Elephants in the room: the uses and meanings of English in Thai political discourse (Part 1)

[This is the first of a three part article. Parts 2 and 3 will be posted over the coming week.]

When I moved to Thailand eight years ago, I became interested in the new world of Thai politics which offered so many problems of interpretation with its, to me, foreign and arcane nature. That interest was intensified by the army coup of 19 September 2006 which took me, unlike many, almost completely by surprise. I spent and still spend a lot of time at the computer searching out the minutiae of Thai politics in books, foreign newspapers, Thailand’s two English language newspapers, the Nation and the Bangkok Post, and most of all in the various political blogs that have proliferated like mushrooms.

The nature of the commentary on Thai politics in English is diverse: there are mad rants, thoughtful analyses, cynical asides, cryptic allusions, forthright declarations, commentary from within Thailand and commentary from outside Thailand. The range of the commentators is diverse: academics, English-speaking Thais, Thai-speaking foreigners, the obsessively passionate, the casually engaged, lovers of Thailand, despisers of Thailand, reds, yellows, blues, and every other colour in the spectrum. What to make of all this?

Despite my sporadic attempts to improve them, my Thai language skills remain quite basic. My understanding of Thai politics is therefore almost entirely mediated through the English language. Obviously this is a severe limitation for me in trying to understand what is going on in Thai politics. But perhaps my monolingualism might be a strength in this project. Some months ago it struck me that a useful way to channel my interest in Thai politics would be to try and use my expertise in English to make some observations and develop some theories about the English language in Thai politics.

What does English mean in Thai politics? What is it used for? How is it used?

My framing answer to these questions is simple and obvious: English serves as a vehicle to broadcast and promote Thai political concerns to those outside the Thai polity and language and in reverse as a vehicle to broadcast the political concerns of those outside the Thai polity and language back into it. English material on politics is translated into Thai and Thai material is translated into Thai. A feedback loop is created that is accompanied by the inevitable change, noise and distortion of all feedback loops.

Several other stories emerge from within this feedback loop.

Firstly, the English language functions (or is sometimes seen to function) as a different space for discussion of Thai politics with different emphases, preoccupations, and content and perhaps with greater freedom.

Secondly, English material on politics is translated into Thai and Thai material is translated into English. These translations are conscripted or volunteered for partisan ends. Alternative interpretations multiply.

Thirdly, like Thai language commentaries, English commentaries and commentators are conditioned by the sensitivities and censorship (both formal and informal) that operates in Thailand. These commentaries have developed a coded language to speak without being publicly caught up in these sensitivities and this censorship.

A different space

There is a widespread perception in the discussions I read that commenting in English in English media and blogs is safer and more open than making the same comments in Thai in the Thai media. Whether this is true or not, Kevin Hewison, a well-known and well respected Thai studies academic based at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, would seem to agree. In a paper presented at the Faculty of Political Science of Chulalongkorn University on June 26, 2009 Hewison said:

The topic is ‘Thai-Style Democracy’. I did have a sub-title which referred to something about ‘A Royalist Struggle for Thailand’s Politics.’ You can understand that with a topic like this, I am going to have to speak in English as, for reasons that are all too well known, I need to be careful in what I say. For the same reason, I will read my paper.

It’s interesting that Hewison presumes that his audience of Thai political science academics at Thailand’s most prestigious university will understand that he is going to have to speak in English, suggesting a qualitative difference in what can be said in Thailand in English as opposed to what can be said in Thai. In a later part of this paper, I will talk about the way English language is coded to sidestep certain sensitivities but still make the meaning available to a select audience. At a basic level then, Hewison by electing to talk in English is talking in code.

Jotman is a blogger who has established a reputation for honest, daring reporting. He has been reviewed favorably by CNN, Der Spiegel, Pravda and L’Espresso amongst others. In 2007 he was awarded the “Reporters without Borders Award” in the Best of the Blogs awards sponsored by Deutsche Welle, largely for the coverage of the 19 September 2006 coup in Thailand which began his blogging career. Jotman sees the English media in Thailand as a freer, albeit threatened space:

I started blogging in 2006 the night a coup happened in Thailand. . . Thailand has been a pioneering region for citizen journalism. This is due mainly to the constant political instability on one hand, and the presence of a large expatriate community on the other. Other contributing factors include a high quality English language press that has — until quite recently – been relatively free, and relatively open access to the Internet — although this also seems to be changing for the worse.

New Mandala is a blog about Thailand and South East Asia run by two academics from the Australian National University in Canberra. It has received a lot of attention – both positive and negative – for being relatively unintimidated by claims of political and national sensitivities and for publishing high quality original journalism, particularly the photo-journalism of Nick Nostitz who has covered both Red and Yellow demonstrations in Thailand. A blogger at New Mandala who signs himself as “A Thai” has apparently migrated there in search of greater freedom:

I’m a member at Pantip, after the coup, I tried to post foreign news about Thailand, news that Thai medias wouldn’t dare to print. My first few posts went well, after that all of them were blocked. Sometimes, I spent hours translating news, but couldn’t post. That happened around the same time where other anti-coup members with quality mind were banned from the site. Is this freedom of speech? You can say that it’s under the judgment of Pantip, but if you have good judgement, you should know what the answer is.

In March 2009 Oxford researcher, Lee Jones, questioned whether Abhisit Veijaviwa had the necessary democratic credentials to speak about democracy at his old Oxford college. The issue was taken up on Thanong Khanthong’s blog on the Nation website. In response to the accusation that Jones’s comments were harming Thailand’s image and that Jones was an ill-informed foreigner with few credentials to discuss Thai politics, the frequent poster FelixQui made the point that the whole media space was freer outside Thailand and suggests that these outside comments are feeding back into Thailand’s media space:

Plaadip, re harm to Thailand’s international reputation: Do you read any international news media? The articles are out there, and they will find you if you seek. I wonder you haven’t already, which is why I asked if you read anything. Another interesting indicator is to Google “Thailand + draconian” and see what comes up – note especially the sort of international publications at the top of the results list. These sorts of things seem like fairly solid prima facie evidence to me. Even Thanong is aware of the international comments. This entire blog post is in response to an international comment.

ML Nattakorn Devakul, is a political commentator with a playboy image, a scion of the aristocracy, one-time candidate for Mayor of Bangkok, and an amart whose shirt seems more red than yellow. He too seems casually to think of English as a freer space. But not because of any inherent value in English. It’s just easy to ignore. In an interview with BK Magazine he says, “The idea of a state religion in a time when we’re trying to make Thailand a country open to all religions is just ridiculous. I wouldn’t say this in Thai, though, because the protesters who want Buddhism to become the state religion would probably come after me. I can say it here because they won’t take the time to read this.”

Likewise, for many commentators and bloggers, perhaps because it’s easy to ignore, the code of English is a prime choice.

[Parts 2 and 3 to come. Thomas Hoy teaches in the Department of English at Thammasat University.]