In October 2008, an act to “Manage Gatherings in Public Places” (“р╕гр╣Ир╕▓р╕Зр╕Юр╕гр╕░р╕гр╕▓р╕Кр╕Ър╕▒р╕Нр╕Нр╕▒р╕Хр╕┤р╕Ир╕▒р╕Фр╕гр╕░р╣Ар╕Ър╕╡р╕вр╕Ър╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Кр╕╕р╕бр╕Щр╕╕р╕бр╣Гр╕Щр╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╕кр╕▓р╕Шр╕▓р╕гр╕Ур╕░ р╕Ю.р╕и. ….”) was submitted for consideration to the parliament of Thailand. The act, which remains under debate, proposes major bureaucratic restrictions on the use of broadcast media at protest events, and would give authorities an unsettlingly free hand in dealing with violators. If passed, it threatens to mute even the smallest and mildest public political gatherings in Thailand by starving them of their ability to broadcast. This threat is as significant after Phuea Thai’s recent election victory as it was when the Democrats enjoyed a majority.

Discussion of the act in parliament has been marked by brinkmanship and dramatic reversals, including an initial submission by the People Power Party (PPP) in 2008 and a resubmission in 2011 by Democrat Jompot Bunyai (р╕Ир╕╕р╕бр╕Юр╕П р╕Ър╕╕р╕Нр╣Гр╕лр╕Нр╣И). Most recently Phuea Thai, in a very different political and strategic position than their predecessor PPP had been in 2008, sought to withdraw their submission. It is uncertain whether the act was ever really intended as anything other than a bludgeon, a way for whatever party happened to be in power to cow the opposition. Both the Democrats and Phuea Thai have supported it only in moments when the opposing rank-and-file was gathered in the street (or the airport, or the mall). In that sense this act – like the parties debating it – seems suspiciously unconcerned with ideology.

But the legislation nevertheless has important implications on a few fronts, especially after the 3 July 2011 elections. First, it lays bare the aspiration of Thai politicians and administrative elites to suppress open discourse. Second, its trajectory through parliament speaks to the depressing lack of ideological commitment in contemporary Thai government. Finally and crucially, its value as a political weapon shows just how high the stakes of media have become within protest movements.

To my knowledge, the act has not been translated into English or any other language aside from Thai. And while critical responses have circulated for years in the Thai media, a thorough search has not uncovered even one analysis or report in English. I have done my best to provide both accurate translation and careful comment here. My translation is not official, and should be understood as interpretive to that extent. My full translation is available here.

The crux of the act is Article 5, which reads:

At a gathering in public space, anything in the following categories is forbidden except with the permission of the Committee defined in Article 8:

р╕лр╣Йр╕▓р╕бр╕бр╕┤р╣Гр╕лр╣Йр╕Фр╕│р╣Ар╕Щр╕┤р╕Щр╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Кр╕╕р╕бр╕Щр╕╕р╕бр╣Гр╕Щр╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╕кр╕▓р╕Шр╕▓р╕гр╕Ур╕░р╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╕бр╕╡р╕ер╕▒р╕Бр╕йр╕Ур╕░р╣Гр╕Фр╕ер╕▒р╕Бр╕йр╕Ур╕░р╕лр╕Щр╕╢р╣Ир╕З р╕Фр╕▒р╕Зр╕Хр╣Ир╕нр╣Др╕Ыр╕Щр╕╡р╣Й р╣Ар╕зр╣Йр╕Щр╣Бр╕Хр╣Ир╕Ир╕░р╣Др╕Фр╣Йр╕гр╕▒р╕Ър╕нр╕Щр╕╕р╕Нр╕▓р╕Хр╕Ир╕▓р╕Бр╕Др╕Ур╕░р╕Бр╕гр╕гр╕бр╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕бр╕▓р╕Хр╕гр╕▓ 8

(1) The use of vehicle lanes or other traffic surfaces


(2) The construction of stages for speaking in a manner that blocks traffic or public routes


(3) The use of speakers, projectors for still photographs or movies, or other tools for broadcasting at gatherings

р╕бр╕╡р╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╣Гр╕Кр╣Йр╣Ар╕Др╕гр╕╖р╣Ир╕нр╕Зр╕Вр╕вр╕▓р╕вр╣Ар╕кр╕╡р╕вр╕З р╣Ар╕Др╕гр╕╖р╣Ир╕нр╕Зр╕Йр╕▓р╕вр╕ар╕▓р╕Юр╕Щр╕┤р╣Ир╕З р╕ар╕▓р╕Юр╣Ар╕Др╕ер╕╖р╣Ир╕нр╕Щр╣Др╕лр╕з р╕лр╕гр╕╖р╕нр╣Ар╕Др╕гр╕╖р╣Ир╕нр╕Зр╕бр╕╖р╕нр╣Гр╕Фр╣Ж р╣Ар╕Юр╕╖р╣Ир╕нр╕Цр╣Ир╕▓р╕вр╕Чр╕нр╕Фр╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Кр╕╕р╕бр╕Щр╕╕р╕б

(4) The use of vehicles


(5) Movement of the gathering from one location to another


For those who have attended a Thai protest event recently, the force of these prohibitions will be clear. Both yellow and red shirt gatherings are organized as media spectacles, and mobile ones at that. PAD rallies near government house in spring 2011 routinely drew fewer than 2,000 or 3,000 attendees at their peak. But slick televised coverage by friendly outlets like ASTV and FMTV delivered monastic lectures about histories of border conflict and mawkish “songs for life” concerts to homes across the country. These events had the look and feel of a broadcast studio – large cameras circulated around small groups of performers, their cables snaking like maps of the cosmos. Video technicians scurried to focus on elderly women perched in pious audition. Recent red shirt events have been much better-attended, and yet equally swathed in media. The typical large red shirt rally is subdivided into tens and hundreds of broadcast niches that deliver specialized content from regional radio stations, satellite television networks, mobile truck stages, booming car stereos, and freelance orators gripping bullhorns. The main events, to the extent that such things occur, are prime-time stage presentations simulcast on huge screens that cast Ratchaprasong or Democracy Monument in the intimate glow of a living room, often culminating with an amplified phone-in from Thaksin Shinawatra. Without such media structures, neither the red nor yellow protests would be left with much at all. Moreover, the red shirt events frequently move from place to place, trucks and taxis the color of rose apples inching along the avenue, blasting songs like “Rak Kon Seua Daeng” to incite overflowing bodies to gyration in the rear bed.

Article 5 would give the government jurisdiction over all of this, ostensibly in the name of peace and order. Governments have a duty to keep the peace, and the claim in Article 4 that “individuals are of course free to participate in gatherings without weapons, but gatherings in public spaces must not impede the rights and freedoms of other individuals, nor the peace and order of the country“ is not at all unreasonable. But the law as drafted would also weaken the potential of protests to accomplish much, so integral have mobile and often improvisatory broadcasting become to the distribution of critique. As such broadcasting is diffuse and not at all centrally organized, it would be difficult or impossible to announce its myriad dimensions in advance, and most large rallies would become a priori illegal. The fact that the committees which judge applications are composed of eight to ten high-ranking officials, including the commissioner general of the police, make it unlikely that any but the biggest requests would be considered in a timely fashion. Thus in practical terms, the act overreaches, to the detriment of small and medium protests in particular.

Worse still, the legislation’s terminology is recklessly general. The definition of a protest event, for example, seems open to nearly any interpretation by police or military:

““Gathering” refers to a group of people who gather in the same place with the objective of showing their collective opinions in order to make a demand, ask for justice, protest, offer moral support, show objection or resistance, or for other reasons, in order to compel individuals, groups, organizations, or working bodies to engage or refrain from engaging in any action. “р╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Кр╕╕р╕бр╕Щр╕╕р╕б” р╕лр╕бр╕▓р╕вр╕Др╕зр╕▓р╕бр╕зр╣Ир╕▓ р╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╕Бр╕ер╕╕р╣Ир╕бр╕Др╕Щр╕бр╕▓р╕нр╕вр╕╣р╣Ир╣Гр╕Щр╕нр╕▓р╕Ур╕▓р╕Ър╕гр╕┤р╣Ар╕зр╕Ур╣Ар╕Фр╕╡р╕вр╕зр╕Бр╕▒р╕Щр╣Вр╕Фр╕вр╕бр╕╡р╕зр╕▒р╕Хр╕Цр╕╕р╕Ыр╕гр╕░р╕кр╕Зр╕Др╣Мр╣Ар╕Юр╕╖р╣Ир╕нр╣Бр╕кр╕Фр╕Зр╕Др╕зр╕▓р╕бр╕Др╕┤р╕Фр╣Ар╕лр╣Зр╕Щр╕гр╣Ир╕зр╕бр╕Бр╕▒р╕Щр╣Гр╕Щр╕ер╕▒р╕Бр╕йр╕Ур╕░р╣Ар╕Ыр╣Зр╕Щр╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╣Ар╕гр╕╡р╕вр╕Бр╕гр╣Йр╕нр╕З р╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Вр╕нр╕Др╕зр╕▓р╕бр╣Ар╕Ыр╣Зр╕Щр╕Шр╕гр╕гр╕б р╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Ыр╕гр╕░р╕Чр╣Йр╕зр╕З р╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕кр╕Щр╕▒р╕Ър╕кр╕Щр╕╕р╕Щ р╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╣Гр╕лр╣Йр╕Бр╕│р╕ер╕▒р╕Зр╣Гр╕И р╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Др╕▒р╕Фр╕Др╣Йр╕▓р╕Щ р╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Хр╣Ир╕нр╕Хр╣Йр╕▓р╕Щ р╕лр╕гр╕╖р╕нр╣Гр╕Щр╕ер╕▒р╕Бр╕йр╕Ур╕░р╕нр╕╖р╣Ир╕Щр╣Гр╕Ф р╕нр╕▒р╕Щр╕нр╕▓р╕Ир╕Ир╕░р╕кр╣Ир╕Зр╕Ьр╕ер╣Гр╕лр╣Йр╕Ър╕╕р╕Др╕Др╕е р╕Др╕Ур╕░р╕Ър╕╕р╕Др╕Др╕е р╕нр╕Зр╕Др╣Мр╕Бр╕г р╕лр╕Щр╣Ир╕зр╕вр╕Зр╕▓р╕Щ р╕Бр╕гр╕░р╕Чр╕│р╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕лр╕гр╕╖р╕нр╕ер╕░р╣Ар╕зр╣Йр╕Щр╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Бр╕гр╕░р╕Чр╕│р╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╣Гр╕Фр╣Ж

There is no specific cutoff for the number of attendees or other factors that might differentiate, for example, a coffee house movie screening attended by seven students from a rally at Democracy Monument attended by thousands. In a sensitive political climate, small-scale gatherings of an even vaguely political nature would risk breaking the law. The act goes on to describe public places in similarly general language:

“Public place” means any area that the state provides to the people to use for the general good, including locations that people have the right to enter.

“р╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╕кр╕▓р╕Шр╕▓р╕гр╕Ур╕░” р╕лр╕бр╕▓р╕вр╕Др╕зр╕▓р╕бр╕зр╣Ир╕▓ р╕кр╕Цр╕▓р╕Щр╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╕гр╕▒р╕Рр╕Ир╕▒р╕Фр╣Др╕зр╣Йр╣Гр╕лр╣Йр╕Ыр╕гр╕░р╕Кр╕▓р╕Кр╕Щр╣Вр╕Фр╕вр╕Чр╕▒р╣Ир╕зр╣Др╕Ыр╣Гр╕Кр╣Йр╕Ыр╕гр╕░р╣Вр╕вр╕Кр╕Щр╣Мр╕гр╣Ир╕зр╕бр╕Бр╕▒р╕Щ р╕гр╕зр╕бр╕Цр╕╢р╕Зр╕кр╕Цр╕▓р╕Щр╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╕Ыр╕гр╕░р╕Кр╕▓р╕Кр╕Щр╕бр╕╡р╕Др╕зр╕▓р╕бр╕Кр╕нр╕Ър╕Шр╕гр╕гр╕бр╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╕Ир╕░р╣Ар╕Вр╣Йр╕▓р╣Др╕Ыр╣Др╕Фр╣Й

The final clause in this definition hints that stores and businesses might be considered “public” since anyone has the right to enter them. The act would subject all gatherings of any size that meet these criteria to the media restrictions described above. State intervention at small events is, regrettably, easy to imagine, and the above language provides a convenient justification for it.

But perhaps the most puzzling section is Article 12, which attempts to identify responsible parties at chaotic events:

It will be assumed that the organizers of a gathering are the speakers, as well as their advisors, assistants, those who persuade and provoke, and other auxiliary participants.

р╣Бр╕Хр╣Ир╕бр╕┤р╣Др╕Фр╣Йр╕Фр╕│р╣Ар╕Щр╕┤р╕Щр╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Вр╕нр╕нр╕Щр╕╕р╕Нр╕▓р╕Хр╣Гр╕лр╣Йр╕кр╕▒р╕Щр╕Щр╕┤р╕йр╕Рр╕▓р╕Щр╕зр╣Ир╕▓р╕Ър╕╕р╕Др╕Др╕ер╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╕Ыр╕гр╕▓р╕ир╕гр╕▒р╕в р╕гр╕зр╕бр╕Цр╕╢р╕Зр╕Ьр╕╣р╣Йр╣Гр╕лр╣Йр╕Др╕│р╕Ыр╕гр╕╢р╕Бр╕йр╕▓ р╕Кр╣Ир╕зр╕вр╣Ар╕лр╕ер╕╖р╕н р╕Кр╕▒р╕Бр╕Кр╕зр╕Щ р╕вр╕╕р╕вр╕З р╕лр╕гр╕╖р╕нр╕кр╕Щр╕▒р╕Ър╕кр╕Щр╕╕р╕Щ р╣Ар╕Ыр╣Зр╕Щр╕Ьр╕╣р╣Йр╕Ир╕▒р╕Фр╣Гр╕лр╣Йр╕бр╕╡р╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Кр╕╕р╕бр╕Щр╕╕р╕б

There is no guarantee that speakers and their assistants are the organizers of a given protest event. Aside from the fact that key people often work invisibly at both yellow and red shirt rallies, many smaller contingents participate in rallies undirected as well as uncompelled. In the face of accusations to the contrary, the red shirts have in fact advertised their self-motivation through chants of “р╕Бр╕╣р╕бр╕▓р╣Ар╕нр╕З”, or “I came by my god-damned self.” The conflation of orators with organizers is fascinating in that politicians clearly have amplification anxiety, but their thinking in this case is neither wise nor rational. And yet the act is unyielding: the president of the Examining Committee has the authority to stop a gathering in a public place … if there is no organizer taking care of the gathering. Is leaderlessness itself an infraction?

And what happens, finally, if the members of a rally continue to broadcast without permission? According to Article 15, if the organizer of a gathering in a public place announces the end of the event in accordance with Article 13, and participants fail to disperse in violation of the order, the president of the Examining Committee will have the authority to order officials in charge of maintaining the peace to disperse the gathering.

р╕лр╕▓р╕Бр╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Кр╕╕р╕бр╕Щр╕╕р╕бр╣Гр╕Щр╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╕кр╕▓р╕Шр╕▓р╕гр╕Ур╕░р╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╣Др╕Фр╣Йр╕бр╕╡р╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Ыр╕гр╕░р╕Бр╕▓р╕ир╣Гр╕лр╣Йр╕вр╕╕р╕Хр╕┤р╕Хр╕▓р╕бр╕бр╕▓р╕Хр╕гр╕▓ 13 р╣Бр╕ер╣Йр╕зр╕Ьр╕╣р╣Йр╕Кр╕╕р╕бр╕Щр╕╕р╕бр╕вр╕▒р╕Зр╕Др╕Зр╕Эр╣Ир╕▓р╕Эр╕╖р╕Щ р╕Ыр╕гр╕░р╕Шр╕▓р╕Щр╕Бр╕гр╕гр╕бр╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕бр╕╡р╕нр╕│р╕Щр╕▓р╕Ир╕кр╕▒р╣Ир╕Зр╣Гр╕лр╣Йр╣Ар╕Ир╣Йр╕▓р╕лр╕Щр╣Йр╕▓р╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╕Ьр╕╣р╣Йр╕Чр╕│р╕лр╕Щр╣Йр╕▓р╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╕гр╕▒р╕Бр╕йр╕▓р╕Др╕зр╕▓р╕бр╕кр╕Зр╕Ър╣Ар╕гр╕╡р╕вр╕Ър╕гр╣Йр╕нр╕вр╣Гр╕Щр╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Кр╕╕р╕бр╕Щр╕╕р╕бр╕кр╕ер╕▓р╕вр╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Кр╕╕р╕бр╕Щр╕╕р╕бр╣Др╕Фр╣Й

And …

The officials, or those who use their power to disperse gatherings according to Article 15, shall have no civil or criminal fault or responsibility as a result of performing their duty, as long as their actions are taken in good faith and are not excessive. р╣Ар╕Ир╣Йр╕▓р╕лр╕Щр╣Йр╕▓р╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╕лр╕гр╕╖р╕нр╕Ьр╕╣р╣Йр╣Гр╕Кр╣Йр╕нр╕│р╕Щр╕▓р╕Ир╕кр╕ер╕▓р╕вр╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Кр╕╕р╕бр╕Щр╕╕р╕бр╕Хр╕▓р╕бр╕бр╕▓р╕Хр╕гр╕▓ 15 р╣Др╕бр╣Ир╕Хр╣Йр╕нр╕Зр╕гр╕▒р╕Ър╕Ьр╕┤р╕Фр╕Чр╕▓р╕Зр╣Бр╕Юр╣Ир╕З р╕нр╕▓р╕Нр╕▓ р╣Ар╕Щр╕╖р╣Ир╕нр╕Зр╕Ир╕▓р╕Бр╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Ыр╕Пр╕┤р╕Ър╕▒р╕Хр╕┤р╕лр╕Щр╣Йр╕▓р╕Чр╕╡р╣Ир╣Гр╕Щр╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕кр╕ер╕▓р╕вр╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Кр╕╕р╕бр╕Щр╕╕р╕б р╕лр╕▓р╕Бр╣Ар╕Ыр╣Зр╕Щр╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Бр╕гр╕░р╕Чр╕│р╣Вр╕Фр╕вр╕кр╕╕р╕Ир╕гр╕┤р╕Х р╣Др╕бр╣Ир╣Ар╕Бр╕┤р╕Щр╕Бр╕зр╣Ир╕▓р╣Ар╕лр╕Хр╕╕р╕лр╕гр╕╖р╕нр╣Др╕бр╣Ир╣Ар╕Бр╕┤р╕Щр╕Др╕зр╕▓р╕бр╕Ир╕│р╣Ар╕Ыр╣Зр╕Щ

In other words, critical public gatherings are legally subject to crackdowns, with deliberations about the “good faith” or “excess” of such operations punted to bureaucratic reports that would appear, at best, years later. Recent memories of the forms this can take are all too fresh, and hardly seem desirable.

It is logical, given how media-centric recent protests have been, that opponents of a given movement would seek to frustrate their opponents’ media apparatus as a dagger to the heart. The drafted act sets a pace of bureaucratic permission incompatible with the spontaneity of protest, and would justify extraordinary countermeasures for criminals guilty of little more than hogging the microphone. Thai politicians and bureaucratic elites of all affiliations must deal with their paranoia over – and addiction to repression of – media in critical, democratic discourse.

As a final aside, the act is online in its entirety here, interspersed with images that might well be read as subversive. This posting went online the morning of April 10, 2010.

Benjamin Tausig is PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at New York University specializing in Thai music and politics.