United Thailand and the Golden Capsule: Thai Media Culture in the Eyes of a Foreigner

[The Thai version of this article, which was originally written for a Thai audience, was published in Matichon Daily on June 29, 2010. The photo montage is by New Mandala.]

Contrary to popular opinion, I believe that the red-shirts and the yellow-shirts have a great deal in common, far more than any differences that might ostensibly set them apart. Both camps are nationalistic, patriarchal, pro-military, capitalist, and consumerist. Both demonstrate a deep subservience to the bearers of wealth and power, exhibit a fundamental intolerance in both thought and deed, and exploit totally misconceived notions of democracy and human rights, notions that have already been fatally distorted by their leaders. Both resort to emotional appeals rather than argue coherent ideological positions… The list goes on.

Although the authorities may go to great lengths to create an image of the red-shirts as an anti-monarchist movement and to revive Cold War rhetoric, the division between the red-shirts and the yellow-shirts is far too narrow to establish the red-shirts as a leftist group that would form a proper ideological dichotomy with their yellow-shirt counterparts.

The dichotomy of Left and Right that has become familiar in the West (including Latin America) over the past 20 years can be roughly summarized as follows: leftists are anti-capitalist, anti-economic globalization, anti-military, internationalist, pro-welfare system, pro-gay and lesbian, and actively environmentalist, while supporting gender equality, minority rights, and individual choice. In turn, the Right can be loosely characterized as pro-capitalist, pro-business (often at the expense of environmental concerns), pro-“family values,” pro-military, nationalist, anti-immigrant, and anti-abortion.

The red-shirts and the yellow-shirts simply do not form such a dichotomy. This is mainly because, while the yellow-shirts for the most part maintain a traditional right-wing stance, the red-shirts do not boast much of a leftist agenda.

During the most recent Thai crisis, we saw pictures of Filipino activists protesting against Bangkok’s May 2010 military crackdown in front of the Thai embassy in Manila. Shortly before that, in the same capital, other Filipino demonstrators called for fair elections in front of the Burmese embassy. In Thailand, however, we do not see any pictures of people in red-shirts in front of the Philippines embassy protesting against President Arroyo’s appointment for Chief Justice. Nor do we see the red-shirt leaders defiantly holding pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi in front of the Burmese embassy. We have seen angry protests against the Gaza Flotilla incident in many countries worldwide, but the staff of Israel’s Bangkok embassy does not have to worry about being disturbed by loud shouts from outside. We have never seen any analytical coverage of the crisis in Madagascar on either PTV or ASTV, in spite of the fact that we can draw some clear parallels between this event (among many others worldwide) and what is currently happening in Thailand.

Thus, we do not find in the Thai red-shirts any of the internationalist activities that are typical of the Left[1]. Rather, the tangential connections of both the red-shirts and the yellow-shirts to the outside world are limited to their frequent use (misuse) of references to Hitler (to vilify both Thaksin and Abhisit) or the Burmese junta (to denounce the post-coup governments and the Thai army), and their occasional English-language protest signs (“No Terrorists – Peaceful Activists,” “Red-Shirts Not Educate [sic]”). The UN, meanwhile, seems to exist in both camps’ minds as yet another vague and abstract concept – during the May 2010 street clashes, red-shirt leaders called for the intervention of the UN, the very organization that their supreme leader Thaksin had once dismissed.

The same goes for other agendas. The red-shirts allegedly set fire to the Central World shopping complex. Yet the reason for this arson attack was obviously not because the mall stood as a symbol of capitalism, a justification which leftists could be expected to offer if they were to choose such a path of violence. The reason for the arson attack in fact has never been declared publicly by anyone, and certainly has never been made the subject of clear, rational analysis in the media. The only clues for understanding the arsonists’ motivations have been videos of red leaders shouting to the crowd: “If they get us, Bangkok will burn” and “Burn! Burn!” Replayed again and again by the ruling party and military spokesmen, these videos do not offer a ‘reason’ for the arson so much as an emotional firing-up. The red shirt leaders’ frequent derogatory remarks about homosexuals, used to denounce as “gay” any man that they consider weak or indecisive, are similarly based on little more than misperception. In a debate with Trotskyite Giles Ji Ungphakorn on Democracy Now![2], Philip J Cunningham even went so far as to call the UDD a fascist organization because of these anti-gay remarks, coupled with the red shirts’ use of violence.

Since last year’s red-shirt rally, there have been constant rumors of Khmer and Burmese militiamen working in the employ of various Thai factions. As foreigners, these mercenaries supposedly have less reservations about killing Thais than Thais might have about killing their fellow citizens. It is both curious and instructive that the red-shirts believed that the army had hired Khmers, while the authorities and yellow-shirts leveled the same accusation against their red-shirt enemies – just as each camp believes itself to be the victim of the other’s hired snipers.

Thus, according to Western criteria, the red-shirts behave much more as members of the Right than the Left, sharing most of the yellow-shirts’ agenda. These two groups join the government, army, and CRES as members of the same ideological category, together forming one happy family. This family remains on its own, quite isolated from global discourses, and in the end its members all agree that their worst enemies come from outside, whether as Khmer killers, George Soros, or Dan Rivers and CNN[3].

To the eye of an outsider, this family seems to have confined itself within a large capsule. The capsule is soft and pliable, but difficult to swallow. The accompanying prescription guidelines are clear: take 1 per meal every 4 hours, do not take more than 4 doses per day, and so on. These guidelines indeed serve as a firm warning: if you break these rules, there will be serious consequences. The capsule is advertised as a perfect formula, presenting itself as beautiful and harmonious, but its bright packaging does not offer any scientific evidence as to how this formula works. Thus, its potency can only be attributed to some ancient black magic. Outsiders, especially Westerners, subject it to rigorous tests based upon the scientific method, insisting that they will trust it only after it has met their own standards of quality.

We need Thai voices. The world needs them to understand Thailand’s secret formula. Because of language limitations and cultural differences, we need media in a literal sense: agents that can mediate between us outsiders and Thailand, and between Thailand and the outside world. We need Thai media that are able to pick up small but significant local voices and connect them to problems and discourses in other countries. We need Thai media that can make local issues universal.

In this regard, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or honor, awarded in the midst of Thailand’s most recent crisis, is all the more significant. His is a cultural media that, through his vision and magic, has turned the unknown province called Isan into everybody’s imagination. Everybody, everywhere. The world desperately needed this kind of output from Thailand. To be able to achieve his status as mediator, however, he must stay outside of the capsule – and he has been paying a price for it. People in Thailand have only rarely even seen his films, partly due to potential distributors’ skepticism about his commercial viability and partly due to censorship. Apichatpong’s films are targeted for humiliating, ridiculous censorship – so ridiculous that the filmmaker himself refused to screen his last film on Thai soil. When I watched his Palme d’Or acceptance speech on TV, I thought that many Thai people must have been upset with him for not thanking the King for his success, as any Thai “representative” traditionally is expected to do. Instead, he thanked Thai ghosts and spirits.

Thai people complain that Apichatpong’s films are difficult, if not incomprehensible. They say that the films are made for foreigners. As a matter of fact, his films are equally difficult, if not incomprehensible, to foreigners as well, including those Europeans who have enjoyed great exposure to complex artistic expressions and ‘author cinema.’ To understand the subtle nuance, metaphor, and symbolism of an exotic and mysterious culture is naturally not easy. Yet it is possible to appreciate this difficulty and incomprehension as an asset that invites viewers to contemplate the film further, to really work on it, rather than to find themselves provided with an easy solution.

Deciding to work on it, we proceed through a first stage in which we resort to familiar frames shaped in our immediate environment. Indeed, in one way or another, we all use these frames of ours as tools to comprehend the unknown. In Western society, dichotomy is a framing tool that has been used by many of us in our efforts to comprehend the world. The dichotomy frame divides society into Left and Right, and the Left in turn frames society in terms of oppressed vs. oppressor, while the Right looks at that same society in terms of security threat vs. safeguard.

To understand art such as Apichatpong’s films, we must spend the time necessary to go out of this initial level and develop our thoughts on a second and third level, in which we try to allow ourselves to be totally open, outside of any frameworks and preconceptions. This is a truly rewarding aspect of the experience of art.

On the other hand, news media outlets are somewhat different, in the sense that they work more ephemerally and operate at the speed necessary to provide timely, relevant material. The audience has little time to go beyond the first level of thinking when watching the news. In this regard, the mass media has its own limitations, as well as advantages.

I work in a field of education that introduces the media cultures of different countries around the world to each other. I research different media and media cultures, in the process meeting many people that run media outlets – especially independent media – in different continents. Because I often organize conferences and forums in which people from different cultures are invited to meet and discuss media with each other, I need to be able to sense which media producers in each country are able to connect their culture to the international community. In Thailand, I have realized for some time now that these media producers can be found only among those who stay outside of the capsule. Yet I have also witnessed the difficulties that these media producers have experienced precisely because of their decision to venture outside, just as Apichatpong Weerasethakul has done.

Indeed, of the various media that I believe have the true potential to serve as bridges between Thailand and the world, Midnight University, Fah Diew Kan, Prachatai and the now-defunct student magazine Question Mark have all been either banned or blocked, while their editors have been arrested and have faced criminal charges for their activities as media producers.

To stay close to the local community while remaining outside of the capsule’s enclosure of self-absorption is extremely important for professional media producers. This principle, although basic, remains difficult to practice. These media have nevertheless consistently proved themselves in this regard, and it is for this reason that I, along with many other scholars and researchers abroad, trust them. Interestingly, none of the editors, with the exception of some Midnight University professors, have been educated in the West. Many don’t speak English. How they manage to maintain an international mindset, I have no clue. They must have a sort of instinct to reject self-absorption or have keen eyes that see through the opaque surface of the capsule. Or, simply, they are immensely intelligent.

But this character of theirs, which makes them closer to us foreigners, puts them in danger of being deemed less “Thai.” This is certainly how the various bans and charges against them have been justified: these media practitioners have all been punished for neglecting their “Thainess.” Especially hard-hit are Fah Diew Kan and Prachatai, both of which have been treated as if no one in the capsule knew what to make of these less “Thai” media. The yellow-shirts, multi-color shirts, army, and government consider them to be red-shirt sympathizers, while the red-shirts also erroneously perceive them as unquestioning supporters of the red cause.

Fah Diew Kan is a left-leaning media outlet (in the Western sense), and its contributors have been vocal critics of Thaksin’s policies. Prachatai has also been a harsh critic of the former Prime Minster’s misdeeds. So why are they so misunderstood?

Although these two media outlets are different from one another, in many ways both pursue a common philosophy of providing space for voices that have been traditionally neglected and marginalized. These voices naturally come to include those of many red-shirt supporters. These media outlets also share some of the red-shirts’ agenda (I say some), such as opposition to the coup – hence the misunderstanding.

As a fallback for their time-honored division of society into anti-monarchists (bad Thais) vs. monarchy lovers (good Thais), the authorities have tried to create a new schema: terrorists vs. innocent civilians. In this way, they have borrowed heavily from the Bush administration’s post 9/11 doctrine, the alleged dichotomy of West vs. Islam, and years of Cold War rhetoric. In Thailand this dichotomy has been used to frame the Southern insurgency issue for some time now. To make this scheme work efficiently, and to inspire more fear among members of the “innocent” population, the authorities need to make their “terrorists” as undefined and mysterious as possible. Hence, censorship is needed to block any information that personalizes and humanizes these “terrorist” individuals. If some media outlets fall under suspicion of trying to personalize the “terrorists” or anyone associated with them, they are immediately dismissed as having long been on the payroll of the opposing camp. The level of intolerance against other voices that we see now in Thailand is such that it recalls the “If you are not with us, you are against us” dictum that made the Bush doctrine so notorious, and for which the former US President remains widely loathed and disrespected throughout the world.

The same applies to the chorus of intolerance against Dan Rivers and CNN. Thai people are frustrated with foreigners and foreign media for not fully understanding Thailand, and blame the international news for simplifying their complex culture. Yet their frustration is largely a product of the oversimplification of their own news that they watch about other countries (if they watch any at all). The common criticisms of CNN that we hear in the West, including the network’s commodification of news and a dramatization of personal tragedy, are not the reasons for Thai viewers’ frustration. These concerns are not part of the Thai audience’s agenda. Therefore, global news outlets’ simplification of extremely complex subjects, such as the struggle in the occupied territories, the Shiite vs Sunni conflict, the situation of the post-Soviet empire, portraits of Latin American leaders, etc., is no problem to Thais – they would just as soon thank CNN for making these complex issues more easily digestible. Similarly, the Thai media’s own ultra-simplification of any news about other countries (and oftentimes even about Thailand itself) is no cause of concern among local viewers.

In a panel entitled “Thailand in the Eyes of Others” organized by the FCCT[4], Sumet Jumsai complained about global news corporations’ coverage of the current Thai crisis, bemoaning the fate of BBC, which “used to be [his] hero, model…Now it is downhill.” Is this really the case? BBC has indeed always presented news through the British frame, never pretending to do anything else, even after going global. Isn’t it rather that we, the audience, have been too ignorant about the countries that global news outlets have reported on to decide if their coverage was accurate or not? For the first time in Thailand’s modern history, news about the country’s political turmoil hit the headlines of so many media outlets around the globe, giving Thais a chance to see themselves featured prominently in the international news over the course of weeks. From this new vantage point, Thais not only saw themselves represented within an international frame, but also had the opportunity to glimpse global media outlets’ capacity to misrepresent events in Thailand, and, by extension, events anywhere else in the world.

Mass media have always been bound by fundamental limitations: state-controlled media are prone to become tools of regime propaganda, while commercial media offer a viewpoint from a frame that is influenced by audience ratings and commercial interests, driving providers towards sensationalism and simplification in programming. And we, the audience, are also partly to blame – audiences won’t watch news that is not simplified, digestible, comprehensible, and oftentimes sensationalized. I only wish that we lived in an ideal world in which everybody was sincerely interested in the human rights abuses inflicted upon the poor and minorities in other countries, and that we took time to go to see documentary films at the cinema, discuss them, and read books to deepen our understanding of issues while giving rise to further discussions. The reality is that most of us simply do not do this. CNN is widely popular because of its simplification, and this popularity leaves CNN at an advantage. When we work on a local problem that we want to bring to a greater audience, we first produce our own media independently so that the local media takes an interest, and then, if global media outlets such as CNN or BBC pick up the story, and hundreds of thousands of people around the world voice support for our cause, the PR campaign is considered to have been a success.

We thus need different forms of media, diverse media that enable us to compare different viewpoints, move to deeper analysis (should we so desire), and make our voices heard. Thai people have been educated to believe that “the media” is an agency that presents a picture that has already been painted and approved; they are made to believe this because this is how the highest authorities – the three pillars of Thai society (or at least so people have been led to believe) – have used the media in this way for a long time. Now, suddenly, many different new media technologies are available to citizens, leaving many as confused about these new media as they are confused about the notions of democracy and human rights. People had started to think that the purpose of media was to present a picture that they painted, and they thought that this was the essence of “democratic media.” They have now become frustrated that the media doesn’t simply present pictures of their own invention. The world media does not present Thailand only in terms of the beautiful beaches, people, temples and food by which Thais might hope to imagine themselves. Instead, media outlets present prostitutes, tourist scam artists, Rohingya refugees, and monarchy scandals. Very frustrating.

So they discovered Facebook, which looks even more like “citizen-media.” They found this social network fascinating because, without any effort, they could mobilize a “Million people” with just a touch of the keyboard. “My million ‘friends,’ let’s hunt buffalos together…let’s give an eye cream to the darling colonel!” What they haven’t realized, however, is that while they are indulging in a game, sending virtual gifts to friends, etc., their identity is commodified and sold to commercial interests. Just like CNN, Facebook and other major social media tools have their own advantages and disadvantages. To be aware of both is a key to successful use of the media today.

For better education in and understanding of media, allowing all kinds of media in an open platform is essential. Only under these conditions can citizens learn, through trial and error, and become more mature and clever in their media usage. Prohibition is never a solution. If the government and the army continue in their efforts to keep Thai citizens ignorant, the country will be further isolated from the rest of the world, and remain in a capsule.

As for citizens who do not like what you see in some media, I would argue that instead of engaging in personal attacks, a better solution might be to create your own media and make it truly inspiring, not only for your Thai friends, but also for individuals unfamiliar with your culture. This is a solution far more creative and original than bullying and witch-hunting.

[Jana Slovakova teaches media culture in Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and Serbia (but not in Montenegro). She chose to use a pseudonym for this article, as she did not want Thailand’s opposing camps to each claim that she was working for the other, or for the ex-PM, or for the government, whilst all claiming that she was tainting Thailand’s image abroad and disrespecting the highest institution, and thus should no longer be allowed into the country. She uses a pseudonym for her activities in Burma to protect herself from the world’s most oppressive and evil regime. The fact that she must now do the same here, to protect herself from ordinary Thai people, saddens her deeply.]

[1] One exception is some Thai labor union members’ solidarity with workers in other countries.

[2] May 18, 2010 http://www.democracynow.org/2010/5/18/debating_the_crisis_in_thailand_is

[3] I have also noticed that when Thai people don’t like a fellow Thai they often try to link him/her with a foreign element, claiming that “he is actually a Burmese,” “he is married to a Lao”, etc.

[4] June 2, 2010. The other panelists are: Kraisak Choonhavan, Pana Janviroj of the Nation Group, and Somtow Sucharitkul