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The foreign media are failing Thailand: a professor responds

There has been another interesting response to my article The Foreign Media Are Failing Thailand — Andrew Walker, an associate professor at the Australian National University, has written a lengthy blog post entitled “Tolerating intolerance” for the New Mandala website that he co-founded with Nicholas Farrelly.

Andrew says that my views represent “a virulent anti-royal fundamentalism” and adds:

I don’t support the fundamentalist vilification of journalists – especially a fine journalist like Nirmal Ghosh – because they have different opinions, or have made different judgements about the path to political reform.

Here are my observations:

1. I have enormous respect for the work that Andrew Walker has done on Thailand, and enormous respect for New Mandala. In my opinion, New Mandala is unquestionably the best forum in the world for discussing the taboo subject of the Thai monarchy. Other useful forums for news and discussion include the excellent Political Prisoners in Thailand website, and the blogs of Bangkok Pundit and Saksith Saiyasombut. Perhaps arrogantly, I think my own zenjournalist blog is a useful voice in the discussion. I would argue that for anybody seeking reliable information and incisive debate about 21st century Thailand, the websites I have mentioned are a far better place to look than the mainstream foreign media or the woolly debates held at the FCCT.

One of the most positive developments of the 21st century is that debate about controversial subjects like the monarchy’s role in Thai politics, and Thailand’s archaic lèse majesté law, can be conducted online beyond the reach of censors and antiquated laws designed to stifle freedom of expression. Both Andrew Walker and Political Prisoners of Thailand have argued that the FCCT deserves credit for providing a physical forum for debate on these issues. I would argue that this view is very outdated. Because of the increasingly draconian enforcement of the lèse majesté law, is impossible to have an open public debate at a Thai venue about the Thai monarchy and Article 112. However brave the FCCT were to be (and it has never been very brave) the debates it stages can only be a pale shadow of discussions that anyone can join online. Several members of the FCCT board seem to believe that the club’s most useful function is providing a space for debate. They obviously don’t understand the world has changed. This is 2013: we don’t need a dingy clubhouse that offers jazz once a week and intermittent panel discussions for a mostly elderly male Western audience.

The FCCT would be better advised to making an unequivocal principled stand in favour of freedom of speech, and making active efforts to engage with and nurture Thai journalists and Thai students. Many other foreign press clubs around the world do this — one example is the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of the Philippines, which invited me to speak to a huge audience of Philippine journalism students in August 2011. Why can’t the FCCT do it too?

2. Although I respect Andrew Walker and am a huge fan of New Mandala, I think Andrew’s “Tolerating Intolerance” article is among the worst and most intellectually muddled things he has ever written. The following comments are intended as a response to Andrew’s article. They are not intended to be a vilification of Andrew Walker or New Mandala.

3. I find it absolutely extraordinary that Andrew had nothing to say on New Mandala when Somyot Pruksakasemsuk was jailed for 11 years for publishing two articles written by somebody else that expressed a legitimate political opinion, but sailed into battle to defend the board of the FCCT when their fragile egos were bruised by criticism on the website of a freelance Scottish journalist. It suggests a catastrophic loss of perspective.

4. I find it amusing but also astonishing that Andrew regards me as a virulent anti-royal fundamentalist simply because I believe people deserve to know the truth about the Thai royal family rather than fairytales and propaganda.

Andrew’s view is shared by many foreign journalists in Thailand. They think that writing accurately and honestly about the reality of Thai history and politics is an extremist position, and that sticking to the accepted royalist line is somehow neutral and unbiased. That is just absurd.

In my work on Thailand, I have always followed the principle that I look at the evidence and follow where it leads me. It has led me to sacrificing a lucrative senior job at Reuters and becoming an exile from Thailand. When my Thai wife and Thai son visit Thailand, I will be unable to go with them. I’m very sad about that, but as a journalist, I believe it is my duty to report the truth. I would have thought that an academic like Andrew would have supported this approach.

I have never tried to skew my reporting in favour of or against the monarchy. This contrasts with the majority of foreign journalists in Thailand who knowingly skew their reporting in favour of the monarchy. For example, in my reporting of the death of King Ananda Mahidol in 1946, I have been careful to share online all the evidence I have uncovered, and I have made it clear that I believe the shooting of Ananda by his brother Bhumibol Adulyadej was a tragic accident rather than intentional homicide. If I was a virulent anti-royal fundamentalist, clearly I would have followed a different approach. I’m disappointed that Andrew is so dismissive of my approach while making excuses for biased journalism.

5. Andrew’s argument is thoroughly confused. He offers no substantive rebuttal of my criticism of the FCCT or my work on the Thai monarchy. Instead, he seems to be saying that as a virulent anti-royal fundamentalist, I do not deserve to be included in the debate, in contrast to people like Tul Sittisomwongs whose presence at FCCT debates he welcomes.

I did not vilify Nirmal Ghosh, a nice man in a difficult position, who has written some excellent articles that I have praised in the past. I criticized Nirmal for stating on behalf of the FCCT that the organisation should not be expected to condemn the grotesque jail sentence handed to a Thai editor — a stance that is totally at odds with the declared principles of the FCCT which Nirmal was elected to lead.

The lack of clarity of Andrew’s thinking is evident in the tolerance versus intolerance theme he uses to frame his article. He seems to be saying we should be tolerant of a wide spectrum of views, except mine, which are virulent and fundamentalist. I think his point is that we should be intolerant of those who are intolerant of tolerance of intolerance (i.e. me) but tolerant of those who are tolerant of intolerance (i.e the FCCT board). But if anyone more intelligent than me can decipher what Andrew was actually trying to say, I would be very grateful.

6. In his excellent 2011 paper Royal Succession and the Evolution of Thai Democracy, Andrew Walker accurately discusses the rigid and outdated thinking that characterizes most of the Thai elite, (and indeed most foreign journalists in Thailand):

Despite much speculation to the contrary, for most Thais there was no inconsistency in supporting both Thaksin Shinawatra and the king. Thailand’s masses readily accept that two, or more, styles of leadership and benevolence can exist side by side. The contemporary challenge for rural politics is to draw these various types of power into local networks that can support safe and prosperous livelihoods. Some members of Thailand’s elite have much more rigid views about power, and they are not particularly adept at grasping the nuances of Thai popular culture. Whereas the villagers in northern Thailand pursue human security through cultivating connections with power in many different forms, the official Thai position is that the king’s symbolic potency lies at the centre of national security. This selective and elite narrative of security asserts that the king is the pre-eminent paradigm of virtuous and disinterested power, rather than accepting that he represents one of the many ways in which leadership can be expressed.

I’m interested to know why Andrew thinks that his comments are valid while mine represent virulent anti-royal fundamentalism.

7. I suspect the main motivation for Andrew’s article had little to do with analytical thinking: he just wanted to defend his friends in the FCCT. That’s admirable. But perhaps if he was better friends with Sukanya Pruksakasemsuk or Joe Gordon, he would have a better grasp of what is at stake in this debate.