Back in 2004, the then prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, hit on a bright idea.
PHOTO: SAROT MEKSOPHAWANNAKUL
Overnight a letterbox appeared outside the empty, and allegedly haunted, Ban Phitsanuloke house in the middle of the city. Ban Phitsanuloke is the traditional home of the prime minister, an ungainly, imposing wooden figure (the house, not the prime minister), but being super rich from his honest business dealings, Thaksin had no use for such a house until his bright idea.
The letterbox was an instant hit. Thaksin invited anybody who felt he or she had been hard done by to write down the grievance and place it in the letterbox. ''We Thais have the freedom to complain about injustice,'' the prime minister announced from a pious cloud floating somewhere above Government House.
Ya gotta love it when such ideas surface in Thailand. You just know something's going to happen. And something did.
One man _ we'll call him Somchai _ wrote a letter complaining about his corrupt boss. The details of the grievance have unfortunately been erased from my memory thanks to (1) the advent of time and (2) my liquor cabinet, suffice to say the government picked up his case and made a few enquiries. The boss in question was furious when contacted and demanded to know who was behind the allegations. When he found out it was Somchai, he had him arrested and charged with defamation of character.
The last we ever saw of Somchai was on the front page of the Bangkok Post, sitting behind bars in an unpainted cell, with a face that matched that of any reader of the Bangkok Post that morning _ utter bewilderment.
The message was perfectly clear _ and left everybody who'd dared to air their grievances shaking in their rubber paddy-field boots. Don't mess with free speech. Or else.
I am reminded of this story this week as a Chiang Mai teenager by the name of Mark officially announced his withdrawal from the Academy Fantasia House. Normally such news gives music buffs like myself unbridled joy _ if only all of the kids in the house would follow suit. Academy Fantasia, or AF for short, is Thailand's answer to Big Brother and American Idol. A dozen or so kids move into a house. Their only qualifications are they look good and they want to be pop stars _ in 2010 being a pop star does not require any singing ability other than being able to look esoterically to the rafters on a long note and wink when the lyrics turn slightly risque.
Every Saturday night they put on a show where one of them gets booted out. Hardly enough. Flick on AF any Saturday night and you'll see what I mean; these kids really do sound like Bangkok City Council's Soi Dog Enclosure on Euthanasia Day.
(Over at True Visions, the world's most contrary cable service operator, there's a whole channel devoted to the AF House 24-hours a day, seven days a week! That's right, the same cable operator that disconnected BBC World feels we'd much rather watch a dozen tone-deaf kids carry out their daily ablutions inside the AF House.)
Mark from Chiang Mai was selected from thousands to enter the house and in the first week controversy struck. On his Facebook page the kid had written some damning words about Prime Minister Abhisit. Should we be surprised? The kid's from Chiang Mai, a city redder than Mao Zedong! The nasty comments were leaked to the press and outrage ensued. At a tearful press conference, Mark and his parents announced he would withdraw from AF and return to northern oblivion, and he would apologise to the PM for his mistake.
His mistake? Well yes. Young Mark has committed an offence in Thailand; he exercised free speech.
I announce this fact not to vent my outrage _ I'm more outraged True Visions considers 12 vocally-challenged Thai teenagers entertainment _ but rather to tell you, dear reader, that the Mark incident serves as a reminder that we don't have freedom of speech in Thailand. But we still get along just fine.
Thais are always telling me, and probably you, that things are done differently in this country. Often that's just an excuse for bad behaviour, but often it's not.
Despite frequent claims of Thailand's democracy and freedoms, it's not quite the way it is portrayed. Again I must stop here and say this doesn't mean it's a bad thing. I'm only saying traditionally in Thai society there's hasn't been freedom of speech per se. Rather, you have the freedom to say what you like as long as the person on the social strata directly above you isn't offended by it.
I once worked for a company where the congenial CEO presided over regular meetings with his executives. The meetings were always the same; the CEO would talk, and we would nod, smile, gasp, frown, shake our heads in disbelief and clap our hands according to what he said.
One day the CEO came in and he cleared his throat. ''For today's meeting, I am going to listen to your opinions. I want to brainstorm your thoughts and feelings. Feel free to say whatever you like. I can accept criticism.'' He steepled his fingers and sat back, ushering in a deathly silence that rapidly enveloped the room like the Shroud of Turin, only ours was real.
I don't know what book or seminar the CEO had just read or returned from. Maybe it was the Blue Ocean, or the Six Sigma, or (more likely) The Secret Seven. Whatever it was, it wasn't going to work. The executives were so mortified at the thought of having to present an opinion that could, maybe just could, conflict with the CEO that they did what any sensible Thai would do _ smile and zip their lips. The experiment lasted just one stiff embarrassed meeting. By the next meeting things were back to normal, much to the relief of the CEO, every executive _ and me.
That's because here, the higher you are, the more your opinion and status is revered and thus those below you are rude and unacceptable if they complain about you. Even our esteemed prime minister, drilled about freedom of expression during his extensive UK schooling, is still Thai enough to understand this. When asked about Mark's right to free speech, he replied, as if he were riding a fun park carousel, that Mark has the right to say what he feels but then again he is young, and he should be careful of his words, and as a young person he shouldn't really be slamming older people, and he is a celebrity, and thus a role model for youth, and ... and ...
Okay we get the picture. Shut up Mark, and respect your elders.
We in the West delude ourselves into thinking we have absolute freedom of speech but of course just like the Thais, there are limits, as the Dixie Chicks once discovered for example. And like everything in Thailand, there are two levels to the story. The big rumour is that Mark wrote something disparaging about the monarchy on his Facebook page as well, something he vehemently denies. Thais will tell you that's the real reason he got the boot. It doesn't matter. Whatever the reason, he knows two things _ that bad singing is more acceptable than free speech, and his place.