Elephants in the room: the uses and meanings of English in Thai political discourse (Part 3)

[This is the third of a three part article. Part 1 is available here. Part 2 is available here.]

Speaking in Codes

On the evening of 19 September 2006, I was watching TV at about 9 o’clock. There had been political tension for a long time, so long that I had become habituated to it just as I had become habituated to the peculiar reporting of Thai politics in general. One would often see serious newspaper reports such as “A general whose name begins with P talked to a politician whose name begins with H who took a bribe from a businessman whose name begins with T.” “Influential persons” would cause mischief through the use of “invisible hands”. General Prem was talking about jockeys, horses and owners. Prime Minister Thaksin was making oblique references to “a charismatic person outside the Constitution”. Generals were flatly denying that a coup would ever take place again saying that that era was past and Thailand was a fully democratic nation and the idea was just about unthinkable.

I believed them. So in this atmosphere, I was watching the Channel 11 show Newsline hosted by ML Nattakorn Devakula. I’d watched his show before and found him to be a bombastic and opinionated windbag but one who occasionally said something intelligent and/or interesting. On this occasion, for about ten minutes he seemed to be wittering on about nothing that I could understand. I paraphrase from memory:

The thing that we thought might be happening does seem to be happening. We hope it’s not happening but it certainly seems to be happening and nothing seems to be stopping it from happening. As we speak it’s happening right now. What’s happening seems to be definitely happening… It’s very bad that it is happening but it continues to happen.

I’d had a long day at work and had no clue what this all meant and little immediate interest in deciphering it. I woke up in the morning to the news of the coup and it immediately became crystal clear. Nattakorn had not been acting as a reporter; he had been speaking in code to those who shared the code. I may have been ignorant but many people would have understood him exactly.

I don’t blame Nattakorn. He may not have been acting in the heroic mode of the reporter who tells the truth in simple, unambiguous language. But he may have been acting quite courageously nevertheless; after all he knew that people in tanks were on their way to his TV station to replace his cryptic chatter with pronunciamentos and patriotic music and to do it with violence if they had to. However, the point this and other incidents demonstrate is that an awareness of coded language is necessary to any understanding of, or as things are constituted presently, to anything that can approach a full discussion of Thai politics. The codes I can understand (or at least identify as codes) are in English, so this area of Thai political discourse will be my focus in this paper.

The government is certainly aware of the way people are using codes to say what they want without being punished for it or to evade censorship and they are trying to work out ways to stop this. Information and Communication Technology Minister Ranongruk (who could perhaps be better named the Minister for the Suppression of Information and Communication Technology) explains how computer systems designed to stop people from making statements deemed offensive are being subverted. She submits her name for use as a codeword:

For example, let’s use my name. If the word “Ranongruk” is on the database, then we can check on anyone who uses the word on the internet. It will pop up and we can see what is being written about “Ranongruk”. But the system is easy to evade. People get smart and they type in “Ranong-ruk” if they want to say bad things … and the system won’t catch it.

Ranongruk is right. People get smart. The history of censorship is replete with examples of successful evasion of censorship through coded language. But she is wrong that they are doing it only when they want to say “bad things”. Sometimes they may use coded language in order to say “good things”. Censorship of the type that Ranongruk is in charge of organizing operates as a dragnet picking up everything in its path.

Ranongruk may be unaware of even blunter applications of computer code than hers. The Bangkok Post has an algorithm that converts potentially offensive words into

\\ ////

Yes, that’s right. \\ /////. It’s not a typo. I spoke with a moderator at the Bangkok Post who did not want to be named. He told me that the algorithm was initially designed to catch four letter words. With the rising political tension and fear of lèse majesté charges, management added other words but in a haphazard and incomprehensive fashion. We can see from the following example that the instrument does not always work very well:

Privy Council president and Statesman \\ //// Tinsulanonda said he had prayed to Phra Siam Thewathirat – the country’s guardian spirit – and cursed those people with malicious intentions towards the country, wishing them misfortune.

It’s quite clear even to the na├пve reader who the statesman in question is. But it is not clear that the comment was at all critical of him. The \\ //// code, as we will see, is applied to other people and entities but it is indiscriminating. It does not, in Minister Ranongruk’s terms, sift out the “bad things” from the “good things”; instead it leads to further confusion and opens up innumerable opportunities for misinterpretation. It catches all statements – those that criticize \\ //// and those that praise \\ ////, such as the following comment from a Bangkok Post blog. This statement was made in a discussion of the red shirt petition to pardon Thaksin:

It looks like you may not realize that the only person who is empowered to grant a pardon to any convicted person is \\ ////. This include the petty thieves, purse snatchers or any other common criminals under detention. That is why they’re trying to submit the petition to \\ ////. The pardoning of these criminals is an annual \\ //// undertaking that usually takes place around \\ ////’s birthday. I do not believe it is a deliberate attempt to politicize the institution however obvious the political air is. Honestly, I think they know full well the pardon will probably not happen. I would be very surprise if it does. I honestly do not believe any Thai, UDD or PAD, who knows anything about \\ //// would or could say he doesn’t care regardless whether or not the pardoning happens. His entire life has been about caring for the people of this land. I can’t even begin to count all the projects under his direction that were aimed at making people’s lives better. It is his constitutional restrictions cemented by the military coup all those years ago that prevents him from being able to do even more. There were occasions we’ve witnessed where he said enough is enough.

A na├пve reader would have no idea which person it is who has done all these good works because any identifying marks are screened out by this blunt instrument. The only clue we have is the reference to “the institution” something that would also leave the na├пve reader puzzled. (I will discuss this term in a future paper.)

And in other cases, for a casual reader interested in learning about Thai history, the device would create problems:

  • 1980 – General \\ //// Tinsulanonda assumes power.
  • 1983 – \\ //// gives up his military position and heads a civilian government. He is re-elected in 1986.
  • 1988 – General Chatichai Choonhaven replaces \\ //// after elections.

And in another message we get this: “Even \\ //// appeared to have been in support of the policy in his ’03 birthday speech.” The informed reader will discern that the two \\ ////s are different people but for those who are not well-informed or are seeking to become more informed or are merely pursuing a casual interest the different identities of \\ //// could become conflated. Does this serve the interests of those who are trying to protect “the institution”?

However, much of the coded language in the blogs is not imposed by the recipient of the information, such as the Bangkok Post, but by the original writer of the message. Whether critical, laudatory or neutral, respondents on the Bangkok Post’s language pre-code their text so that it will not be rendered as \\ ////. People get smart as Minister Ranongruk said. Some of the ways people have successfully tried to get around such devices and the censorious attention of moderators follow:

… a former King of England is suspected of also having German sympathies (or indeed that the Ro.yal family is itself of a direct German background, they even changed their last name to sound more English). One has to also be in awe of the fact that the majority of the Europeans K.ings and Q.ueens of Europe were related by two or three blood lines). Lots of cousins got married I guess. If you or I marry like that it we would be called incestuous. I guess that is the recipe for European ‘R.oyal’.

It’s interesting to note that in this case the poster is not talking directly about Thai politics but presumably needs to change some words because he or she wants to get them past the censor to make the meaning clear. The post reflects the way in which censorship creates confusion and in which it is self-replicating. The poster has assumed the words the Bangkok Post is likely to censor. In fact, a more careful reading as I am carrying out here reveals that, very oddly, King and Queen are acceptable but “Royal” and “His Majesty” and “Prem” must be replaced by \\ ////. Censorship induces self-censorship and coding which is often in excess of what the censors originally mandate.

In most cases, however, Bangkok Post posters are referring directly to Thai politics. The next post seeks to evade the Bangkok Post’s censorship by using the code words, “H…M and “K…ing”, yet it certainly would not fall under Minister Ranongruk’s category of “bad things”. It adopts the Abhisit government and PAD line that the petition to the king asking that he pardon Thaksin is a potential source of annoyance or discomfort to His Majesty:

Thaksin devisivness only has one goal, to be a false prophet and incite unrest, now insult the K…ing. Might as well add lese majeste to his many charges. Giving gov’t to the people means only if he can be the boss. H…M deserves better, especially after all he’s done and these being the remaining years of his memorable life.

Another longer post on the same topic makes the same point more temperately but uses a different set of code words. I will quote this at some length to give an idea of the confusion that might arise in the mind of somebody who is not well acquainted with Thai politics:

I’m not sure this petition is a wise move for the red shirts. If you look at the past, pardons have only been granted by those who were convicted and began to serve their time, which doesn’t apply to Thaksin. However, from what I’ve read, that doesn’t mean this couldn’t be granted by HIM, it’s just that there is no precedent for it.

Some have said that if HE were to grant a pardon, that it would reflect badly on the courts. Yet, go back and count how many L.M. convictions there have been, especially in regards to foreigners, who were granted pardons almost as a matter of course. Doesn’t that “reflect badly” on the courts? If HE can grant pardons and basically overturn the decisions of the courts in regards to these rulings, without the courts being “embarrassed”, then HE could do so in this regard as well, so I don’t really buy the argument that it would discredit the courts, because they are discredited in nearly every L.M. conviction against foreigners nearly every time there is a “conviction”. …

But let’s be honest here. Not everyone, especially the “Elites”, “Old Money” and Military want to see him come back, other than in a pine box for burial. He scares the he.ll out of them, and it’s possible his life would be in constant danger. But if something were to happen to him, some “accident”, or a blatant assassination, that could plunge this country into a civil war, and no one in their right mind wants to see that.

But let’s look at the other side of that coin and let’s say that HE doesn’t grant it, or even refuses to hear it, what will that do? It will delight everyone who is anti-Thaksin, but it could also have a negative effect on that institution. The other day in ThaiVisa forum it was stated that a man from San Kamphaeng revealed that Thai there had claimed to love Thaksin more than HIM, and that they were mad at HIM. When I read that it sent a shiver down my spine, as I could not imagine any Thai saying such a thing, and it made me question the validity of such a statement. But what if it were true? If so, and HE denied the petition for the pardon, would it turn people against that institution? I’m not sure I even want to consider the consequences of that if it were to happen.

While, on the one hand I can respect the “devotion” of the reds to Thaksin, and understand their reasons for it, on the other I don’t think this is the smartest move they could make, and that it could possibly lead to further divisions within the country. If they get the signatures they want, and I have a feeling they probably could without too much trouble, and then submit it to HIM, that is going to place a tremendous amount of pressure on HIM in which, regardless of his decision, is going to create further divisions in this country.

In this post, we get the code words “HE”, “HIM”, “He.ll” (perhaps one born out of a hypersensitivity to the Bangkok Post’s heavy handedness), “L.M” and also “that institution” (a code word I will address in another paper). On the other hand, the reader must clearly distinguish “He” from “HE” and “him” from “HIM” to make sense of this. Some might wonder why some unidentified under-achiever from San Kamphaeng was feeling scorned because Thais loved Thaksin more than him and what it was this good man had done to arouse the anger of the red shirts. Admittedly, most people reading this post would probably understand and know the background but posts are recycled and reprinted in different contexts and the censorship/coding here would sow confusion.

Some other code words used to evade \\ //// in the Bangkok Post are “you-know-who”, “the honest broker of Thai politics”, and in an interesting analogy “that group of trees in the center of the field”.

It is clear that where there is a blunt censorship instrument operating as at the Bangkok Post, code words are used through the force of necessity: on one hand the necessity defined by the Bangkok Post which automatically codes words that are thought of as politically dubious and on the other hand, the necessity of getting their point across as defined by many of the respondents.

However, there are many blogs which do not operate such crude censorship. Of course, some of these blogs, particularly, I suppose, those hosted in Thailand, those whose contributors are Thailand based and those which are sensitive to the always present fear of being banned in Thailand, moderate posts to their blogs. But in these there is also coded language used by both the principal authors of these blogs and by the respondents.

These coded words cover a wide variety of topics and a wide variety of political opinions and I must let the readers work out the possible meanings for themselves. Some are heavily coded and highly ambiguous; others are much easier to work out. Some require extensive background knowledge which is often encoded in the code word itself. Others are more or less arbitrary. Some of these code words are: “the higher place” , “John Doe”, “the inevitable”, “some Other party in the power struggle you’re referring to”, “two obvious Higher parties”, “Germany”, “she and Germany”, “ Someone, before his most unfortunate incident on September 15”, “the Other party”, “Germany”, The pandas Lin Hui and Lin Ping, “the kindergarten kids”, “the kindergarten”, “the principal of the kindergarten”, “the son of one who must not be mentioned in Thailand”, “powerful and mighty backer”, “Elvis”, “son of Elvis”, “when Elvis leaves the building”, “you-know-who”, “that institution”, “the inevitable”, “the unspeakable”, “you know who”, “you know who”, “the ‘R’ word”, “R”, “the other ‘R’”, “a certain high up person”, “you know what”, “unmentionable connections”, “a certain person”, “one big guy”, “the ‘r’ word”,one central and final event”, “a big-cheese”, “the big guy”, “the big house”, “the big house and the privy (the small house)”, “The principal reason for all of this”, “A group and entity which cannot be mentioned which has over-whelming political influence, has enormous business interests in every aspect of the Thailand economy, all of them impacted by government policies or non-policies”, “a certain birthday party”, “a certain someone: US-born, swiss-educated, thai-chinese mother…”, “a certain draconian law”, “his other friend was in Germany”, “the main man”, “those in a high place” , “someone in the sky”, “someone high up”, “the sky”, “certain people who have always professed not to be involved in politics”, “Someone near and dear”, “numero doce”, “his mom”, “a secret ingredient”, “the one big news”.

There are many other code words which I have not referenced. It would be impossible to do so because so much of the commentary on Thai politics is now written in code, metaphor and analogy. Anyone reading blogs in English on Thai politics has to cut through a jungle of these code words to make meaning of what is being said.

Reasons for codes: a climate of fear/paranoia?

Why do all these codes exist? In many instances, it is clear that the posters are quite critical of their coded referents and might have good cause to worry about being caught by the lèse majesté law or the Computer Crimes Act if they talked plainly. Even if they are not worried about any personal consequences, they may be worried that blog moderators would suppress their comments for fear of being caught as second order violators of the law as happened to Chiranuch Premchaiporn of the Prachatai website.

In other cases, however, the posters either praise or are neutral about their coded referents. It seems that they too might be worried about getting caught in a dragnet or of being misinterpreted or taken out of context. Also, perniciously, coding can become something that develops through force of habit and through imitation and membership of a peer group that habitually talks in the same terms. There is a certain thrill in being able to break perceived mores in this way, to demonstrate the cleverness to talk in a language that few understand. On the other hand, there is a widespread and potent frustration at not being able to talk freely and in a way that is not as subject to misinterpretation and misunderstanding as coded language necessarily is.

There is also widespread fear and anxiety that goes hand-in-glove with this frustration. Many have noted the climate of fear over free expression in Thailand. Brad Adams from Human Rights Watch says, “A climate of fear looms over civil discourse and in cyberspace as a result of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression under the Abhisit government.” Reporters without Borders has been constantly critical of the censorship laws and ups the ante from “a climate of fear” to “a climate of paranoia”. Amnesty International, after a long time on the sidelines, has at last joined the charge and has come out and criticized censorship in Thailand, citing the King in support of its case. Supinya Klangnarong who was hailed as a champion of free speech by the yellow shirts for her David and Goliath battle against the Thaksin government’s attempt to stifle her through a libel suit, (here and here) has said that 60 percent of the Thai population are “silent because of fear” and that the Abhisit government is pursuing a double strategy of “creating a climate of fear and at the same time remaining open”, relying on the fear to do the censoring work and the openness to preserve its image. Pravit Rojahanaphruk, one of the rare progressive voices from The Nation, has written in Prachatai: “This politics of ultra-royalism will restrict even further the already near-non-existent public space that is critical of the royal institution. Unrealistic expectations will likely result, and Thai democracy will fall deeper into the black hole of anti-democratic language and intolerance.”

It would be surprising if bloggers and posters did not pick up on this atmosphere and respond to it. Minor and major panics break out from time to time on the blogs as the cyber community suspects infiltration from the dark powers that be. Questions like these fly around: “Why can’t I access this site? Has it been banned? Or is it just technical difficulties? Can someone tell me what’s happening? Is someone reading my posts or my emails? Are you who you say you are? Are things what they seem?”

It has been said that just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean that nobody is watching you. And obviously the Thai authorities are reading people’s emails as the case of Suwicha Takhor bears out and they are banning websites without going through the proper legal channels. In response to a question as to whether the ICT Ministry had “illegally or pre-emptively banned any website”, Minister Ranongruk answered categorically that it had not. In absolute contradiction of this answer she immediately went on to say: “But it takes time to get court orders, so we may delete certain content deemed inappropriate before we go through the process.” So it should not be surprising that bloggers are alert to the possibility of bans taking place with no publicity. Blogger AbsolutelyBangkok recently reported that Web users all over Thailand had reported

blockings by the mighty MICT as well as hazardous scripts on government sites. A reader reported absolutelyBangkok.com was blocked as were – depending on where you are and what ISP you use – CNN, Yahoo, Facebook, Flickr and others. Quite an honor to be blocked along with CNN, Facebook and such.”

Absolutely Bangkok then speculated as to whether it was a “silly MICT computer tech tweaking something” or whether it was “A test run, a dress rehearsal for the one big news”. The point to make here is not which of these speculations is true; it is that in the absence of reliable information from the authorities about what they are doing, such speculation is bound to intensify and the fears and rumours are bound to intensify.

A poster on BangkokPundit called “Ricefield Radio” recounts an incident which induced this type of fear:

Not long ago I checked my server stats and found had I had no hits from Thailand today. I then realized it was just shortly after 1:00 am, the server resets at midnight, and few if any Thai hits appear at night on the weekend. This insignificant panic attack reminds me that we are all under their thumb to some degree and we have to be vigilant if not careful about what we say. This is not a good situation and is a stark reminder that in other places, not too distant, journalists have just disappeared into the night never to be seen again. The arbitrary use of the LM and computer Crime and other media related laws is a direct assault on the media as well as the people.

A very sad fact is that the majority, media included, either don’t know, don’t care or just go along with the noose tightening around their throats waiting for the floor to drop out from beneath their feet.

I share these apprehensions and I can attest to feeling the same panic attacks when the internet goes awry. We have to imagine new scenarios for repressive censorship. A carload of goons might not arrive at midnight and knock on the door to find the reader of the banned book or the samizdat publishers. They may only have to deliver an electronic knock on the door to destroy the operation. Censorship depends for its effectiveness not merely on actually identifying the dissidents but on making them aware of the possibility of being identified, of making them scared to say what they think or even to say anything at all and making others scared to read these dissident opinions. Or of forcing them into ways of speaking that are incomprehensible, that sound meaningless, mad or inconsequential, that go round and round in ever diminishing circles.

Another classic game that censors play (and that the censored respond to) is that of fomenting suspicion and distrust among their targets. One blog respondent points an accusing finger at the presence of suspect agent provocateurs on the website he is responding to. Siammiddlepath responds to a commentator who has confessed to ignorance of the existence of a clandestinely circulating CD: “I’m not even sure if Chris Beale is a part of the 2.4 operation. Going through his past comments sometimes I can’t help feeling he is fishing for information and just baiting for the next victim of a certain draconian law? Sorry, it’s just an impression.” Siammiddlepath then goes on to warn another blogger of the dangers of being too open saying, “Superanonymous [incidentally, the choice of pseudonym reveals something else about the atmosphere of secrecy and fear], you should be careful.”

We might choose to regard these responses as the paranoiac whispers and over-reactions that emerge in all closed, cult-like societies (and the blog world has some characteristics that match these) but on the other hand, we might forgive these accusations when we take into account the views of The Nation’s editorialist on this matter. The Nation is hardly the voice of anarchic freedom. They have consistently defended the existence and application of censorship and have supported the Abhisit government’s line. But at the conclusion of a general discussion of web censorship and cyber attacks worldwide, the editorial turns its attention to Thailand and unambiguously states that the government’s censorship regime is anarchically propelled by whim not by law and that there are Thai government sponsored agent provocateurs working in cyberspace. The Nation should see it as their duty to back up these very significant claims by publishing whatever evidence they have and demanding that those responsible be indicted:

Of late, Thai authorities have been monitoring private emails with intensity. Sometimes, agencies act on their own accord, even though the Abhisit government has said repeatedly it respects freedom of expression both in print and digital form. But somehow there are discrepancies. Experts in information technology have disguised themselves as friendly users on online social networking groups such as Facebook and Twitter, trying to locate groups and individuals who are considered to have negative views on the country and its respected institutions. Thailand used to be one of the freest countries in Asia, both in traditional and new media. However, in the past three years Internet censorship and heavy filtering of online content has become a common practice here.

Awareness of codes: “now we live by code words”

There is an increasing awareness by bloggers and other commentators of the importance and prevalence of coded language. The prominent political blogger BangkokPundit seems particularly aware of them and equally aware of the limits of free speech in Thailand often stating in response to those limits–quite understandably–that he has no wish to spend time in prison. One of the tactics he uses, as in this instance with a coded speech by Sondhi Limthongkul, is not to decode the text himself but to suggest to the reader that “if one reads though the lines and decodes what in a ‘high place’ and in the ‘sky’ [Sondhi’s code words] means “one can work out Sondhi’s meaning”. BangkokPundit is alert to any possibility of an increased space for free speech through the extended use of codes; he picks up on the freer, less disguised use of certain code words in new contexts; in one instance, he rhetorically asks “btw, can we now use the code words ‘backing’ and “baramee’ without concern?” after seeing them in a more mainstream publication. Bloggers like BangkokPundit react in a fluid way to censorship. As the space for free speech expands, they occupy it; as it shrinks, they retreat. In another article, commenting on Thailand’s drop in Reporters without Borders ranking of 66 in 2002 to 130 in 2009, BangkokPundit maintains that the situation is not as bad as it seems and that the reporting of “sensitive” issues is actually greater. The reason is that people have learnt to speak in codes: “Now we live by code words”.

Likewise the columnist Chang Noi asserts the increasing importance of codes:

Over the past year alone, the nature of political debate within Thailand has changed utterly. More sections of society are involved in the debate. Things once unsaid are now said. In public forums, speakers have evolved codes, metaphors, and gestures, which their audience can understand. On radio, presenters have quietly transgressed old taboos. In semi-private spaces like the interior of a taxi, exchanges have become more forthright.

One poster to a Bangkok Post forum who signs as “Thai_100%” writes tellingly and sympathetically that pressure from fearful moderators means that posters have to be deliberately unclear. The poster apologizes for speaking in code but holds out the hope that it will ultimately be understood:

I think the “mods” are under new orders, after all, they have to work here and they must tow the “party” line perhaps? (if they want to remain employed that is)
This why we sometimes write in riddles which I know is not fair to people for whom English is a second or third language but hopefully, for those that want to know what we are really saying, there are others that can help, like you and your friend perhaps?

Nicholas Farrelly from New Mandala has also suggested that despite the increasing restrictions of speech the space for open discussion is increasing. There are new “rebellions” constantly breaking out against censorship and threatening its grip. Respondent Ralph Kramden agrees with this analysis and makes the point that internet censorship is actually very difficult as “Much of it appears, is blocked, reappears, is sent around by emails and so on.” The analogy I would make here is with spotfires; the information leaps over firebreak and control lines.

But of course there is argument against these points of view. Some see the use of coded language as falling into a trap which plays right into the hands of the censors, expanding the confusion and powerlessness which censorship induces. A poster called “Curious” sees blogs as a space where codes are not necessary (but as I have shown codes actually proliferate on the blogs, necessary or not):

I’m wondering why Chang Noi can’t say the “r” word. Well I guess if you are publishing in a national newspaper there’s your answer – you can’t say it. In that case then why publish at all, when all you do is continue fuelling the misunderstanding surrounding the event that it was a “military” coup. …

Better to blog it and tell it like it is.

Other bloggers admit to both a desire to stay away from sensitive subjects, and a feeling of as much confusion as anyone else. The following short interchange illustrates a range of attitudes. It could be a scene from Waiting for Godot. It whispers of powerlessness, self-repression, hidden knowledge and deep frustration. The bloggers seem to be talking about Thaksin’s chances of returning to power but it could be about anything. I have constructed this exchange as a short play. It moves from an attempt to discuss something through an admission of the inability to say anything, to an admonition not to discuss that which you can say nothing of, to an expression of regret that even imaginary nothings can’t be discussed:

THE DOGCATCHER: I still think he’s waiting for something to happen. Then hey presto back in power.

WEFEAROURDESPOT: We all know what he’s waiting for.

THE DOGCATCHER: I have so much to say on this subject but I can’t.

FILCH: Apparently neither can I. I do remember posting on this subject earlier about Mr T positioning himself ready for the inevitable, but alas it has been removed by the powers that be. So what do people think will happen when the inevitable does happen?

STRONTIUM DOG: I think it’s best not to discuss it.

FILCH: Discuss what? It’s kinda sad when we can’t discuss a hypothetical nothing.

Compare the scene above with this crucial excerpt from Samuel Beckett’s play:

VLADIMIR: Say something!

ESTRAGON: I’m trying.

Long silence.

VLADIMIR: (in anguish). Say anything at all!

ESTRAGON: What do we do now?

VLADIMIR: Wait for Godot.

Vladimir’s anguished “say anything at all!” is a plea to keep life going in the face of absurdity. In the absurdist drama of Thailand’s censorship regime, the same imperatives apply.

It’s kinda sad

Like Filch says, it is kinda sad what censorship does.

It produces a necessity to talk in codes. People want to say things and will seek to say them but they want safety. The coding of speech often actually outruns the demands of the censors but this is not surprising because in Thailand if you misread the censor’s demands, you can get a very hefty prison sentence that will destroy your life. The censors talk in codes too in order to pretend that free speech is still the dominant mode of discourse in Thailand. Codes are difficult to understand and open to misinterpretation by their very nature. Speech becomes solipsistic and cliquish, unavailable for public consumption and examination, shadowy and secretive, open to all sorts of distortion. It becomes noise not information.

But, equally, powerful codes can gain widespread currency and understanding. Censorship regimes may begin by censoring direct unambiguous expression. But people are smart. They resort to indirect, ambiguous, coded speech. When code words proliferate and become more and more understood, the censorship either (a) becomes irrelevant and redundant; it falls into abeyance and censorship becomes an exercise in futility. Or (b) the censorship responds to and seeks out the codes thus expanding exponentially beyond its original aims. The discovered codes are recoded and the process intensifies paranoiacally as language tries to conceal itself and becomes layered with hidden and disputed meanings such that all language becomes suspect. The logic of the second type of censorship ultimately means that any expression is potentially subversive, even deliberate non-expression as in the military crime of “dumb insolence”, where mute gesture can be punished. The mute gesture of sitting rather than standing in a cinema, as Chotisak Onsoong has found out, can be punished as dumb insolence. A thought crime.

Remember Orwell’s analysis in 1984. The Party wanted to create Newspeak by stripping language of all nuance and ambiguity, all irony and gesture, all code. There would simply be “good” and “ungood”. The ultimate logical outcome of censorship is the category of ThoughtCrime.

Annette Hamilton has summed up the dangers of the current censorship situation in Thailand eloquently:

When silence is enforced for a long time noise –when it comes – is deafening …[Censorship] results in a situation where fears, hopes, dreams and interpretations are bottled up for years and decades, circulate through rumor and gossip and may come out in terrible, violent confrontations.

The authorities should heed this warning and not let such a state of affairs come to pass.

[Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Thomas Hoy teaches in the Department of English at Thammasat University.]