Thailand reporting lacked important context

“Put in simplest terms, the troubles in Thailand are a classic clash between the rural poor – who live in places like Chiang Mai – and rich urbanites in Bangkok.” So concluded a report carried across Canadian newspapers this Saturday.


It’s not that simple, of course. But neither is the Thai landscape so complicated that western readers are incapable of understanding it.


I have some journalistic and research connections to Thailand, so I was following the daily developments in Asian media sources since February, including Asia Times Online, the Bangkok Post, the Nation, the Irrawaddy and various Thai local English-language news sources. When the situation started to become critical and my usual websites began to slow down, I switched over to the BBC and CNN to see what their coverage was.


I was shocked by the yawning gap in detail and context. In the western press, this was a political crisis stripped of its politics, leaving only broad characterizations of ‘rich versus poor.’ As the story gradually went international, appearing in Canadian newscasts and my local newspaper, the reporting did not appear to grow deeper.


The red shirts wore the ‘white hats’ because they were poor and wanted elections. The yellow shirts wore ‘black hats’ because they were aristocrats who were against elections. That was more or less the sum total of far too many stories.  


There were compelling interview clips with farmers and housewives in the streets, but few reporters were talking to the leadership of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (‘red shirts’), their Peua Thai party backers in parliament, or Thai political scientists to gain the details behind the deadlock.


The role of fugitive ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the back-story of the courtroom battles that tipped the crisis over the edge remained largely unexamined, beyond the phrase ‘populist leader ousted by the military.’


Without context, we lose meaning and make broad assumptions. I learned this talking to my Canadian friends, who were surprised when I mentioned some of the extreme right-leaning rhetoric of UDD hardliners.


Informed by western media coverage, my Canadian friends had been operating under the impression that the UDD represented the oppressed and therefore had a politically progressive agenda similar to the Tiananmen Square protestors or Burma’s democratic opposition.


Under-reported agendas


To understand the undercurrent, replace ‘Washington elite’ with ‘Bangkok elite.’ In the quest to regain power, Thaksin’s political supporters have stirred a calculated culture war that has some unsettling, under-reported elements. 


At the height of the protest, cheers greeted Thaksin as he told the protestors via video that current prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is a foreigner surrounded by ‘people in purple’ (gays).


Thaksin himself has been loosely portrayed in the west as a billionaire with a heart of gold. Yet his political record contains some deep contradictions to the established story.


Thaksin entered office in 2001 with an agenda of privatization, deregulation and free trade, much of it carried out by cabinet and executive order rather than full parliamentary debate.


Despite his reputation as a champion of the poor, while in office his approach was lucrative for private corporations – including his own family telecommunications business – but hard on the working poor. Wage levels that had dropped eight per cent during the 1997 economic crash never recovered under his watch.


Moreover his government’s hastily concluded free trade pact with China rocked farm incomes. In response, he pushed banks to increase lending, leading to rising rural debt. He dealt with the problems by declaring a highly popular four-year debt moratorium.


One of the free trade casualties was a much-vaunted opium crop substitution program. Small-scale farmers in the north were suddenly forced to compete against a flood of onions, garlic and other speciality crops grown in China on a mass agribusiness scale for export.


Amid growing poverty, a rising drug trade merely provided fodder for Thaksin’s tough-talking war on drugs.


Spinning hard times into votes


Although some economists argue ‘Thaksinomics’ stabilized Thailand’s economy, the country’s Human Development Index world ranking – a measure of social equality –dropped from 66 in 2002 to 73 in 2005.


The $64,000 question: how on earth does this scenario translate into a rural and urban poor support base?


In media reports, much has been made of Thaksin’s ‘30-baht health care scheme’ to explain his popular appeal. Citizens who joined the scheme were issued a card entitling them to a consultation in a public hospital or clinic for the price of 30 baht (about $1 CD).


But critics note his government didn’t increase funding to the health care system, leaving hospital administrators to find a way to pay for the program. The response was a new industry, medical tourism.


On my most recent trip to Thailand, I was astounded by the number of Americans I met who were there not for the beaches, but to receive the health care they couldn’t afford at home. Not surprisingly, queue-jumping by wealthy patients and brain drain from the public system have become issues.  


Yet however flawed in execution, the idea of cheap health care stands as simple short hand for Thaksin’s love of the poor. It has become the symbol, an easy explanation. 


Thaksin’s rural popularity has other roots, though.


Fanning the flames


In the mode of George W. Bush or Sarah Palin, Thaksin is a master of folksy tough-talking charm and calculated blame throwing. The scapegoats for rural distress include the usual suspects: ethnic minorities, migrant workers, liberal-left media, city folk, gays, the judiciary, human rights organizations and academics.


In office he launched a war on drugs that resulted in 2,275 deaths, according to Human Rights Watch. He banned migrant workers from driving motorcycles or using cell phones. He launched a war on terror that ramped up the use of state force against Muslim citizens, and hampered investigators from examining mass graves in the south.


Amid public criticism, Thaksin used his influence with media owners to muzzle the press and, when that failed, launched libel suits against journalists, including Supinya Klangnarong, secretary general of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform.


Although the red shirts have called for the restoration of a 1997 democratic reform constitution, Thaksin’s government spent a great deal of effort foot dragging and stalling key constitutional reforms, such as setting up a broadcast commission to ensure legal public access to the airwaves. This led to an unruly mix of politically-charged small scale unlicensed radio stations that later rallied to his cause.      


When human rights organizations and social activists complained about his tactics, he dismissed them as citified academics and outside meddlers.


The approach played well with an already disgruntled rural base that knew full well it had been left behind in a rush for wealth. With a deft hand, Thaksin undermined the rural economy while simultaneously fanning the flames of resulting rural discontent into two successive ballot box victories.


Riding on this political tradition, today the language of his political successors, the UDD, often sounds closer to Tea Party rhetoric than the more liberal-left pro-democracy movement of the 1990s.


Enemies of the people include the Thai mainstream media and an over-educated prime minister. Just as U.S. President Barack Obama’s Harvard degree is often invoked for its whiff of elitism, the phrase ‘Oxford-educated’ sticks to Abhisit like burr.


Ironically, Thaksin holds a Ph.D. from Sam Houston University in Texas, trumping Abhisit’s master’s degree. But Thaksin’s education doesn’t get the same play because it doesn’t fit the narrative of a salt of the earth character schooled only by hard knocks. 


Key players absent from coverage


In the 1990s, students, academics, journalists and civil society activists effectively linked arms with low-income citizens to gain democratic reforms. Now, wedge politics have carved rural issues away from wider civil society, where once there had been solidarity.  


It’s unfortunate. The rural and urban poor amid the red shirt crowd have legitimate grievances that deserve the support of all Thais. For more than a decade, they have borne the brunt of an economy that has enriched the business class while depressing wages and farm product prices.


These are the ‘human faces’ that have been front and centre in western media reports. Their voices are important. Equally important are the voices of the strategists and leaders behind the protest movement.  


But outside the Thai media, interviews with red shirt political leaders are rare.


An exception was The Globe and Mail’s feature interview with renegade general Khattiya Sawasdipol, known as Seh Daeng.


Solid reporting is important. Throughout the crisis journalist Mark MacKinnon did a good job reporting UDD and government press statements, and moving outside the protest zone to talk to local political commentators. 


MacKinnon’s account of Seh Daeng’s Rambo-like posturing provided readers with needed context to understand how a peaceful protest camp was transformed into a bunker ready for a fight.


My only complaint is that MacKinnon did the interview in late April, but it didn’t appear in the paper until May 14.


Although well covered by the Thai press as a key player, Seh Daeng didn’t warrant headlines here until he was mortally wounded by a sniper. I wonder if the interview would have been printed at all if he hadn’t been shot.   


Clinging to the narrative

While images of street protests are compelling, lack of appropriate attention to the UDD leadership distorts the picture. I was surprised that many western reports clung to the narrative that protesters were determined to stay in the streets until Abhisit agreed to dissolve his coalition government and hold elections – long after Abhisit had done just that. 


In early May, Abhisit announced a plan to dissolve parliament, with elections scheduled for Nov. 14. UDD secretary general Veera Musikapong accepted the roadmap as an opportunity to peacefully end the protests and move the pro-Thaksin Peua Thai party toward a likely ballot box victory.


(The UDD is not a political party, but has elected supporters in parliament, mostly aligned with the opposition Peua Thai. All the MPs, including Abhisit, were elected – the thorny issue is how Abhisit formed a multi-party coalition, with some key Thaksin defectors and help from backroom military leaders, to thwart the Peua Thai party from forming a government).


According to reports in Asia Times and the Bangkok Post, the UDD’s Veera and other moderates sensed public opinion was turning against the protest as the threat of violence rose. The protest had failed to garner the ‘million man’ numbers expected, and the crowd of red shirts was growing smaller every day.


But hardline leaders Jatuporn Promphan and Nattawut Saikua, reportedly acting on telephone advice from Thaksin, began pushing for a new set of demands centred around post-protest legal proceedings.


As part of the deal, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban turned himself in to the Department of Special Investigations to the face legal proceedings for loss of life in clashes between protestors and security forces. Jatuporn and other hardliners argued he should have turned himself into the police instead.


In the final weeks of the protest, a stand off over protest leaders’ bail conditions and which authority the deputy prime minister should surrender to – not election demands – kept the protestors in the streets.


Perhaps the changing debate was considered too complicated for western consumption. In several reports I saw, the story never budged from its original version to reflect what was now really being discussed.  


The legal story


Then there’s the all-important ‘story behind the story’ throughout the events: the legal woes of both Thaksin and Abhisit.


On Feb. 26, the courts ordered the seizure of 46 billion baht from various Thaksin bank accounts, after it was found he unfairly profited from government policies engineered to favour his family’s telecommunications firm. As well, the Revenue Department moved to recover 12 billion baht in unpaid capital gains taxes and fines from his son and daughter.

While the Bangkok Post has maintained an anti-Thaksin editorial stance throughout the conflict, the paper offers a straightforward biases-held-in-check account of trial at


It’s a good idea to become familiar with the court case to help understand the events that followed.


“While many of the general public supporting both factions believe they are fighting for justice, the real behind-the-scenes skirmishes are about the Bt76 billion (in seized assets) still under the government’s control,” states a commentary in The Nation.


Although Thaksin denies a link between the court ruling and the protests, the ‘Million Man March’ was announced just days after the trial ended, with a clear warning from senior UDD spokesperson Jaran Ditthapichai: “If the government suppresses us, then they will have declared civil war.”


Meanwhile, Abhisit faces his own problems. It seems his hand does not extend to all corners of Thailand’s governing institutions.   


In the middle of the red shirt crisis, the Election Commission recommended his Democrat Party be dissolved, following complaints that the party received more than 258 million baht in illegally undeclared donations from TPI Polene for use in the 2005 general election. The party was also accused of misusing the Politics Development Fund, worth 29 million baht.


The ups and downs of Thai political parties are nothing new. In fact, Thaksin’s first-term government was the only one in modern history to complete a full mandate and leave office by normal democratic means. Abhisit will not likely join him in that honour.


Why we need to know


Just like the red shirt camp, Abhisit’s rhetoric is growing more hard-line by the minute. Charges of terrorism have been laid against the red shirt leaders and Thaksin. Political desperation is fuelling both sides, likely with unfortunate results.    


Confusing, a little. Impossible to follow, no.


Important, yes.


North American media audiences are not simpletons. They deserve the best in contextual reporting. A simplistic treatment denies us historical lessons we can learn from.


We can learn, for example, that widening income gaps breed unrest. And that unscrupulous politicians manipulate unrest to their own ends.


We can learn that culture wars drive wedges between citizens that take years to heal, and that overheated rhetoric leads to violence.


Moderate voices retreat, replaced by hardliners who see negotiation as weakness. Geographic divides open up, isolating farmers from city dwellers, even when their interests are shared.


As Canadian politicians contemplate short-term political gains to be made launching their own culture wars, these are important lessons.


In contrast, we gain little from simple narratives that tell a good story but obscure the details.