When a developing country goes through a period of crisis there is a clichéd response when it comes to foreign journalists. It is such a cliché that the headlines have become predictable. The mouthpieces of the government invariably parrots the same phrases whether it is in Egypt or Nigeria. In Thailand it goes something like this:
Foreigners cannot know much about Thailand because they are not Thai and thus do not know the local attitude, culture and perceptions of the Thai people. Foreigners don’t have a stake in Thailand, they should not judge things they do not understand. Why can’t foreigners just leave Thailand alone?
This is nothing new for people who have studied the political climate of the country. Red-leaning foreigners are accused by opponents of being paid by Thaksin or simplifying and overstating class conflicts. Advocates for the opposition are called entrenched, fascist and confused.
It’s not just the everyday layman that makes such accusations, but very well educated Thais as well. In fact after the crackdown on the protesters in 2010 the Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand hosted a panel of Thai intellectual luminaries such as Dr Sumet Jumsai and Somtow Sucharitkul, all of whom reverted to the same talking points.
Nor is this vein of rhetoric limited to just one country or region. All over the world and across the pages of history ‘foreign agents’ have been corrupting youth, reporting falsely, spying etc. on the mother nation. One only need to look as far as Egypt to understand that this phenomenon is hardly unique to Thailand. When Morsi was in power, the Muslim Brotherhood accused foreign journalists of colluding to produce damaging reports that were untrue. Now that the shoe is on the other foot and the military/opposition is in power the accusations are still the same. Many Liberal Egyptians have also adopted the stance that foreign journalists just ‘don’t understand’ the intricacies of Egyptian politics.
Rewind to 2010 and this was the same exact argument that Dr Sumet was using in his talk on the FCCT panel. He accused foreign journalists of being biased at best and colluding with the red shirts at worst. The more extreme accusations came from people such as Sonthi Limthongkul who directly implied that Daniel Rivers of CNN had a Thai (Read: Isarn) second wife and this was the reason why CNN’s coverage was so biased. Somtow also took a similar if less accusatory line. He argued that the cultural differences between Thailand and the West prevented journalists from reporting responsibly. As if the coup and subsequent crisis in Bangkok was an altogether unique experience. As if similar situations has not happened repeatedly throughout the world.
The problems with such accusations are that more often then not they are not true. Instead of reflecting on the content of articles or reports, foreigners and foreign reporters become a scapegoat for what we really fear: that what they are saying is an accurate portrayal of ourselves. For example during the 2010 protests, Western media took much criticism for saying that there was a class conflict brewing as an undercurrent to the current political crisis. Yet the truth of the matter is there was and still is a fundamental class difference between the two groups, with one group having been disenfranchised for a long period of the country’s history. Under Thaksin, foreign journalists were accused of meddling in the affairs of the state and reporting unfairly on the extra judicial killings and violence in the South. The truth was that Thaksin was doing all of those things and much worse.
It is unfortunate then that academics like Chris Baker and journalists like Mr Rivers get accused of being bought or biased when they have spent a good chunk of their lives studying the country. One could argue that their credentials as historian and journalist far surpass those of an architect or a composer/science fiction writer. Thus it is a shame that their knowledge of our texts and our history, something almost unparalleled, is undermined by our insecurities about our own deficiencies.
It is unfortunate because what we really fear is not how the world may perceive us but the truth of our own reflection.