Thai Studies in the Shadow of (Self) Censorship

How do Thais deal with seditious topics in the Thai language? How do Thais talk about or act on things that might bear risky consequences? How do Thais manage to talk about the same topic, but express it differently depending on where and when they are talking about it in Thai?

In the wake of a dramatic increase in the use of the lèse majesté law (Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code) to restrain the unrestrainable, there are calls from progressives, notably the Khana Nitirat, to abolish the law. The movement led to a campaign called Campaign Committee for the Amendment of Article 112 (CAA112). Thailand has now entered a period when the limits of these constraints are being challenged constantly. Talks and discussions are being organised. Thais are talking about the Article 112 wherever they are, and whatever their political affiliation may be.

While the lèse majesté law has become the center of the debate for transitional Thailand, there is a need to look into the constraints that scholars and students in Thailand work under. What limits their intellectual curiosity? We can ask a more specific question: are these limits and constraints only about the Article 112?

Why are Thais so reluctant to criticize the phu yai? Why is bua mai hai chum nam mai hai khun [บัวไม่ให้ช้ำน้ำไม่ให้ขุ่น] (1) so important as a way to smooth, or avoid, social conflict? It seems that censorship is not just about Article 112, but is the effect of deep-seated cultural code of conduct that governs Thai life and society.  

On July 16 2012 at the Australian National University, three scholars sat down and talked about this in a discussion entitled “Thai Studies in the Shadow of (Self) Censorship”.  Craig Reynolds, Thanes Wongyannawa, and Prajak Kongkirati kindly agreed to give their thoughts on the topic.

The Panelists

Craig Reynolds: “there is no free speech”

In no country in the world can you say anything you want. In no country in the world is speech free. It always comes with a cost. We find in post-WWII America that people were criticised or persecuted for saying something ‘anti-American’. Or you can be denied a visa to enter Australia if your public opinion on a controversial issue is seen as vilifying.

There are two reasons for the increased attention to the lèse majesté law in Thailand during the past decade. One reason can be traced back to what happened in the early 1930s, when the People’s Party ended the absolute monarchy but, after a power struggle between King Prajadhipok and the Party, the monarch was retained as head of state. The second reason has to do with the evolution of the institution of the reigning monarch who has been on the throne for sixty-six years.

There is another level besides this legal one, however. This is the hidden and unarticulated world inside of Thai language is where writers, academics, and artists have to figure out where the boundaries are.

Thanes Wongyannawa : Truth is Pain [the document]

For many Thais, “Saying something profits us only a couple of pennies, keeping silent yields many ounces of gold” [พูดไปสองไพเบี้ย นิ่งเสียตำลึงทอง] seems to be the best tactic in the politicised political environment of Thailand today. No one wants to break one’s own rice pot, especially in the upper echelon of society, where members are related by kinship, marriage, alma maters, colleagues, and so forth. Being a kae dam [black sheep] is costly.

But self censorship in Thai society is not just about dos and don’ts, but it is a rational calculation of behavior in Thai Theravada Buddhism culture that relates to the notion of truth. Truth does not belong to everybody, but it belongs to a certain social class.  Truth will not lead anyone to happiness, it will only bring pain. On 21 March 2012, General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin replied to General Sanan Kachornprasart who asked “who was behind the 2006 coup?”, that he had been trained to pay loyalty to the nation, and that is not a question that is supposed to be asked (2).

The answer to who gains access to the truth lies in the cognitive structure. For Thai Theravada Buddhism, truth is eternal and absolute. In the notion of Buddhist reincarnation, on one has the ability to know one’s previous lives. In Thai political reality, when one is reborn, one forgets what has happened in his/her past lives. Forgetting and remembering are vital to the logic of nation-state. For the nation to survive, one cannot only remember, but one must also forget. For the Thai elite, the important question is not ‘what’ had happened, but ‘how’ to conduct oneself.

Thus it is not surprising to hear a classic example : General Tritos Ronritvichai gave an interview saying that those who have the privilege of reading top-secret information of Special Branch Police are only those with enough bun [the accumulation of merit]. For the elite, the truth belongs to them, and has nothing to do with the people who do not have much bun. This can also be seen from Thai political history, where the figures – high-ranking army officers, police, the royal family, etc – who were involved in important political events hardly ever revealed what actually happened. And the best example of this can be seen in their cremation volumes, where obituary is eulogy. Truth is pain.

Prajak Kongkirati : “The Thai political Trai Phum [three worlds]”

There are three interrelated areas that restrain academic work: the sacred world, the mundane world, and the underworld.

The sacred world is base on the three pillars, the monarchy, religion, and the nation. In this world, apart from fear, several people self-censored themselves because they see self-censor as the right thing to do to protect the institution and figures that they love and respect. There was once a Thai scholar who came and gave a talk at the ANU about politics after the 2006 coup. He was asked to give a comment on the role of the monarchy. He did not want to discuss it because he believed that the monarchy is above politics, and said “leave the monarchy and ‘him’ alone”. For many Thai scholars, certain issues are beyond rational debate.

In the mundane world, Thai scholars and intellectuals shut their eyes on certain issues. Before the 2006, several public intellectuals admitted that they refrained from criticizing the Yellow Shirts even though they disagreed with some of their ideas and tactics. This was because they thought it was the only option available to topple former PM Thaksin, hence they did not want to weaken the movement. This is not uncommon among scholars sympathetic to the Red Shirts too.

In the underworld, brute force, murder, intimidation, and physical threat are daily constraints for students and scholars in conducting studies. Local scholars and journalists are under pressure as there is no law to protect them, and they must be realistic. For example, local scholars in the South were put under pressure by both government agencies and the separatist movement.

The military is an interesting institution, and surprisingly understudied. It is situated in both the sacred world (i.e. protecting the monarchy and the nation) and under world (i.e. arms trade, smuggling, contraband, forced disappearances, torture, etc).

The discussion left open-ended questions and answers relating to censorship. But when one looks into Thai society, one might not hesitate to ask if censorship/self-censorship really explains the constraints on speech in Thai language. 

Notes

(1) About a week after the Revolution, on 30 June 1932, the leaders of the People’s Party had an audience with King Prachathiphok. The king reprimanded the People’s Party for their announcement on the day of the Revolution. Pridi Bhanomyong and General Phraya Pahon Phonphayuhasena had to apologise for offending the king and to ask for his forgiveness. See Sonthi Techanan (2545).

(2)   Khaosod, 22 March 2012.