Thursday, August 3, 2000



(published in 2001 in the Journal of the Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University) 


by Philip Cunningham

In Thailand the rainy season is a traditional time for reflection and contemplation as the monsoon rains lash the landscape, flood the fields and force activity indoors.   This is the time of the year when young men shave their heads and don the saffron robes of the monkhood for the duration of the rains, also known as Buddhist Lent. 
This past season of turbulent weather and forced quietude was a busy one for defenders of free speech and democracy as legislative bills, designed to make the media more free in the future are bringing up bad memories of the past.
Thailand’s 1997 constitution, an ambitious legal document that says “never again” to the kind of military privilege and over-centralization of power that has caused so much heartache and exploitation in the past, is finally being implemented.
It’s about time. Thai democracy burst onto the scene with the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932.  Since then it has been a story of two steps forward, one step back, with progress marred by frequent coups d'etat, corrupt misuse of national resources and authoritarian rule. 
On the long and winding road of Thailand’s trysts with democracy, defenders of free speech have been forced to beat strategic retreats, but they have never gone away and when suppressed harshly enough have burst back onto the scene with great resilience and surprisingly little rancor. 
The Thai Army has uniquely reaped great profit and influence in its role as gatekeeper of the airwaves for half a century. The Navy and Air Force have never been permitted to own TV stations which has helped perpetuate their subordination to the Army. Cold War emphasis on “nation-building” counter-insurgency was soon eclipsed by plain greed as TV and radio concessions became crazy cash cows of advertising revenue.
The Public Relations department, the voice of whoever happens to be in power, is a key instrument in controlling the airwaves.  Its power is underlined by the fact that the department has long been at the top of the list of government facilities to be taken over during a coup attempt. During Black May, the Public Relations Department on Rachdomnern Boulevard was burned down by unknown arsonists. It has since relocated to a more secure campus setting in a district surrounded by army bases.
Thai civil society took a bold step away from the vicious coups of the past with the broadly liberal 1997 constitution that maps out the promise of increased democratization and decentralization of power. 
Just how to interpret the fine print of 1997 constitution has been the source of endless argument, with the Broadcast Bill alone getting newspaper attention nearly every day of humid June, July and August. The tentative deadline for finishing all the paperwork, comes on a sensitive day in a sensitive month; the sixth of October. 
The tail end of the rainy season this year, which ends on the night of the full moon in mid-October, will see two monuments unveiled to victims of the “October struggle.” The harsh crackdown on the student demonstrations of
October 14, 1973 led to the toppling of a military dictatorship, but the political experiment in democracy and free speech came to an abrupt end on October 6, 1976 when a different faction of the military installed itself as the new government.

This led to a dark political period in which many students and intellectuals were jailed, others, in despair of Thailand ever being democratic again, escaped to the jungle to join the clandestine Communist Party of Thailand.
The story of how Thai society almost self-destructed in the turbulent 1970’s is quasi-taboo but not forgotten. The spirit of the fallen has been kept alive by an oral tradition of poetry and song known as “art for life, songs for life.” 
That’s why the setback of May 1992, a brutal round of government-commanded bloodletting on the same haunted streets where students had been felled in the “Red” Octobers of the past, came as such a shock to the system.
"The first rain of the rainy season," says poet Chiranan Pitpreecha in reference to the events of May 1992, "was blood red."
It was not until this year etching the memory of massacre victims could be etched in stone, so volatile the topic for society at large. Tensions still linger. This past May, a coalition of citizens seeking to shed light on the events of Black May petitioned under Thailand’s freedom of information law to review government documents the crackdown. What they got in response was a military report that was presented with 60% of the text blacked out to protect "national security."  
Although more information was released in a subsequent version, (“whiteout” was used instead of black ink to allay fears of a cover-up}, the national mood was not one favorable to reflection of past crimes.  In July Samak Sundarevej, an outspoken supporter of the military in all three crackdowns, was elected mayor of Bangkok.  A few weeks later, Black May military strongman Suchinda Kraprayoon told a group of birthday well-wishers that he’d carry out the crackdown again if he faced the same choice again.

The wording of the Black May-inspired broadcast bill has prompted a high-octane debate, as the new law will determine who has access to the nation’s airwaves and under what conditions.
The May 2000 draft of the broadcast bill, penned by the governmental Council of State, an appointed council that is fixed part of Thailand's executive branch codified as inappropriate for broadcast anything that:
1) offends the heads of state of foreign countries.
2) causes divisiveness among the Thai people, insult
any ethnic group or be detrimental to peace and order
or public morals.
3) jeopardizes foreign relations.
4) is disrespectful of any religion or desecrates
revered places.
5) flouts good traditions and culture.
6) is sexually provocative.
"I took a look at the second draft of the controversial National Broadcasting Bill," wrote Nation group editor in chief Suthichai Yoon," and I froze. Some of the clauses, which are supposed to have been an improvement on the first version, remind me of the bad old days of press censorship all over again."
The draft was sent back for a re-write and fiddled with endlessly in tempo with the falling down rain.   In September, as the final touches were put on the bill for parliamentary approval, many of the above taboos remained in place, although the clauses concerning foreign heads of state and foreign relations were softened.  
Thai journalists and media specialists, long accustomed to treating the monarchy with great reverence, don’t oppose the idea of voluntary guidelines per se, but see dangers in putting such unwritten rules into writing, which opens a Pandora’s box of issues concerning appropriate adjudication, enforcement and punishment.  
The failure of Thai government-controlled TV stations to report fairly on the street demonstrations of Black May eventually led to the creation of non-governmental broadcaster known as Independent TV, or iTV in 1997. But only three years later the only independent station is bleeding money and fighting for its life.
In to the rescue comes Shin Corporation, a wealthy telecommunications, satellite and media conglomerate whose founder, Thaksin Shinawatra, has left the business world to form the Thairakthai political party. Critics cried foul, saying Shin Corporation’s proposed 39% to 70% purchase of iTV would threaten the station's hard-fought-for neutrality, and the takeover has been delayed.
The torrent of disapproval that hit Thaksin Shinawatra, who has Citizen Kane-style giant posters of himself all over the metropolis, is rooted in bad memories of the past when centralization of political power and control of the media meant one thing: dictatorship.  The tycoon’s Thairakthai political party is one of the strongest forces in Thai politics today as it represents the new money of the booming telecommunications sector and the persuasive power of western style political conventions, fund-raising and campaigning.
"It's as if CNN were purchased by someone who owned the leading telecommunications and satellite companies and was running for president," explains Dean Joompol Rodcumdee, Dean of the Faculty of Communication Arts at Chulalongkorn University.
The latest legislation to come from the Council of State suggests a 15% limit, but limiting investment creates a different sort of problem.  As the Nation daily wryly noted, the 15% rule has business owners  "gripped by fear" because not too many businessmen want to invest in something in which
they have no control.  With Thailand's stock market falling to new lows, the baht weak and getting weaker, looking for money without political strings attached is a tall order indeed. 
Given the cash-strapped realities of post-bubble Thailand, the restless bottom line of the media business is being allowed to wag the dog.  Editorial independence and integrity are under attack, not from the military’s command room, but from the boardroom of big business.
Thepchai Yong, a former editor of the Nation, (and younger brother of press magnate Suthichai) led the iTV news team’s public attack on possible Shin Corporation ownership.  He paid for his outspoken views by being kicked out of the newsroom to take a seat by a window upstairs with the men in suits, an effective demotion that led him to leave the company.
The Bangkok Post, although it lacks the vested interest in television of the Nation Group, got involved in the fray.  "Keep our Media Free of Meddlers," cried a mid-May Bangkok Post editorial, defending the need for media independence by invoking the spirit of Black May. "Troops were called in and a crackdown was ordered by the government, ostensibly to restore peace and order.

During the week-long stand-off leading up to the eventual brutal crackdown, people who tuned into any of the five state-controlled television stations for first-hand, reliable and accurate information were sadly disappointed."
The Byzantine drafting and selection process of the media reform bill goes something like this:
A committee of 17 is formed with quotas of four members in each of four Fields with the military getting an extra voice. The categories are national security, academia, media NGOs and broadcast professionals. The committee then picks fourteen names whittled down from a field of 56 and then 28. The committee of 17 then presents 14 names to parliament where seven people will be chosen to form the powerful new regulatory body. 

Promulgated to law in March 2000, the frequency regulation bill stipulates that two commissions, one for telecom, the other for broadcasting, must be vetted and submitted to parliament for approval by the end of 2000. So the heat is on.
The Telecommunications Bill has moved forward in committee faster than the Broadcast Bill, in part because it involves technical issues that don’t evoke memories of past political crackdowns.  Nonetheless, high stakes are involved, especially when the leading candidate for Prime Minister is the richest telecommunications tycoon in the region, as†the new committee is designed to regulate the lucrative telecommunications sector of phone lines, fibre optics and internet business.
“If passed into law, corruption will be legalized," says Rossana Tositrakul, criticizing the hastily approved the Telecommunications Bill in the Nation.  Anuparp Thiralarp of Mahidol's College of Management echoes that concern, saying the move from state to private control is “scary.”
The astronomical amount of cash at stake has critics worried in this corruption-ridden society. Despite critical voices in the press, the Telecommunications Bill got an easy ride from the media compared to the broadcast bill.
Television is an emotional topic in Thailand. Selecting the selection committee has proved to be a difficult task given all the quibbling that is going on.  Various interest groups claim they are uniquely and exclusively entitled to have more say than their rivals.  This Orwellian reaction, in which some behave as if they are more equal than others, has lead creating endless delays in the scripting of the Broadcast Bill and the selection of the regulatory committee.
The money and influence at stake with the both the airwaves and electromagnetic spectrum are enormous, and growing exponentially in this digital age, which helps explain the intense competition among those who want a piece of the action.
As Anuwat Chinphririya, the President of TV Cameramen and Reporters Association argued in the Nation, "broadcast reform is starting to mimic the first and final voyage of the Titanic."  Media professionals, he continued, are “trying to break the stranglehold that media owners and the military have had on the airwaves for the past five decades."
In September, as the debate on the broadcast bill got increasingly acrimonious, the 1996 media-related murder of Sangchai Sunthornvut, made the front pages again. A former Forestry Department official turned gangster was arrested, confessing to involvement in the case. Sangchai, the former director of MCOT (Mass Communications Organization of Thailand) was reportedly ordered killed by Thawee Puttachana, a former Chiang Rai Minister of Parliament now on death row, because of a conflict of interests over the lucrative leasing of radio to commercial interests. Fearful of such conflict, radio stations supported by the Public Relations Department have all but banned commercials.
The move to democratize access and control of the media has unfortunately resulted in a stampede by powerful players to grab a piece of the action in the name of the people. What can we expect as the men in green graciously bow out, replaced by gray-suited tycoons of the corporate boardrooms?
“Article 40 of new constitution states broadcast/telecoms must be of benefit to public but the under the new bill "only rich and powerful stand to benefit," says Amornrat Mahitthirook in the Bangkok Post.
As the rains subside here in Thailand, it looks like the “power-to-the-people” constitution will be observed, in a twisted bureaucratic way, to the letter by those with the biggest war chests and the best legal departments.  The result is as soggy and swampy as the rain-swollen landscape which is to say there is not a level playing field in sight.
The government will remain the biggest single broadcaster in Thailand, with control of Bangkok’s Channel 11 along with eight regional TV stations, and some 140 radio stations, and it will be subject to less scrutiny than private stations.  
The Council of State responds that the broadcasts done by the public relations department need no watchdog oversight as it is supervised by the "government, which, in turn, is controlled by parliament and the people."
In a special Page One comment entitled Media Bill a Dictator’s Guidebook, the August 28 Nation argued that the bill will give the National Broadcasting Commission the power to unilaterally censor any radio or television programme."
In contrast to the cooling monsoon rains and sudden squalls, the debate about the future of Thailand’s media has been hot and stuffy. Due to ambiguous guidelines and bureaucratic† backpedaling, the freshly reformed media is looking more and more like the old one, only more so.
Avant-garde artist Vasan Sitthiket puts it this way, "it's not about democracy, which is sharing power, it's about keeping power, and I call that "demon-crazy."
Thai newspapers, despite the bruising setbacks of coups, shootings, bombings, libel suits and shutdowns along the way, have emerged as a vital and courageous voice for Thai democracy, helping the nation to move out of the shadow of past tragedies.
Poets, singers, artists and writers who remember the darkness before dawn under various military regimes continue invoke the memory of  "Black May," and the two “Red” Octobers, to remind everyone how important it is to be vigilant about democracy and freedom.