By Tomasz Janowski and Khettiya Jittapong
(Reuters) - Making little headway on the streets, protesters in Thailand trying to oust the government have opened a new front, targeting companies tied to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's family and using social media to drive the effort.
Calls for a boycott broadcast at rallies and spread via Facebook and other social media had an immediate and striking impact this week: shares of a property developer controlled by the Shinawatras and a handset distributor with links to the family plunged by about 10 percent over three days.
It is too early to tell what the impact will be on those companies' sales and profits but fears that they will be hit have already wiped out about billion dollars of the value of firms seen as associated with Yingluck and her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Company boycotts are nothing new. Neither is the use of social media and texting to organize boycotts or rally supporters to political causes.
What appears new is how the rallying cry of anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban - "If you love your country, stop using Shinawatra products" - is bringing that together and turning the prospect of a boycott, usually a tool of advocacy or consumer groups, into a potent weapon in political conflict.
This week, responding to a call by Suthep posted on a Facebook page, hundreds of people showed up to disrupt business at a service center of a mobile affiliate of telecoms group Shin Corp, founded by Thaksin before he entered politics. Shin Corp says the company no longer has any connection with the Shinawatra family
"I've never seen that before. What we've seen is boycotts of companies based in a particular country. The classic example is the South Africa boycott that went on for many years during the apartheid era," said Daniel Diermeier, professor at the Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
More recently, Danish companies were targeted in protests over cartoons depicting Islam's Prophet Mohammad published in a Danish newspaper in 2005.
"But the targeting of companies because they are affiliated to or owned by government officials? I haven't seen that," said Diermeier who has published a book on managing corporate reputation risks and has written on company boycotts and the role of social media.
BOTH SIDES CAN PLAY
In terms of its political impact, it remains to be seen how the assault on the Shinawatra family's business interests will play out. Her party's spokesman dismissed it but the campaign at least adds to a perception that Yingluck is becoming increasingly embattled.
Kasem Prunratanamala, head of research at CIMB Securities in Bangkok, was skeptical and also critical, comparing the tactic to the invasion of someone's home privacy.
"The fall in share prices should be short-term and investors should look at fundamentals of the companies. This is just a temporary issue," Kasem said.
It is also a game both sides can play.
The anti-government camp intent on ousting Yingluck and ending the influence of her self-exiled brother represents the Bangkok-based establishment: the royalist bureaucracy, the army and old-money families, many with business interests that would be highly vulnerable to the same tactic.
Indeed, the more numerous Shinawatra camp - Thaksin and his parties have won every election since 2001 - could be expected to pack a more effective punch when it comes to boycotts.
Many drinkers in Thaksin's northern and northeastern heartlands stopped drinking Singha beer when Chitpas Bhirombhakdi, whose family owns the Boon Rawd Brewery that makes the beer, emerged in the media and social media late last year as an ardent anti-Thaksin campaigner.
The hostility between the camps gives such campaigns an emotional dimension, the targets are often specific and easily substituted and social media whips up awareness.
"These innovations? They spread. Once people figure out a new way to do this and they have an impact, they spread," Diermeier said.
"The use of commercial boycotts against companies for political purposes? I would think that could be replicated easily."
(Additional reporting by Vidya Ranganathan; Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Robert Birsel)