The subject of the panel was: Thailand in the Eyes of Others. The FCCT described the evening as follows:
“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
– Kraisak Choonhavan – Deputy Chairman of the Democrat Party, former senator and expert in foreign relations
– Pana Janviroj – Chief Operating Officer of the Nation Group
– Somtow Sucharitkul – Composer, author and social commentator”
On Wednesday 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 Thailand.
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.
The second 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 mindsets.
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.
The Western 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 powerful people.
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.