang’ community barely had a voice to begin with, but heartless hackers ensured they were silenced on social media
The conference room full of minority representatives erupted in laughter when Parue O-dochao retold a bizarre and frustrating incident concerning the hacking of his Facebook page, called “Ha Kariang”. The laughter was caused by the Karen man’s mirthful style of talking, his long and free-flowing speech in accented Thai, even when he was clearly upset by the black-mirror scourge of social media.
Ha Kariang (“Ha” means “I” in Karen tongue) is the largest online community of Karen minority in Thailand with around 250,000 followers. “It’s probably the largest online forum for Karen people in the world!” joked Parue, one of its administrators. Up until two weeks ago, the page featured titbits of Karen lifestyle, poetry and photos, songs and anecdotes, as well as articles about land rights, government policies on forest-dwellers, and issues regarding social justice — or a lack thereof — facing the ethnic group in Thailand.
But you won’t find the page on Facebook now. As Parue recalled in the conference on communication development of ethnic minority groups, in mid-September the Ha Kariang page was hacked — stolen, abducted, hijacked, whatever the term is — by unknown people and, as of now, for unknown reason. It could be a case of “Like theft” — criminals who use a hack software to steal the number of followers to their own page in order to claim fake “reaches” with advertisers. Or it could be a case of online sabotage by ill-meaning parties.
Either way, what happened to Parue and his page at first sounds like one of those humorous items that pop up on your newsfeed every day. But for the Karen community, it’s a real upset. They now feel deprived of their voice in a place where their voice rarely means anything in the first place. What happened was also an example of a minority group that hopes to harness the wide-reaching medium to assert their identity but was dealt a blow by the complex terrain and mechanism of social media, whose backdoor trickeries and language barriers sometimes elude them.
“I was torn at first. Should I let it go, or should I go after them?” said Parue, a Karen activist and one of the administrators of Ha Kariang. “They stole something that belongs to us. If I let them go, they’ll do it again.”
Ha Kariang was set up three years ago by a Karen monk who was later joined by three administrators, including Parue. The page quickly gained popularity among ethnic Karen people in Thailand, mostly those who live in the mountainous or border areas. The content of the page alternated between light-hearted posts (costume, poetry) and heavy subjects (rights issues). Karen people in remote areas use the page to announce their activities, such as a temple merit making or other cultural fairs, and to elicit small donations for their causes — something in the vicinity of 50 to 100 baht each.
A month ago, an online user called “Lisa” contacted Parue and asked to buy the page. Parue and his team refused, so “Lisa” offered to pay them to post sponsored content at $200 (6,500 baht) per post. The team agreed. “Lisa” then sent a link to the page’s message box and told the admin to click it to retrieve a file.
That’s the Trojan Horse: after clicking on the link, the Ha Kariang page disappeared. Its content and followers were forcibly migrated to another page called You Like (Clip Ded) — which is also a fake page of the original You Like (Clip Ded) — while all the administrators were kicked out.
“I couldn’t sleep for days. I was so distraught after what happened,” said Parue.
“It’s a community page and it means a lot to many people. A lot of young Karen people in the mountains were fans of our page, and the Karen community saw the page as a channel to communicate and to express their stories and concerns.”
Parue and his team contacted Facebook. After a few days, Facebook replied and asked Parue to submit documents as proof, which he is in the process of gathering with the help of volunteer lawyers and expects to deliver this week. While it was a relief that the case will be investigated and, perhaps, the page be restored, what weighs down on Parue — and minority groups who aim to push their causes through social media in general — is the seeming impenetrability of the whole mechanism, from the language (he spent days looking for people to help read and write English) to the vastness of the cyber-network that governs the flow of stories in the world.
“If we want to lodge a petition to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, we know we have to go to Bangkok and we know where to find him,” Parue says. “When it’s social media, we have no idea who or where our contact is. Say, with Facebook, we can write them, but who should we talk to? Do they live here or in the US, or where?”
The conference that Parue attended, where his talk kicked up laughter, was held for over 40 minority representatives to improve their communication strategy in order to get their stories across, not just among their own communities but also to the “city people”.
There were representatives of the Morgan people from the southern sea; of Tai Yai in the North; of the ethnic groups along the Mekong; and of the ethnic Malay from the Deep South.
Each of them has their own issues and cases that they wanted to communicate to society, mostly concerning rights. In the past, they had to rely on traditional media, or state media, to air their stories. With social media, they feel like they can speak louder and freer to their intended audience — though, as it happened, the case with Ha Kariang served as a bitter lesson.
“We have no enemies, so I still don’t know why the page was hacked,” says Parue. He added, however, that before the incident, the page had been increasingly outspoken on land issues, especially how the Karen, from Chiang Rai to Phetchaburi, were forced from the land on which they had lived for a century when the forest law declared them trespassers. Parue is inclined to believe, however, that it was likely to be a case of page theft.
All the same, Parue and his team have now opened a new page, called Kod Kariang, which now has 3,600 followers — still paltry compared to the original 250,000. Some of its recent posts include a call for help for victims of a flood in Mae Hong Son and a live session from a seminar on Karen culture in the North.
“The hacking of the original page meant we’d lost our forum,” says Parue. “More than that, it makes us feel insecure. We’re now paranoid that our online presence can disappear at any moment, without us knowing why.”
Follow Parue O-dochao and his team on the Kodkariang Facebook page.