Report on Foreign
The subject of the panel was:
Thailand in the Eyes of Others. The FCCT described the evening as
“Thailand has been through
some tumultuous months with scenes that have both horrified and bemused many.
The world has drunk a heady cocktail of ramwongs, snipers, firebugs, rogue
generals, blood-pouring rituals, live firing, burning tyres, APCs, black
militia/magic/smoke, terrorism warrants, VIP prisons, dead journalists, travel
advisories, Kevlar, empty streets, failed compromises, broken deadlines,
government statements, razor wire, outraged letters to the editor, burnt-out
buildings and disputed body counts.
“Without doubt, this has
been a story that every one of us might mix a little differently – and perhaps
not even with all the same ingredients. Much has been reported, said and written
– and a great deal has also been argued about what was or was not reported, said
and written. It goes without saying that every individual’s perception of events
is framed by what they know (or think they know), and where they were at any
given time. When events move quickly and possibly disastrously, perceptions and
reality may diverge dramatically. Did this happen here?
“The FCCT is pleased to
welcome an expert Thai panel to offer some insights into their land and how they
feel it has recently been presented:
- Dr Sumet
Jumsai – Architect, artist and social commentator
Choonhavan – Deputy Chairman of the Democrat Party, former senator and
expert in foreign relations
Janviroj – Chief Operating Officer of the Nation Group
Sucharitkul – Composer, author and social
evening 2 June 2010, under the heading of Thailand in the Eyes of Others, the
FCCT panel focused attention on the foreign media coverage of the Red Shirt
demonstrations and ultimate confrontation in mid-May 2010. Including those
killed in April, the total loss of 88 lives and the burning of 36 buildings in
I have some
observations about the panel and the audience questions that followed. In any
panel discussion, how the question for the panelist is framed is important. The
FCCT had placed a wide frame on the question—How fair and balanced was the
foreign media coverage? The evening was mainly a Thai critique on the
international TV news about how the Thais in political conflict were presented
to an international audience. In particular, the panel, as were Thai
questioners, were highly critical of TV coverage by CNN and BBC.
These two networks
covered the street fighting and that coverage inflamed a number of Thais,
especially those who support the government’s side. Nothing of substance was
said about the other media—print media, including news, features, editorials, or
blogs, facebook or twitter. It was as if only the TV news of CNN and BBC had
covered the conflict. That is a considerable distortion of news sources and the
impact of various news sources concerning the Thai May conflict.
The digital world
was largely ignored (there was one clip of the foreign protestor threatening to
burn down Central world), even though cyberspace buzzed with front line
commentary and ireports from citizen journalists. In a number of cases, the
online video footage was more compelling and dramatic than the networks.
Thousands of images, videos and commentary reached a larger world through the
Internet. What Thailand in May 2010 has demonstrated is that news that shape
international public opinion is no longer limited to TV network news. News
coverage has expanded far beyond TV and the traditional print media.
The old way of
gathering, reporting, accessing and, indeed through comments, participating in
the news has fundamentally changed. If they did, the members of the panel did
not show that they appreciated that Thailand found itself in the middle of a new
media—where multiple gateways allowed viewers and readers to a rich variety of
opinion, images and videos, along with interviews and on the scene reporting.
Reporting is no longer in the hands of news professionals. What we saw over the
last two months of demonstrations in Bangkok was how news coverage has radically
altered. That digital genie won’t be easily pushed back to the magic lantern.
It’s out for good.
observation comes from listening to various members of the panel complain about
how foreigners didn’t really know or understand what the Reds were shouting from
their stage or community radio stations. They raised the question of cultural
sensitivity, knowledge and understanding. The consensus on the all-Thai panel
was that foreigners didn’t understand Thai culture and therefore made many
mistakes, and if not mistakes, then a distorted picture of the true situation.
Never mind that
the true and full situation with all the necessary background would require a
Ph.D. thesis on recent and historical events to prepare and a Ph.D. to
understand. Setting up the standard in this fashion guarantees that foreign
correspondents can be judged as having failed in their duty to be sufficiently
in-depth and accurately nuanced. Of course no news reporter, Thais included,
could ever achieve such a goal. And if they tried, no one would watch their TV
report, which might take 8 hours of viewing time or read 350 pages of text
necessary to give them such background. Besides, today’s news junkies wouldn’t
limit their news to any one source and know how to find different points of view
from many international and local sources.
Leaving aside the
question of whether foreigners can truly understand Thailand well enough, there
exists a cultural divide between Thais and foreigners. That divide lies in
the role, function and purpose of freedom of expression. In Asia, the Confucius
goal is to strive for harmony, stability and order. Freedom of expression, as a
Western concept handed down by ancient Greece, is about verbal confrontation,
often even verbal conflict. It allows a space for a war of words. The public is
the referee in these battles, deciding who wins and who loses the argument. In
most cases, that happens at the ballot box. But in between elections, freedom of
speech permits others to challenge the policies and opinions and conduct of the
government. It requires the government to defend its policies and conduct with
arguments that persuade citizens that they have acted appropriately under the
circumstances. In Asia, such speech is seen as hostile, creating disharmony,
challenging the authority of elders, who because of their rank and status are
owed respect and are not to be questioned.
After more than
twenty years of living in Thailand, I have seen this cultural war about freedom
of expression fought over and over again. Always the same arguments are made.
But the Thai and foreign debaters argue pass each other. They don’t truly
understand what the other side is arguing – or if they do, choose to ignore it.
In my view, that results in a failure to focus on the core values essential to a
functioning civil society and who and how political, social and economic
priorities are established. Those core values are the product of two different
The Asian mindset
is premised on speech as gentle and aimed at expressing sympathy and
understanding. One panelist complained that the Western press had not expressed
sympathy with the Thais. This idea suggests that speech is a kind of collective
therapy exercise. No one loses face. No one in authority is directly challenged.
Criticism is wrapped in enough ambiguity that it loses its force and thrust and
falls away without hitting a specific target. The repression of free speech,
however, doesn’t stop Thais from using poor cousins of freedom of
expressions—gossip and rumors and backbiting. But this is done on the sidelines,
living rooms, backrooms or behind the keyboards. Such expression is not a
substitute for public debate; it is, from the Western point of view, the way
people who are bottled up let out steam and seek information are restricted and
limited in ways that make them ineffective agents of change. Of course, this
kind of information is highly unreliable and mostly wrong in fact. But it
doesn’t matter. Harmony is not disturbed.
mindset is authority must be challenged, made to account for its actions and
conduct, and that unpopular opinions, silly opinions, even mean spirited and
stupid opinions aren’t repressed. They are allowed into the marketplace of
words. No one forces anyone to listen. Listening is optional, and many
ill-formed, vague opinions are not taken seriously. There is likely a
marketplace for many strange views and ideas. Allowing fringe ideas to
enter to the marketplace isn’t a stamp of approval of their merit. The merit of
an idea is up to the public. The public is allowed to judge what is being said,
heard or seen and make a decision whether to accept it. When they find no
audience, like all noise, they drift into the background. It takes a mature
society to allow for a wide frequency of opinion, knowing a lot of the noise
isn’t productive, but recognizing, that in advance, it is impossible to bottle
up opinion on the basis that some of that noise will upset important, and
In my view, the
Thais have paid a heavy price for their compromised freedom of expression
system. It has allowed a breeding ground for incompetence, cronyism, and
corruption to arise largely unchecked inside the political realm. Without
freedom of expression these virus like agents operate with impunity inside the
system, growing until they spill over and there is yet another coup. Those who
launched a successful coup against Thaksin Shinawatra’s government in 2006
justified the action on the basis of his alleged cronyism and corruption. They
didn’t allege he was incompetent. If anything he was too competent on how to
game the system sealed off from public effective debate.
The coup removed
Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration from office but it did nothing to eliminate
the underlying elements that permitted the alleged misrule to come into being.
There has been little self-reflection on the connection between the absence of
free speech and the embedded problems that have for decades plagued the
political system. It is without irony that Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration
proved to be no friend of free speech. The coup makers, at least on this part,
and those governments which followed the coup, haven’t learnt the lesson. Once
in power, they’ve continued the Thaksin legacy of restricting freedom of
expression. Many of them had been victims of such repression, but memories are
short and power is intoxicating.
In the West we
sacrifice harmony because we believe that the battle of ideas and opinions
ultimately makes us stronger as a society. In Asia, we see harmony as the
essential goal and speech must yield to order and stability otherwise confusion
and conflict will destroy the unity of society. There isn’t a lot of middle
ground between these positions. You get to choose one or the other. Trying to
have both is like assembling a plane that you know won’t fly but insist once
again that it will. It may be that the Thais experiment of using coups to mop up
the political mess that inevitably arises when citizens are cut off from
challenging and criticizing the decision-making will come to an end.
The end of the
coup culture won’t happen because the Thais embrace the Western mindset on
freedom of expression but will arise as the digital news gathering age gives
them no choice. They can ban thousands of websites but they’ve lost the battle.
There are too many entry points, too many voices; the floodgates of information
and analysis can’t be closed. Ultimately it may be technology rather than
principle that overtakes the Asia mindset and freedom of expression will provide
the Thais with more harmony and stability than tanks and APCs.