The release by Wikileaks of hundreds of thousands of classified US documents has been in the news around the world. It is as if 300 Pulitzer prize winning investigating journalists dumped their story onto the Net on the same day. This is dizzy making, laugh in your hand, howl at the moon stuff. It seems every country waits its turn to see what the Americans really think about them, and what cartoon characters will be drawn upon by embassy staff to characterize local politicians and leaders.
Wikileaks may have created the first worldwide reality show featuring anonymous American embassy officials. Who would have thought the foreign services was a backdoor to a showbiz career? These faceless officials may have no celebrity status but Wikileaks is proving that American embassy officials are the scriptwriters feeding raw material to the main actors in Washington. And the scripts they have written were intended for the eyes of their actors and directors and producers only. Like in Hollywood, what you see on the screen often bears only a slight resemblance to the original script. Wikileaks has put the whole show up on your screen for your entertainment, amusement and education.
We all watched as Hilary squirmed (refusing to look the camera in the eye and who can blame her) on the TV news as she tells everyone that whatever was in that script, we love you, value you, want you to love us, too. She should have showed up in Bangkok along side of Bill to appear in Hangover II for the cameo shot. The line between showbiz and politicians has been blurred for years. Wikileaks confirms what many of us suspected. The best scriptwriters aren’t in Hollywood; they are working for American embassies around the world.
Politicians want the celebrity benefits without the Tiger Woods downside of personal and private going to 6.5 billion people. Well, Tiger, guess what, you’ve got a lot of company these days.
In most cultures, what we say in public and what we think and pass along ‘secure’ channels diverge. The contrast can be a cause of humor (think: Batman and Robin) or seriously awkward (the Pakistani leader privately agreeing to the American drone attacks o his country), or an inside look at the Great Game (Victor Bout’s extradiciton saga to the USA).
The cables from the Bangkok-based American Embassy are beginning to unspool and one can expect the Americans to start chasing that ball of knitting yarn with the dexterity of a catnip compromised cat. How is it that what we really think can be such a cause of embarrassment? Part of the answer is that in most cultures criticism, negative opinion, or complaints are not well received from foreigners. Outsiders are supposed to smile, be polite, view the local ‘big men’ in government as exceptionally clever, funny, careful, friendly and reasonable.
They must, of course, work with these people, too. It isn’t all cakes and tea and traditional music. In many cases, the foreigner and his/her counterparts in the government will seek to spin the other, exert pressure, make threats, and call in favors. Carrot here, stick there. The backroom is a nasty place where the smiles disappear and hitting below the belt isn’t unintentional and there’s no referee to call a foul. Most of the time we don’t know what people in the backroom are saying to each other.
Not anymore. Wikileaks turned on the light. Watch them scramble, eyes wide open. The main goal of diplomacy heading in the holiday seas has been to explain to the world (which hasn’t had such entertainment since I Spy was canceled years ago) and to their counterparts in various countries. There is enough egg on the face that American diplomats are being touted as the new omelet du jour. WikiEgged will be placed as flags in personnel files. Careers will be made and destroyed. Reputations (think of the sound of a flushing toilet) will be ruined. Allies and enemies alike are going through the cables like a B-actor reading a script in which he has a part: bullshit, bullshit, (me, my lines, yeah), bullshit, bullhsit, (me, my lines), etc. People love reading about themselves, especially the unguarded opinion that no one making it expects the subject to ever be read.
Thailand has been in political upheaval since 19th September 2006—the date of the last coup overthrowing the previous government. There is broad official censorship (over 200,000 websites blocked and counting) and even broader self-censorship on what can be said in the shrinking political space. No one, though, has figured out how to block Wikileaks and the hundreds of thousands of cables that are flying at the speed of light on the Net.
What Wikileaks may unintentionally do is provide a forum to discuss and debate issues as they arise out of the released cables from the American Embassy and the Consulate in Chiang Mai. Such a public forum will be difficult for the government to close down. As any comments or statement that might be viewed as contrary to the government position is considered with hostility, many eyes will be reading the leaked cables to see exactly what the American diplomats on the ground really were thinking and sending back to their bosses in Washington.
The embargo on candid assessment has been lifted by the latest intel dump by Wikileaks. Some would argue this is a bad thing as it inhibits diplomats from making candid assessment—a necessary precondition to forming and implementing foreign policy. Others would argue that much of the current conflicts around the world arise from the duplicity and lies of the political classes and exposing such conduct to worldwide condemnation empowers the ordinary person.
There are a raft of Thai expressions that no doubt are being used behind closed doors as well as in the street:
Kam-phaeng mii hoo pratoo mii tah, “walls have ears, doors have eyes,” is a Thai saying. You can never keep a secret in the world. Wikileaks may form the root of a new Thai expression based on the common phrase: Khwam-lap mai mii nai lok, “There are no secrets in the world.” My Thai language expert believes that the language is on the verge of adopting a new phrase: Khwam lap mai mii nai Wikileaks, “There are no secrets in Wikileaks.” The soundtrack to the Wikileaks disclosure ought to be the sound of faces breaking. In Thai culture, hundreds of expression are connected to the idea of face: saving it, losing it, gaining it, selling it, etc. Thin-faced, thick-faced, red-faced, and now I propose a new category for Thai officials: ‘cable-faced.’ And when something happens that causes huge embarrassment or shame, the face is cracked open, or “broken” as it’s said in Thai: naa taek. In the days to come, many of official faces around the world will stare at themselves in the mirror and ask now they’ve been cabled face, what is the appropriate revenge. So it won’t be just Thai faces, will be cracked, broken, shattered faced officials who conspire (presumably offline) to teach the Americans that their inhouse embassy scriptwriters are not going to win any Oscars abroad. Unless the Americans promise future scripts will only celebrate the glory and wisdom of foreign governments, it may be time to take up with the Chinese who have proven that secrecy is one thing they do very well.