Like many foreign correspondents, as a result of my reporting on Thailand’s political crisis I have frequently been accused of naïveté, breathtaking stupidity, and a total inability to grasp the complexities of the situation.
That’s OK. Even my closest friends regularly call me an idiot. And they are usually right.
But the international media have faced other accusations: that we have been duped and brainwashed by some fiendishly effective propaganda campaign launched by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, or worse, that we have been bribed by him to peddle damaging lies about what is going on in Thailand.
This is ludicrous nonsense. Those who think that it would be possible for Thaksin to bribe the entire foreign press corps operating in Thailand to misrepresent the situation clearly have a very limited understanding of how the global media industry works. And those who think that journalists who have risked their lives for the principles of fairness and honesty could be bought off by a fugitive former tycoon clearly have very limited insight into human nature.
But instead of pointing out all the numerous flaws and fallacies in the arguments of self-appointed experts on the subject, I’d like to tell you a story about Thaksin and me.
I arrived in Bangkok for the first time in May 2000, as deputy bureau chief for Reuters. The country was slowly emerging from the pain of the 1997/98 Asian crisis, and a new political force had recently burst onto the scene — Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai party (the name he chose for his political vehicle seems particularly ironic now, in light of the bitter divisions and hatreds that have since erupted in Thai society).
I covered Thaksin’s political rise, his campaign promises and the January 2001 elections in which Thai Rak Thai swept to power with the most seats ever won by a single party in Thailand.
Nowadays, Thaksin is portrayed in Thailand as an evil genius, a shadowy mastermind with vast wealth who is almost singlehandedly dragging the country towards catastrophe and ruin. But in his first few months as prime minister, Thaksin was very different from this caricature. Far from appearing to be an evil genius, he gave the impression instead of being not particularly smart at all.
A series of gaffes and blunders dented his image, and things went from bad to worse when a senator of doubtful sanity claimed to have found an incredible hoard of gold and U.S. bonds left behind by the retreating Japanese army at the end of World War Two, stashed inside a train carriage surrounded by the skeletons of Imperial Army soldiers who had committed hara-kiri and hidden deep in a cave near Kanchanaburi.
Most of the country took these claims with a pinch of salt. Not Thaksin. He was so excited he rushed to the cave in a helicopter and later announced he would make use of a friend’s satellite to pinpoint the location of the treasure.
What made the issue important was that hanging over the early months of the Thaksin administration was a looming Constitutional Court decision on whether the prime minister should be barred from politics for five years for concealing some of his wealth. This was a difficult test of Thai democracy – it was quite clear to anybody who looked at the evidence that Thaksin had tried to hide some of his assets, and he had even made enormous share transfers to his maid and chauffeur. But he had also just won the biggest election victory in Thai history. Would the judges really be willing to ban a prime minister who had massive public support, even if he was guilty of the charges against him?
This meant that despite his overwhelming electoral mandate, it was critical for Thaksin to avoid blunders that undermined his popularity as this could embolden the judges to rule against him.
I made this point in an analysis on April 19, 2001:
The analysis went on to discuss some of Thaksin’s recent missteps, including the Japanese gold hoax:
The latest blow to Thaksin’s credibility came from the farcical saga of a mythical World War Two treasure trove.
A maverick senator said a multi-billion-dollar hoard of gold and U.S. bonds left behind by the retreating Japanese army had been found in a remote jungle cave. It was not the first time he had made such claims and newspapers treated the story as a joke.
But Thaksin took the reports seriously enough to fly to the cave by helicopter on Friday, and senior government ministers said the haul could be valuable enough to pay off the 2.8 trillion baht national debt and rescue the crisis-hit economy.
Amid a chorus of jeering headlines, the government later admitted the find was almost certainly a hoax. The Nation daily said Thaksin had exposed himself to “international ridicule”.
The following morning, as usual, I grabbed a taxi near my apartment in Soi Somkid to head to the Reuters bureau in the U Chu Liang building on Rama IV. The driver was listening to a phone-in radio programme, and while my Thai language ability was very basic back then, it was clear that many callers were phoning to express their anger about something. They were clearly not happy, not happy at all.
I started listening more closely when I heard somebody mention Reuters.
I started listening even more closely when I heard somebody mention Andrew Marshall.
And while I could not understand what they were saying, I could tell they were not phoning the talk-show to say what a great guy I was. Two words I did know were “ไม่ดี” (no good) – and people seemed to be saying that a lot.
I arrived in the Reuters bureau to find ashen-faced staff looking at the front page of Matichon newspaper:
In the middle of the front page, in giant letters, was the headline “Foreign media says Maew is an international clown”.
Maew is Thaksin’s nickname. The foreign media, in this instance, was me.
And while I had not of course called Thaksin an international clown, it seems Matichon had translated my article rather loosely, and had seized on the quote from the Nation that Thaksin had exposed himself to international ridicule.
Inside the newspaper, the story continued. Those who read Thai can see the whole article in pdf format here.
If this had been published in 2010, I would have been hailed as a hero by most of the Thai media, and there would be a Facebook group with thousands of members called “We hate Dan Rivers but we ♥ Andrew Marshall”.
But this was 2001. Most Thais supported Thaksin and even those who didn’t were not amused to learn that some arrogant foreign reporter had allegedly called their prime minister a clown.
My boss was in a state of panic. The phones in the newsroom were ringing off the hook. A letter arrived from the government, denouncing my reporting. Almost the entire population of the Kingdom of Thailand, it seemed, was very cross with me.
As the day wore on, things got worse. Thaksin was questioned by Thai reporters who wanted to know what he thought about Reuters calling him a clown. As is by now widely known, Thaksin is not a big fan of journalists, unless they agree with him without fail 100 percent of the time. He is also not very good at dealing with criticism. And he gets annoyed fairly easily. All of these personality traits were amply demonstrated in Thaksin’s colourful comments about me, which were then replayed over and over again on the many televisions that are constantly monitored in the Reuters Bangkok bureau. My Thai colleagues helpfully kept up a running commentary of translations of Thaksin’s comments: “He just said Andrew Marshall is a disgraceful journalist… He said if he has time he will come to Reuters and beat you up… The foreign media are conspiring against Thaksin, he says, and you are involved…”
The next day, the story continued to dominate the TV and newspaper headlines. Here is the front page of Naew Na newspaper from April 21:
The headline says “Thaksin threatens to beat up Reuters after they rub salt in his wounds.” (The rest of the Naew Na story is here. Note the cartoon of the Japanese skeleton and Thaksin on the pile of gold.)
I have the dubious honour of being probably the first journalist, either Thai or foreign, singled out by Thaksin for public criticism. As we know by now, I was by no means the last.
Thaksin never did come to beat me up. But over the next couple of years, I managed to annoy him with my reporting many more times. I covered Thaksin’s surprise acquittal by the Constitutional Court, after a couple of judges changed their vote at the last minute, allegedly after pressure from powerful figures. I reported on the sustained intimidation of the media, both Thai and international, as they increasingly came under attack. I covered the relentless erosion of the institutional checks and balances Thailand had put in place to prevent abuse of power, as one by one they were sabotaged and rendered toothless. I watched the Muslim insurrection in southern Thailand grow steadily more intractable after a series of policy missteps. I reported on the extrajudicial killing of hundreds of alleged small-time narcotics dealers, while powerful drug lords continued to operate unscathed. I watched corruption flourish.
In late 2002, with war in the Middle East looking inevitable, I was assigned to Kuwait to prepare for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Later, after Saddam Hussein was overthrown by American forces I became the Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad. I lived there for two years as the country spiralled into escalating bloodshed and chaos, and as conditions for journalists became frighteningly extreme. Our reporting was frequently denounced and attacked, most commonly by U.S. officials who insisted the rebuilding of Iraq was going well and who resented the fact we covered the shocking violence that ravaged the country, and the appalling incompetence and corruption that characterised the early years of the occupation. It was sometimes stressful to be in charge of a Reuters bureau out in the “Red Zone” in the middle of a viciously dangerous city, facing enormous pressure and scepticism from armchair experts thousands of miles away who accused us regularly of bias and dishonesty. But I learned that good reporting almost always offends powerful people somewhere, and almost always attracts anger and criticism. The only response is to do your job extremely well, to hold on to your values and principles, and stand by your story.
Every two months or so I got a break from Baghdad, and I would often spend it in Thailand. Some of my best friends in the world are there, and back then it was a place I could go to rest and recover after the stresses and dangers of Iraq. It still felt like a haven of peace, in those days. So I witnessed Thailand’s gathering storm, as social and political divisions became wider, and the “yellow shirt” movement was born, and a bloodless coup ousted Thaksin but failed to heal the country’s wounds.
Since 2008 I have been back in Asia, as Reuters chief correspondent for political risk, with a beat that spans the whole continent from Afghanistan in the west to Japan and Australia and New Zealand in the east. Of all the countries in Asia, the one that has seen the most precipitous decline in the past few years is, without any doubt, Thailand.
A once-booming “Asian tiger” is becoming the region’s basket case. The economy has been doing surprisingly well despite the political chaos – Thailand has the most export-oriented economy in Asia after Hong Kong and Singapore, and is getting a massive boost from a surge in demand as the region emerges from the global economic crisis. But in the longer term, the damage will be severe. Tourists have been scared away en masse. And more seriously, foreign multinationals have written off the country as a location for new investment projects. Thailand’s politics have always been fairly tumultuous, but until recently investors could safely ignore the periodic coups and upheavals, knowing they would not undermine Thailand’s competitive advantage. No longer. This crisis has been very different, with the airports paralysed by the “yellow shirt” blockade in 2008 and downtown Bangkok occupied by “red shirt” protesters this year, culminating in the tragic events of April and May when Thais were killing Thais on the streets of their beautiful capital. The death toll was at least 90, including my colleague Hiro Muramoto, a Japanese cameraman for Reuters killed while filming clashes between protesters and soldiers on April 10.
It is almost certain that there will be many more deaths in Thailand before this crisis is resolved.
And hanging over everything is the issue everybody is aware of but nobody can speak of fully in public: Thailand’s widely beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej is old and frail, and his likely successor is as divisive a figure as Bhumibol is unifying. And by explicitly taking sides during the current political crisis, some of Bhumibol’s family members and advisors have endangered the future of the monarchy in Thailand.
It has been heartbreaking to watch Thailand’s decline. It must be infinitely sadder for proud citizens of Thailand caught in the middle of it.
Yet there seems to be a pervasive attitude of denial among many Thais, particularly the middle and upper classes in Bangkok. Their view tends to be that Thailand remains a harmonious Land of Smiles in which everybody knows their place in society and happily accepts it. And they seem to believe that this state of affairs can continue indefinitely, were it not for the baleful influence of Thaksin, trying to stir up trouble in paradise for his own selfish ends. Thaksin, they argue, has duped and bribed the Thai peasantry in the north and northeast of the country to forget their place, to lose sight of the fact that their purpose in life is to cheerfully and uncomplainingly service the needs of the rich. They think that if he can be stopped, by any means, however unethical, Thailand can return to this idealised state, and everything can go back to normal.
This is clearly a delusional point of view. Yet domestic attempts to challenge it are being rigorously censored, and international journalists like me who suggest that maybe the situation is more complex are told that as foreigners, we are incapable of understanding the complexities of Thailand, and that we have also probably been bribed or brainwashed by Thaksin.
So let me spell it out. As should be clear by now, Thaksin Shinawatra and I are not the greatest of friends. I have no illusions about who he is or what he stands for. I am well aware that he is no democrat. And there is considerable evidence that his role during the events of April and May worsened the violence in Thailand and prevented a peace deal from being reached.
But to believe the crisis is just a story of Thaksin versus Thailand, and has nothing to do with social justice, democracy and equal rights, is to totally misunderstand what is happening. Those Thais who dismiss the red shirt movement as nothing more than a rabble of witless peasants who have no understanding of the concepts of democracy and fairness, who have no legitimate grievances, and who have been paid or duped into backing the sinister machinations of Thaksin Shinawatra, are displaying exactly the condescension and double standards and contempt for the poor that they claim do not exist in Thailand.
Thailand is a beautiful country that is being torn apart by severe social injustices, entrenched corruption, double standards, censorship, militarism, a refusal by the elites to accept the consequences of democracy, and creeping authoritarianism. It is, of course, a complex and difficult situation, not easily reduced to black and white (or red and yellow) and full of nuance and shades of grey. But refusing to acknowledge the serious problems and grievances at the heart of the crisis is no way to solve it.
If there is one thing that I learned from the story of Thaksin and me, it is that among the most important things we can do as journalists is to call a spade a spade, acknowledge the elephant in the room, point out that the emperor has no clothes.
If we see a steaming pile of buffalo dung, it is our duty to say clearly that it is a steaming pile of buffalo dung. However hard the rich and powerful try to convince us it is a dazzling crock of gold.
UPDATE – A Thai translation of this blog post, provided by the Liberal Thai blog, can be found here.