I have been composing a long, day by day account of the "troubles" of the last three days, which I have not yet posted. The reason is that I've been getting a lot of mail asking me to explain "the truth" to people overseas. A lot of people here are astonished and appalled at the level of irresponsibility and inaccuracy shown by such major news sources as CNN, and are imputing the most astonishing motives to this, such as suggesting that they're in the pay of Thaksin and so on.
I don't think this is really what is going on. Rather, I think that there are two basic problems: preconception and language.
CNN first became a force to be reckoned with during the "People Power" movement in the Philippines. The kind of coverage we had for this was amazing. There was a camera in every camp, and we could follow this exciting revolution every step of the way. We knew exactly who to root for: the oppressed masses led by the widow of the iconic Aquino, and we knew that whenever President Marcos appeared he was Darth Vader, the symbol of an evil empire. The arc of the story was simple and inexorable. A whole new way of looking at the news was born, with all the excitement of a TV miniseries and, prophetically, a reality show as well.
Of course, many of the little details of the story were conveniently glossed over. Reality was not — never is — so black and white. But there are three important things about this story: first, in its essentials, there was a lot of truth. And all the protagonists spoke English.
The Philippines, as Filipinos never tire of telling me, is the third most populous English speaking country in the world. We will leave the definition of "English-speaking" to another blog, but it's very important that the various sides in this conflict were able to articulate their viewpoints in a language which CNN well understood.
The third important thing about the story is that it fulfilled a vision of history that is an inseparable part of the inheritance of western culture, that is so ingrained in western thinking that it is virtually impossible for an educated member of western society to divorce himself from it.
It is a vision of history as a series of liberations. From Harmodius and Aristogeiton throwing off the tyrant's yoke to the removal of the Tarquins and the establishment of the Roman Republic to the failed rebellion of Spartacus, from Magna Carta to the Bastille to the American Civil War to the Russian Revolution, there is this Platonic Model against which these big historical movements are always compared. There is a bad guy — often a dictator — who can be demonized. There is a struggling proletariat. The end comes with "liberty and justice for all". This is Star Wars. The dark times. The Empire.
The "People Power" coverage was riveting, compelling, and contained all the emotional components of this mythical story arc. Finding another such story, therefore, is a kind of Holy Grail for the international media. When a story comes that appears to contain some of the elements, and it's too much hard work to verify those elements or get all the background detail, you go with the Great Archetype of Western Civilization.
Now, let us consider the redshirt conflict.
Let's not consider what has actually been happening in Thailand, but how it looks to someone whose worldview has been coloured with this particular view of history.
Let's consider the fact that there is pretty much nothing being explained in English, and that there are perhaps a dozen foreigners who really understand Thai thoroughly. I don't mean Thai for shopping, bargirls, casual conversation and the like. Thai is a highly ambiguous language and is particularly well suited for seeming to say opposite things simultaneously. To get what is really being said takes total immersion.
When you watch a red shirt rally, notice how many English signs and placards there are, and note that they they are designed to show that these are events conforming to the archetype. The placards say "Democracy", "No Violence," "Stop killing innocent women and children" and so on. Speakers are passionately orating, crowds are moved. But there are no subtitles. What does it look like?
The answer is obvious. It looks like oppressed masses demanding freedom from an evil dictator.
Don't blame Dan Rivers, et al, who are only doing what they are paid to do: find the compelling story within the mass of incomprehensible data, match that story to what the audience already knows and believes, and make sure the advertising money keeps flowing in.
A vigorous counter-propaganda campaign in clear and simple English words of one syllable has always been lacking and is the reason the government is losing the PR war while actually following the most logical steps toward a real and lasting resolution.
If the foreign press were in fact able to speak Thai well enough to follow all the reportage here coming from all sides, they would also be including some of the following information in their reports. I want to insist yet again that I am not siding with anyone. The following is just information that people really need before they write their news reports.
-- Thaksin was democratically elected, but became increasingly undemocratic, and the country gradually devolved from a nation where oligarchs skimmed off the top to a kleptocracy of one. During his watch, thousands of people were summarily executed in the South of Thailand and in a bizarre "war on drugs" in which body count was considered a marker of success.
-- the coup that ousted Thaksin was of course completely illegal, but none of the people who carried it out are in the present government.
-- the yellow shirts' greatest error in moulding its international image was to elevate Thaksin's corruption as its major bone of contention. Thai governments have always been corrupt. The extent of corruption and the fact that much of it went into only one pocket was shocking to Thais, but the west views all "second-rate countries" as being corrupt. Had they used the human rights violations and muzzling of the press as their key talking points, the "heroic revolution" archetype would have been moulded with opposite protagonists, and CNN and BBC would be telling an opposite story today.
-- the constitution which was approved by a referendum after the coup and which brought back democracy was flawed, but it provided more checks and balances, and made election fraud a truly accountable offense for the first time.
-- the parliamentary process by which the Democrat coalition came to power was the same process by which the Lib Dems and Tories have attained power in Britain. The parliament that voted in this government consists entirely of democratically elected members.
-- no one ever disputed the red shirts' right to peaceful assembly, and the government went out of its way to accede to their demands.
-- this country already has democracy. Not a perfect one, but the idea of "demanding democracry" is sheer fantasy
-- the yellow shirts did not succeed in getting any of their demands from the government. The last two governments changed because key figures were shown to have committed election fraud. They simply did not take their own constitution seriously enough to follow it.
-- the red TV station has a perfect right to exist, but if foreign journalists actually understood Thai, they would realize that much of its content went far beyond any constitutionally acceptable limits of "protected speech" in a western democracy. Every civilized society limits speech when it actually harms others, whether by inciting hate or by slander. The government may have been wrong to brusquely pull the plug, but was certainly right to cry foul. It should have sought an injunction first. Example: Arisman threatened to destroy mosques, government buildings, and "all institutions you hold sacred" ... a clip widely seen on youtube, without subtitles. Without subtitles, it looks like "liberty, equality, fraternity".
-- the army hasn't been shooting women and children ... or indeed anyone at all, except in self-defense. Otherwise this would all be over, wouldn't it? It's simple for a big army to mow down 5,000 defenseless people.
-- since the government called the red shirts' bluff and allowed the deputy P.M. to report to the authorities to hear their accusations, the red leaders have been making ever-more fanciful demands. The idea of UN intervention is patently absurd. When Thaksin killed all those Muslims and alleged drug lords, human rights groups asked the UN to intervene. When the army took over the entire country, some asked the UN to intervene. The UN doesn't intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign countries except when requested to by the country itself or when the government has completely broken down.
-- Thailand hasn't had an unbreachable gulf between rich and poor for at least 20 years. These conflicts are about the rise of the middle class, not the war between the aristocrats and the proletariat.
-- Abhisit, with his thoroughly western and somewhat liberal background, shares the values of the west and is in fact more likely to bring about the social revolution needed by Thailand's agrarian poor than any previous leader. He is, in fact, pretty red, while Thaksin, in his autocratic style of leadership, is in a way pretty yellow. Simplistic portrayals do not help anyone to understand anything.
-- the only people who do not seem to care about the reds' actual grievances are their own leaders, who are basically making everyone risk their lives to see if they can get bail.
-- the King has said all that he is constitutionally able to say when he spoke to the supreme court justices and urged them to do their duty. The western press never seem to realize that the Thai monarchy is constitutionally on the European model ... not, say, the Saudi model. The king REIGNS ... he doesn't "rule". This is a democracy. The king is supposed to symbolize all the people, not a special interest group.
The above are just a few of the elements that needed to be sorted through in order to provide a balanced view of what is happening in this country.
There is one final element that must be mentioned. Most are not even aware of it. But there is, in the western mindset, a deeply ingrained sense of the moral superiority of western culture which carries with it the idea that a third world country must by its very nature be ruled by despots, oppress peasants, and kill and torture people. Most westerners become very insulted when this is pointed out to them because our deepest prejudices are always those of which we are least aware. I believe that there is a streak of this crypto-racism in some of the reportage we are seeing in the west. It is because of this that Baghdad, Yangon, and Bangkok are being treated as the same thing. We all look alike.
Yes, this opinion is always greeted with outrage. I do my best to face my own preconceptions and don't succeed that often, but I acknowledge they exist nonetheless.
Some of the foreign press are painting the endgame as the Alamo, but it is not. It is a lot closer to Jonestown or Waco.
Like those latter two cases, a highly charismatic leader figure (in our case operating from a distance, shopping in Paris while his minions sweat in the 94°weather) has taken an inspirational idea: in one case Christianity, in the other democracy, and reinvented it so that mainstream Christians, or real democrats, can no longer recognize it. The followers are trapped. There is a siege mentality and information coming from outside is screened so that those trapped believe they will be killed if they try to leave. Women and children are being told that they are in danger if they fall into the hands of the government, and to distrust the medics and NGOs waiting to help them. There are outraged pronouncements that they're not in fact using the children as human shields, but that the parents brought them willingly to "entertain and thrill" them. There is mounting paranoia coupled with delusions of grandeur, so that the little red kingdom feels it has the right to summon the United Nations, just like any other sovereign state. The reporters in Rajprasong who are attached to the red community are as susceptible to this variant of the Stockholm syndrome as anyone else.
The international press must separate out the very real problems that the rural areas of Thailand face, which will take decades to fix, from the fact that a mob is rampaging through Bangkok, burning, looting, and firing grenades, threatening in the name of democracy to destroy what democracy yet remains in this country.
But this bad reporting is not their fault. It is our fault for not providing the facts in bite-sized pieces, in the right language, at the right time.