By Jon Dent (Guest Contributor)
Over the past few weeks the London based Guardian newspaper has released several batches of WikiLeaked classified U.S. diplomatic cables relating to Thailand. Discussing Thailand’s sensitive political questions are generally carried out in the shadows, in whispered conversations, and usually not in Thai. While titillating in the details and names mentioned, for the most part the diplomatic cables released so far did not reveal anything new to seasoned Thailand watchers. It is not the leaked documents themselves that are story-worthy. Rather it is how traditional Thai media and the general public hasn’t reacted to the WikiLeaks release that is fascinating, and deeply worrying to some.
There is no reason to believe that there was any state-directed instruction to kill the WikiLeaks story. At this point, such action is redundant. To understand what self-censorship looks like, one needs not look beyond Amazing Thailand. As the Thai research group i-law recently reported, vague Internet regulation and ambiguous law enforcement has created a climate of uncertainty as to what is tolerated online and what is not. Use of Thailand’s Lèse Majesté laws, and more recently the Computer Crimes Act (2007), as the judicial bludgeon of choice has brought the message across to the media and general public alike – when in doubt, throw it out.
While the behind-the- scenes analysis of Thailand’s recent past by the U.S. embassy in Bangkok was reported all over the world, only a handful dared to touch it in Thailand. Not surprisingly independent media outlet Prachatai was ahead of the pack, and was one of the first Thai sources to report on the WikiLeaks revelations in Thai for domestic consumption, albeit cautiously. ASTV Manager Online also reported the story, reprinting a detailed English-language AFP story. The Bangkok Post also briefly ran the AFP story, but has since removed it from its Website. The Nation once again outdid itself in its own reporting of the story – writing it off as the paranoid delusions of (the deceased) former PM Samak Sundaravej, sparking controversy “from the grave.”
On display are the old mind tricks obstructing public discourse in Thailand. The WikiLeaks cables do touch upon sensitive issues, regarding the character of “certain elements of society”, that perhaps are best left to cocktail-infused parties. But they also shed light on other matters of public concern. Sifting through the 3,000 cables from the U.S. embassy in Bangkok illuminate issues ranging from the troubled Southern provinces, the Thai military’s role in CIA operated “Black Sites”, and the mechanisms of Thailand recent color coded political drama. That these are legitimate issues for debate among Thai society is without doubt. Yet some in the Kingdom, both Red, Yellow, and in-between, believe it is better for the general public not to concern itself with such matters of state. Theses are not the news items you are looking for… they repeat as they distract us with trifles.
The past few years have been bumpy in Thailand, and the future looks equally turbulent. Intimidating the media and keeping the public in the dark, while effective in the short term, is lethal in the long run. Whatever you political inclinations, it is clear that the emotions and grievances that fuelled the recent Red-Shirt protests, and subsequent bloodshed, have yet to be seriously addressed in Thailand. As long as the Thai public does not feel comfortable and safe discussing their own state of affairs, it will continue to be shaped by the few who hold power.
This arrangement may have worked in the past for Thailand’s power-elites, yet WikiLeaks has already shown the public that the truth has a way of making itself known. The issues raised in the leaked cables are not new, and articulate the significant challenges facing the Kingdom. Sooner or later, Thais will have to think about them, talk them through, and seek out solutions together. Failure will not be an option, at least not a good one.
Jon Dent is an independent researcher, human rights activist and Jedi Knight living in Thailand.