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The Face of Thailand's Hybrid Authoritarianism

A Thai office worker looks at prachatai.com in Bangkok on Jan. 28, 2009. Frustrated with what she saw as corporate influence and political bias in Thailand's print media, Chiranuch Premchaiporn helped launch a news website in 2004 to try and filter out the spin. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

A Thai office worker looks at prachatai.com in Bangkok on Jan. 28, 2009. Frustrated with what she saw as corporate influence and political bias in Thailand's print media, Chiranuch Premchaiporn helped launch a news website in 2004 to try and filter out the spin. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

Thailand's world of academe has never sunk so low under ostensible democratic rule. Lecturers in these parts typically resort to all manners of inducement to generate student views and opinions from basic encouragement and plea to veiled threats of points reduction on final grades. When the young speak, we should listen with encouragement and constructive reply. But in this period of soft repression, ironically presided over by a PM who was once a lecturer, the younger generation has been suppressed.

The list of the suppressed is not confined to the young. In rural Thailand, many dozens of individuals who act on officially unsanctioned thoughts are languishing in jail and army barracks. Some have quietly met expeditious jail terms for similar charges that hound Chiranuch. Many are on the run. The air of intimidation and fear is pervasive. And it works.

What is perhaps more dangerous than official censorship and suppression is self-censorship. The fear is such that penmanship is voluntarily curtailed and spoken words become more muted and subtle. Such an environment has led to  a double asymmetry in media coverage of Thai politics.

The first centres on the yawning gap in the Thai media between what takes place  and what is reported. Less reporting on cases of dissent is evident in the  Thai media, and most evident in the mostly state-owned Thai electronic media. The Thai press has a wider coverage but it is biased in favour of leaving out controversies rather than including them. New media sources on the internet face one-way blockage from the ICT authorities. If online content is pro-officialdom, it stays. Otherwise it is blocked. Those in between must always tread a fine line that too often compromises their full expression.

The second gap is between the Thai and foreign media. As the Thai media keep their heads down, the foreign media stick out by comparison. This is why official dealings with foreign media have become increasingly contentious, leading to xenophobic fear-mongering and conspiracy allegations of a phantom plot from the outside world to undermine and subvert the Thai order.

Prime Minister Abhisit admitted in the recent past that certain laws and their enforcement should come under review and under reform. But nothing has happened, as with much of the PM's right-sounding words and mixed or empty results. Such duplicity relies on a serial doublespeak. Chiranuch's case will be a test on the PM's moral rectitude, the viability of Thailand's legal infrastructure and the solidity of hybrid authoritarian rule.

Thitinan Pongsudhrak is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University and a former participant in Asia Society’s Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit.

 

Related Link:
Thailand 'Determined to Become Mature Democracy'
Speaking at Asia Society on September 28, 2010, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya rejects assertions that Thailand's government is curtailing freedom of expression.