For the second time this year, a television program was forced off the air in Thailand due to the perceived politically controversial content. However, this episode is much more than just a cancelled show – it was a test on how much it was possible to have a debate on the most sensitive and serious issue in Thailand, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

Thai historian and academic Somsak Jeamteerasakul (left) and royalist critic Sulak Sivaraksa (middle) at a taping of the ThaiPBS interview program “Tob Jote Prathet Thai” with host Pinyo Traisuriyathamma, discussing the role of the constitutional monarchy. (Photo: ThaiPBS/Facebook)

In general, programming of the Thai Public Broadcast Service (ThaiPBS) is considered to be of decent quality, aimed at an informed audience or those that want to be informed. This, is a unique approach among the roughly half dozen free-TV channels, whose TV listings are mostly dominated by the infamous lakorn soap operas and variety shows. However, it is also said that this great programing is watched by hardly anyone for the exact same reasons.

The channel has seen many transformations in its young, turbulent history – from an independent, hard-hitting bedrock of Thai TV journalism to the slow neutering under Thaksin Shinawatra’s ShinCorp to the eventual takeover the military junta in 2006. The most recent chapter is going to leave another mark on the channel’s track record, albeit not a very positive one.

Over the past week, the ThaiPBS interview and discussion show “Tob Jote Prathet Thai” (“ตอบโจทย์ประเทศไทย”) or roughly translated to “Answering Thailand’s Issues“, had a week-long special series discussing and debating the role of the constitutional monarchy in Thailand. This is a very hot topic considering the current political climate where the long-held notion that the King and the royal institution are above politics is being challenged and defended with equal passion.

On the first three days of this series, host Pinyo Traisuriyathamma interviewed former foreign minister Surakiart Sathirathai, Thammasat historian and academic Somsak Jeamteerasakul, and self-proclaimed “ultra-royalist” and former palace police chief Pol Gen Vasit Dejkunjorn, while the last two episodes had Somsak and veteran social activist and monarchy critic Sulak Sivaraksa mostly debating Thailand’s still existing draconian lèse majesté law (a summary can be read here).

It turned out that the program attracted attention for the right reasons, as the Bangkok Post‘s Kong Rithdee notes:

Clearly the programme is pushing the envelope. And envelope-pushing is what we need when the same old blabbering inside our old, cobwebbed envelope isn’t taking us anywhere. The highlights of the five-night series were on Thursday and Friday, when Mr Sulak and Mr Somsak sat next to each other debating, eyeing up and staring down, hands moving in a complex telegraphy of their thought. (…) What’s most important, however, is the fact that they said many things we never thought we’d hear on television. (…) the mentions of the monarchy were as frank, or as evasive, as the law allows. Of course they both wish the law would allow more, that’s the gist of it all.

(…) We as the citizens, and we as journalists, who can now take comfort in the fact that some of the “sensitive” issues often talked about in murmurs, with hand covering mouth, or online, or totally underground, have made their way to national TV, in HD to boot. Television is known for accommodating emotion (think drama series) but in the right setting, it also encourages reason as a condition of being persuasive. It’s official: this five-day talk has raised the bar on possible discussion about the monarchy.

Everyone wins in the Thai PBS royalty debate. Right?“, by Kong Rithdee, Bangkok Post, March 16, 2013

Given the current political climate, this TV show had its opponents: as many as 20 (yes, you read that right!) royalist protestors demonstrated in front of ThaiPBS on Friday evening before the airing of the last episode and demanded for the show to be taken off the air. They claimed that the monarchy should not be dragged into any political discussion and that the discussion about (an amendment) to the lèse majesté law is the first step towards dismantling the monarchy – a deliberate disinformation.

Nevertheless, the small but vocal group got its way and apparently ThaiPBS caved, deciding just moments before it was to go on air that the second part of the debate between Sulak and Somsak was to be cancelled on Friday evening, citing fears that the program could “spark social conflict” – an often-heard and convenient phrase to shut down any public discourse that could be deemed uncomfortable.

Unsurprisingly, the decision caused instant controversy. It was met with shock, anger and ridicule online, with some also pointing out that this has been the second recent cancellation of a TV program on Thai airwaves for apparent political reasons, the first being soap opera “Nua Mek 2″ which took an apparent jab at the existing government (read more on this here).

Meanwhile, the team of “Tob Jote Prathet Thai” have announced the cancellation of the whole show altogether following Friday’s incident. Pinyo Traisuriyathamma has said there was no political or royal interference, but the decision was made by the channel executives.

Whether it was political interference  or just pre-emptive obedience by the ThaiPBS higher-ups, the cancellation of an open and straight public debate about the role of the monarchy in the Thai state is a cruel reminder that a certain section of the Thai population is still not ready to face differing notions about Thailand’s power structure. While ThaiPBS is to be commended on tackling a thorny issue, it has made a number of discouraging steps backwards by deciding to cancel the show.

UPDATE (Tuesday, March 19): In yet another reversal, ThaiPBS decided to show the last part of the series after all on Monday – without any advertisements or announcements. Here’s the YouTube video to the full debate with Somsak Jeamteerasakul and Sulak Sivaraksa:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9useYkQGSA

Before that earlier on Monday, Thai Rath reports that a group of 40 appointed (read: NOT democratically elected!) senators have slammed the “Tob Jote” program for “insulting the monarchy” and see the content as a violation of the lèse majesté law – showing once again that certain groups of people are incapable of a constructive discourse and (deliberately perhaps?) do not know that it is legal to talk about lèse majesté and other issues.

UPDATE 2 (Wednesday, March 20): The pattern of “one step forward, several steps back” has been repeated again, as all videos linked here have been pulled. But since this is the internet, the video have been reposted multiple times already and have been linked here as well.

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About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent based in Bangkok, Thailand. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and is also reports for international news media such as Channel NewsAsia. You can follow him on Twitter @Saksith.