“Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real”
– The story of the stone, or the dream of the red chamber, Xueqin 1973, p.55)
The award winning NGO “Reporters Without Borders” (RWB) noted that Thailand has slipped to 130th this year from 124th the previous year in terms of comparative international press freedoms, so it seems something is not right. Much of the criticism was reserved for the crackdown on internet users and critics of the political status quo. Ironically, this report failed to note, in criticizing the deterioration of the political situation post-Thaksin (when, incidentally, it was a mere 66th in 2002 showing the media had more actual freedoms then), is the active involvement of media itself with those very same state instrumentalities that the report criticizes; becoming entangled in the same web of politics, lies and deceit that RWB critique.
Perhaps stating the obvious, Duncan McCargo (Politics and Press in Thailand, 2000) noted earlier that the Thai media have created a significant political space for itself, though a space enabled by interests aligned to the Democrat Party and status quo ante (before Thaksin) when mates handed out favours to mates against a common enemy out there in the countryside (embryonic electoral democracy). What is required now is an analysis taken to a level where we can show clearly the personal interests and motivations behind blatant media biases and skewed reporting over the last five years. The Thai media need to be called to account on the question of ethics and the political machinations of journalists, and their newspaper and tabloid bosses (see earlier posting on NM, “Suthichai Yoon on the state of Thai journalism”, 21 May 2009 by Nicholas Farrelly, in a case where a perpetrator himself cries foul). It is not just a question of grossly understating social facts, say the number of Red Shirt demonstrators and distorting what is actually said so as to represent alternative truths for mass consumption; but it hits the very fabric of honesty, morality and professional integrity of Thai journalism. Who are the worse culprits?
Remember when former PM Anand Panyarachun enabled the conditions for The Nation Multimedia Group and their party mates to secure the ITV concession (at grossly overstated values at the time), which of course was a financial disaster which Thaksin later successfully took over to the chagrin of these very same interests? The following is a history, as perversions continue and generate more heat as time goes by. And for those who think Democrat Party media machinations stopped back then, you may want to consider the USD 10 million financial assistance dished out with taxpayers money by current PM Abhisit to Sondhi’s ASTV recently (to keep the propaganda rolling along), which did not, as expected, even get a mention by foreign critics. Then there is the USAID (CIA?) suddenly forking out money for a three to five year program to prop up the current unholy triumvirate under various pretences, largely of course security issues in the south. Civil society under the rhetoric of “supporting citizen engagement” has been rewarded for its alliance with the bureaucratic elites/aristocracy (amaat, and of course the military under Maestro Prem) by both the current political regime and the US Government. Giles Ungpakorn recently wrote: “Five years ago, Thailand had a thriving and developing democracy with freedom of expression, a relatively free press… Today, the country is creeping towards totalitarianism…” (The Guardian, Wednesday 18 February 2009). But current arrangements serve US interests which has, ironically for a self-proclaimed leader of global democracy, rarely been known to support real grassroots democracies anywhere (first year politics students will tell you that).
This short piece is not meant as an academic paper but as a viewpoint: The political crisis since 2006 has been engineered by the Bangkok-based media powerhouses in alliance with their patrons in the Democrat Party who, together with elites/bureaucrats and the military, form a powerful allied constituency of shared interests. It is like a big cake with apportioned slices decided for all — as long as the fiction is maintained. Few reports have exposed this opaque circus, as foreign journalists also by and large rely on these very same Bangkok-based interests to feed them information to distribute outwards and globally. The ABC (Australia), and others, feed on bits thrown to them from the centre. But then again not all journalists are implicated in the maintenance of Thai political fiction; the BBC’s Jonathan Head has made some attempt at insightful coverage, and Marwaan Macan-Markar (see IPS, “THAILAND: With Censorship, Thais Turn to Websites and Foreign Media”, April 19, 2009) who tried to expose this current political shambles: the shutting down of opposition media, perverted use of the censorship law, the biases of government and military, intimidation, fear, and the like. The article makes interesting alternative reading. But how come many foreign academics have been largely unwilling to see through the current artifice? Are they too close to their own interests (and of course the “hate-Thaksin-at-any-cost” coalition of Thai academic mates)?
Here are some basics as I see it: the Thai state and its alliance control the production of images and have a direct hand in the media representations of certain “truths”. My question: Is neutrality and balanced observation any longer possible? I consider this as a close relative of mine in Bangkok tells me if I need to know anything “truthful”, not from the “buffalos” (a condescending frequently heard comment against Red Shirts but with deeper implications of peasantry [uncivilised, uneducated] versus urbane [civilised & of course educated] Bangkokians) I should simply tune-in to ASTV, or read The Manager online. Remember, she says, when Thaksin took three suitcases stuffed full of moolah out of Thailand and of course sold Thailand to Singapore! (Yes, many folk actually still believe this fiction!) There is no need to tell readers who is behind this media jabber.
Indeed, taking a step outside the current social and political divide in Thailand requires some neat mental gymnastics (and a few backflips); something most folk are no longer able to do. As a taxi driver told me the other week (not that I believe everything taxi drivers tell me!): the red and yellow divide is an entrenched as it was three years ago. Hopeless, totally hopeless. The situation is way past a compromise stage. And, now that General Chavalit has made his position clear, a third option is emerging in the mix. But we need to see how truths have been constructed around certain perceptions of reality (and whose reality?), something few scholars in the past decade have bothered to do – because they had already staked their claims to knowledge by dismembering Thaksin since the late 1990s. Instead, many simply regurgitate the same political-speak (and specifically the one-sided accusations against ex-PM Thaksin as if he were the only rich person in or out of politics in Thailand who knew how to play the market).
Truths, it seems, are relative, and perpetuated by institutional regimes of power: The media and its once rich backers (many of the more notorious now heavily in debt, such as the recently floated Nation Multimedia Group) have been principal stakeholders in setting the current psychological divide in Thailand. This started since Sondhi Lim’s fall out with his one time political ally Thaksin some years back; the media alliance against Thaksin was thus confirmed. This viewpoint is not intended as archaeology of political discourse since 2006, something others are more competent to do than me. But I am suggesting that we need to deconstruct the current dominant discourse, its entrenched layers of personal, structured familial interests and institutionalised powers.
Let us not underestimate the force of mass media in its ability to position subjects in such a way that representations within a specified text become reflections of an everyday reality. The Thai print and electronic media have created a certain reality and fiction concerning populist politics, and Thaksin in particular (can we ever forget him?), spun by an authorial media voice and orchestrated discreetly by a centrally placed puppet master close to the palace such that all readers see in this mass produced text is truth. So how do we differentiate what is true? Answer: because the media say it so; and in a Levi-Strauss’ian note: it is, after all, made good to consume. This is an ideological process Althusser called interpellation, as a recognition and felt sense of belonging and occupying a particular subject position. The trouble is, there is “an-other” truth, another subject position; but we (or at least most urban consumers) just don’t want to see it. We are too addicted to what we have. This does not give much credit to notions of human agency. Alternative voices in the current “state of fear” in Thailand are deleted; individuals are persecuted and have to assume underground media tactics (e.g. internet, but remaining radically rhizomatic). Readers are convinced of a certain reality in the media text (print and electronic imaginary): where like-minded subjects confirm the very legitimacy of these produced truths. It is like a soap opera that people start to actually live because they hear it over and over again.
So what went wrong? Brainwashing (р╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕ер╣Йр╕▓р╕Зр╕кр╕бр╕нр╕З)? Or are most folk just sucked in through consuming addiction to the images? The political use of language is interesting: “hooligans” or “thugs” are reserved for red shirts; those unruly mobs who wish to “ridicule the government” (as if the current government were legitimately elected to govern in any case!) while the yellow shirts…well they are simply “protesters” who have a right to “protest”, which they did effectively to remove three elected governments in succession. Many observers are indeed consumed by a statist propaganda program which has seen interest cliques such as the current government, many elites and media converge in response to the dwindling of their own power base since brazen northerner Thaksin started to reorder the instrumentalities of decision-making in Thailand (and hence institutional knowledge/power).
So to see anew, we need to step outside the circular argumentation of certain truths generated by the current state, civil society, military (though clearly not all of them) and commercial media interests in Thailand. Perhaps it is time to place our ears more to the ground and cut through the innuendo, rumour-mongering and just plain bullshit. Any attempt at such informed credible and nuanced “distancing” in Thailand has led to accusations of disloyalty at the highest levels (and, as logical inference, in being, “pro-Thaksin” – as though that were a sin punishable by death of a thousand cuts).
It is not easy to shift positions now given the persistence of a certain truth production by the media (I am talking about The Nation, Manager [phujatkaan] and Bangkok Post as main culprits, but post 2006 coup much of the print media were sucked in on the euphoria and promises and hence have now lost considerable readership as readers get wise to what’s behind the word). So who can contest the status quo aside from occasional semi-critical and balanced pieces in Thairath [р╣Др╕Чр╕вр╕гр╕▒р╕Р] – which has had lukewarm relations with the Democrat Party since the early 1990s (McCargo, 2000, pp 141-2)?
Power is, after all, seemingly about relative/s (networks?). But there are sites of struggle for those challenging a dominant ideology and its power discourse. Anyone interested in current political debates should access some of these electronic sites to gain an-other view, where they are not censored and blocked by state instrumentalities. Incorporated in all this are the concepts of knowledge and power, both of which are dependent on each other. However, a (free) subject has a certain power to accept or reject what is being represented, but a more pervasive discursive power lies within the institution that provides the knowledge and in the power of the medium used to portray this knowledge through representations. In the end it seems that most Thai citizens are currently stuck where they are, waiting (for what?), unable to move in either direction.