Thailand's tale told via 'The Nation'
Nearly five decades ago, The Nation newspaper started out as a pro-democracy, anti-military news organisation. It was fiercely independent and invariably hard-hitting vis-à-vis the powers-that-be. An English-language newspaper owned by Thais from the outset, it prided itself for having neither fear nor favour. Its lamentable expiry as a print newspaper today -- an online version will continue -- provides multiple parallels for Thailand's contemporary political history, ongoing polarisation and the changing nature of the business of journalism worldwide.
A look back at The Nation's glory years from the 1970s and 1980s through the 1990s would show images and headlines that are consistent with Thailand's fight for democracy. In the early and mid-1970s, Thailand was coming off a 25-year military dictatorship under one clique of military generals during 1947-57 and then another thereafter until October 1973 when it was overthrown by a Bangkok uprising, led by university students. The Nation was front and centre reporting and editorialising for a more open political space.
In the 1980s, under a civil-military power-sharing and semi-democratic regime, the independent broadsheet was tough and critical of both corrupt politicians and scheming, ambitious generals. Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, the unelected prime minister, was put up with and given a fair hearing. But when in doubt, The Nation always supported greater democracy, never a more entrenched military.
When Gen Prem called it quits and the newly elected Chatichai Choonhavan government took office, The Nation, like others who wanted to see more democracy in Thailand, cheered. When Chatichai's government became corrupt, akin to a "buffet cabinet" of graft pickings for various cabinet ministers and their associates, the newspaper turned against it.
Yet the heyday of The Nation was the 1990s. After a military junta seized power in February 1991, there was a dual sense of relief that a corrupt government had been shown the exit but also unease that it had to come about through a putsch. When the junta set up a political party and manipulated its way to maintain power after the March 1992 poll, including a blackout of international news networks, such as CNN, The Nation together with broad-based segments of civil society joined a middle-class-led uprising that eventually ejected the generals from power after military-perpetrated violence in the streets of the capital.
Back then, the fault line of Thai politics was civil-military, not the colour-coded polarisation that we have seen over the past 15 years. The 1992-97 period of political reforms and constitutional drafting was unprecedented in the strengthening of Thai democratic institutions. In turn, the 1997 constitution was organic and bottom-up, with a clear consensus in society at the time that the "money politics" and the cycle of coups and elections must be cleaned up for good. As an English-language news outfit, The Nation was at the forefront of this movement.
Along the way, media space expanded dramatically, featuring hardball political talk shows and investigative news. Civil liberties and basic freedoms were protected and promoted, and underpinned an exuberant period when many thought Thailand was on its way not just to a democratic "transition" but a full-fledged "consolidation".
I can personally attest to it. Having written opinion articles for the paper during graduate studies, I applied for and was offered a job at the paper before graduation. Within a week of receiving my diploma, on 1 June 1992, I started what ultimately became a one-year stint as a reporter.
I was assigned to write business stories but could still pen opinion pieces when I had something to say. Sub-editors had a heavy hand but my news stories were altered only in style, never content and direction. Pitches for opinion stories were infrequently turned down. It was such an open terrain for novice reporters like me that we had opportunities to interview and interact with decision-makers high and low from cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats to brokers and bankers.
Within a month, I was able to queue up and ask then-prime minister Anand Panyarachun a question at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand's press conference over dinner. The Nation was that open and supportive. It was also a den of talent, led by none other than the founder journalist himself, Suthichai Yoon. As electronic media in news reporting was taking off, my first and brief foray on radio news was conducted by Suthichai, who was gesturing, internalising hard copies of the latest news updates and speaking into the microphone live -- all at the same time.
The Nation faced a reckoning when Thaksin Shinawatra rose to power after the January 2001 election. Here was a telecoms magnate with conflicts of interest, who combined business and politics into a new kind of enterprise. Civil society from the 1990s was divided over Thaksin, as some favoured his pro-poor policies. Others like The Nation took Thaksin to task, and Thaksin shot back. His way was to cut off advertisements from his telecom and media companies to news outlets that opposed him. Critical editors and reporters were harassed by tax collectors.
The fight against Thaksin's brand of "democratic authoritarianism" -- under a civilian garb as opposed to the military style of incumbent Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha -- took a divisive toll. The Nation went all the way and succeeded in laying conditions for Thaksin's ouster by a putsch in September 2006. The problem is that it did not stop there. It kept going in helping to undermine and overthrow subsequent Thaksin-aligned governments that were elected by the Thai electorate, pitting itself firmer and deeper into the conservative side of Thailand's divide.
In addition, The Nation mixed up its business and journalism in an unprofitable fashion. It became an extensive media group with non-media business interests, such as real estate, further complicated by share-price considerations on the stock market.
New and so-called "disruptive" media technologies and the digitisation of the media business, underpinned by the accelerating development of social media, spelled further challenges, as they do to print media everywhere. When anyone and everyone can self-empower themselves and become a self-assigned reporter and opinion writer in cyberspace, traditional media is never going to be the same again.
In recent years, The Nation was bought by a news competitor with conservative interests and values. The main news anchor of The Nation television now was formerly with the yellow side in both the People's Alliance for Democracy in 2005-06 and 2008 and the People's Democratic Reform Committee in 2013-14.
The demise of The Nation broadsheet bodes ill because Thailand should have more than one major English-language newspaper. Online and digital news in English about Thai society and politics from multiple platforms are thus more valuable now than ever as complementary information and analysis to stay informed and balanced.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, teaches at the Faculty of Political Science and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University
An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.