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Political Situation in Thailand

and Behavior of New Media.

Orapin Yingyongpathana
http:// ilaw.or.th
Bangkok, Thailand

About iLaw :
The purpose of the iLaw's website is to act as a forum where Thai people can propose new
laws, amendments to existing laws or the abolition of laws.

The process of iLaw is to encourage discussion of specific laws, after which our team gathers
all opinions and shape them into a draft law. Under the Thai constitution, draft legislation
endorsed by the signatures of 10,000 eligible voters must be considered by Parliament, so
the draft law is circulated for signatures and, if successful, submitted to Parliament.

The iLaw project started last July. When we started the project, we aimed to use new media
in the form of the internet as a way of opening discussion on social problems with a view to
social change. This came after the latest Thai constitution was promulgated in 2007. The
previous constitution had a similar provision for citizen-sponsored legislation, but the number
of signatures required was 50,000.

The work of the project is not easy. Apart from the ongoing political crisis, Thai media
behaviour is also a challenge to iLaw's work.

Brief Background on The Thai political situation:


You may have heard that Thailand has had the greatest number of Constitutions in the world.
Since Thailand changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932,
Thailand has had 18 constitutions, so during the 78 years of democracy, each constitution
reached an average age of 4 years.

The first constitution to allow citizens to propose laws was the 1997 constitution, which was
also the first constitution that was written with input from the people. But the 1997 constitution
was abolished by the coup in September 2006. Thailand got a new constitution in 2007,
which seems to have some favourable points. A number of intellectuals and social activists
were on the drafting committee. It is also the first constitution in Thailand’s history to be
approved by a public referendum.

However the drafting committee of the 2007 constitution was appointed by the Council for

YE2010 : The promotion of democratic values and combating populism in public discourse, particularly through the use of new media.
April 10-11 at Budapest, Hungary
National Security (CNS), the military junta that staged the coup. And the referendum took
place under martial law in many parts of the country. Criticism of the draft was suppressed.
The rules of the referendum were that if the proposed constitution was rejected, the Council of
National Security would promulgate any earlier constitution of their own choosing; but it was
never announced which constitution was the alternative.

The coup was designed to get rid of Thaksin Shinawatra as Prime minister. A billionaire
communications tycoon, Thaksin had entered politics in 1994 and later formed his own
political party, which contested the first election under the 1997 constitution. In 2005 he was
re-elected with the biggest majority ever in Thai political history.

Thaksin is famous in Thailand for campaigning on, and then carrying out policies that have
been called populism. He launched a universal healthcare programme and other policies
aimed at rural populations bypassing the government bureaucracy. Since Thailand has one of
the most unequal economies in the world in terms of income and assets, these policies
looked like something new in Thai society. Whether or not they actually lessened economic
inequalities (the data suggests they didn’t), they gave to the disadvantaged the idea that they
had a right to something better. Together with slick marketing, this made Thaksin a popular
leader, especially in the impoverished northeast and north.

The other side of coin are accusations of corruption, human rights abuses. Although there
was much popular support for his 2004 War on Drugs, human rights organizations blamed
him for 2,500 unexplained killings. He was also held responsible for policy changes that led
to an increase in violence in 3 Muslim-majority provinces in the South of Thailand.
Intolerance of public criticism led to use of defamation suits and manipulation of advertising
income to reinforce patterns of self-censorship in the mainstream media and limit freedom of
expression. A number of government decisions dealing with the telecoms business appeared
to favour Thaksin-owned companies. At the same time, Thaksin was neutralizing the so-
called independent agencies set up under the 1997 constitution (national commissions on
human rights, elections, broadcasting, anti-corruption, etc.) so that they would either do his
bidding or be made ineffective.

The combination of populism and ruthlessness made Thaksin a dangerous man in the eyes of
many groups and he faced massive protests before the coup. These involved human rights
organizations and other sections of civil society, royalists, thwarted business rivals, and labour
unions.

This was the start of today’s polarization of Thai society between the reds (who range from
unquestioning supporters of Thaksin to pro-democracy activists) and the yellows (nationalist,
royalists, the urban privileged classes, all supported by the military, the judiciary and
traditional power elite).

The military coup occurred while Thaksin was out of the country. After the 2007 constitution
was passed and a pro-Thaksin party was elected to power, he eventually returned and was
found guilty in the first of a series of corruption trials. He then went into voluntary exile from

YE2010 : The promotion of democratic values and combating populism in public discourse, particularly through the use of new media.
April 10-11 at Budapest, Hungary
where he regularly addresses his supporters’ rallies by video links.

The media environment and Thai behaviour:


In the past, Thai society has been familiar with the enforcement of the will of the political and
economic centre on the periphery through the bureaucracy and armed forces. This was seen
in terms of people-state conflicts where even the concept of ‘development’, since it was
imposed by unaccountable Bangkok ministries, was seen as an imposition like taxes or
military service. But this conflict has now evolved into a struggle among competing groups of
citizens.

Since the coup, 3 groups have emerged in Thai society. One group supports the coup and
the pre-Thaksin system of privilege. The second group is against the coup because they
want the return of Thaksin and his populist policies (even there is also corruption and human
rights abuses). And the third group are people who cannot accept the coup because it does
against democratic principles, but neither does it want the human rights violations and
suppression of the media and independent agencies of the Thaksin era.

The current political crisis is taking on the appearance of class warfare. Most of the people
who don't like Thaksin are in the middle and upper classes and consider themselves
educated (although this means they are sometimes woefully ignorant about conditions in their
own country). They have contempt for the pro-Thaksin group who are characterized as poor,
un-educated, ‘buffaloes’. The third group are a minority in Thai society. Many of them have
chosen to join forces with either the reds (which they see as potentially a force for democracy
and social justice) or the yellows (which they see as opposing the return to the anti-
democratic practices of Thaksin).

I talked about 3 groups of people, but how about the mass media?

First of all it should be recognized that radio and free-to-air TV are either government-owned
or tightly controlled by the government and rarely oppose the government of the day.

The mainstream press came under great intimidation from Thaksin, especially since their
financial position was precarious after the 1997 economic collapse. Their staff and most of
their readership have middle class instincts and were very happy when Thaksin was deposed.

Most intellectuals and big media accepted the coup with varying degrees of reluctance. When
the coup junta appointed the National Legislative Assembly, some members of the media and
academia accepted invitations to join. Under the military-appointed government, the Thai
media operated a system of self-censorship, accepting the coup in the belief that the
transition was good for the country. Many in the Thai media have a mindset that their
reporting should improve Thailand, which means they do not report some stories.

It may be thought or hoped that new media would provide balance in the information society.
This may be true in concept. The Internet changes the flow of information, allowing people

YE2010 : The promotion of democratic values and combating populism in public discourse, particularly through the use of new media.
April 10-11 at Budapest, Hungary
both to read and write and communicate to the public by using the Internet. So campaigns for
Citizen Reporters during the political crisis are valuable both in allowing the expression of
minority opinions which the mainstream media ignore, and in correcting distortions and
fabrications.

The new age, the so called 2.0 Age allows people to access to a vast range of information
and opinions. Traditional media are seen to be gradually losing dominance.

In my opinion, new media cannot replace traditional media.

An important role for new media is as a check and balance on the system. This is not the
same role as the mass media, which have to report facts (whether they are facts or not). A
serious problem in Thailand is the lack of information from primary sources, which also affects
new media too. Citizen reports may come from experience, but are not consistent.

This new media role of check and balance, and expression of opinion I will call fulfilling
society.

New media means everyone can be a devil too. In a political crisis, especially in the Thai
case which is taking on the appearance of class warfare, new media is a rapid way for people
to spread hate speech, aided by the anonymity that the internet provides. Class warfare
creates polarized opinions. People are feel free to talk with their own group, to people who
think in the same way, but this aggravates the problem. People still don't want to hear
different opinions.

My solution is tolerance and an open mind. We have to question to ourselves whether are we
looking for understanding from others but never do anything to create understanding. So if
we hope to reduce bias, new media should first start by trying to talk with no bias to other
people.

Each side believes that it has good strong information to support its standpoint and calls for
others to abandon their bias and accept its views. But calling for others to abandon bias is
too extreme. It is not easy. I believe that in this, the role of new media is to find ways to
express opinions in ways that accept and understand the bias of others that live together in
society.

The challenge is how interactive media can support the participatory democracy. Netizens
are still in a consumer mode. People are at the end of information pipe, not at the source. In
terms of political participation like policy making or news agenda setting, netizens are rarely in
a producer mode. The interaction is just by device, but it's not an equal relationship.

Actualization of the social reform could only be possible when citizens engage in both mode
and means of participation, being a producer and a consumer, online and offline, and of
position and of movement.

YE2010 : The promotion of democratic values and combating populism in public discourse, particularly through the use of new media.
April 10-11 at Budapest, Hungary