The unbearable bleakness of government TV news
The outpouring of popular dissent on Wednesday proved to be a flash in the pan; by dawn the next morning, the sit-in at Government House had been disbanded, rank and file protesters were sent packing and the protest leaders were put under arrest.
What next? No one can know for sure how things will turn out when the irrepressible will of protesters goes up against the immovable monolith of the state, but without compromise, conflict is to be expected.
The demonstrations of October 1973 and October 1976, much on the mind at the moment, offer lessons in both hope and fear, the former an example of the underdog coming out on top by luck, chance and support in high places; the latter a mournful reminder of the human capacity for cruelty.
In that uncertain moment before that demonstration was broken up, in that moment before it all came crashing down -- think of Hokusai's woodblock print of a giant wave arrested midair as the pounding surf begins to fall -- there was a kind of balance and equipoise. Things can go a number of ways for myriad reasons; who's to say how any given wave will break?
Looking for clues, I turned to Thai government's public relations news channel on Wednesday where I found a mix of journalism and propaganda, guided thinking and spontaneous reaction.
The tone of the NBT reporters, both at the police headquarters and at the scene of the protest, was guardedly optimistic, if not upbeat. Yet there remains an unbearable bleakness to whitewashed government news.
Sometimes described as Thailand's answer to PBS, NBT also shares with Japan's NHK and China's CCTV a remit to present the official news of the nation in the best possible light. That calls for tricky editing and hard work; image-burnishing requires clever acts of omission, elision, scrubbing and scouring, but even after all that, there is something left to digest, perhaps more akin to fast food than a feast, but it's not nothing.
Surfing NBT's news of the day online, I was disappointed how little news made it into the news, and what little did often had an Orwellian cast, an emergency police press conference being a case in point.
Police spokesmen, with straight faces, hijacked the language of the crowd with the aim of dispersing the crowd, addressing the populace as brothers and sisters, stressing the "freedom" of people to enjoy regular routine without disruption, bemoaning traffic jams, looking for dialogue, stressing the importance of law. The exhortation was delivered in a polite soft-spoken manner, but it was easy enough to read between the lines that something serious was about to go down.
The news after the news known as Ruangdang Langkhao hewed to a pro-police point of view. It offered a more upbeat view of the day's events, but it still bore the unbearable bleakness of whitewashed news.
Standing outside the Bangkok Municipal Police building, the telegenic reporter Seksom Chaengchit did his best, given numerous limitations, to bring his viewers up to date on the protests near Government House.
In his introduction, he incorrectly described Oct 14 as the anniversary date of the coup of 1932, confusing it with the June 24 anniversary of the "Siamese Revolution" that augured in a democracy-oriented spirit of governance.
As if to add to the confusion, the telegenic reporter turns to the tree behind him and says, "I feel so honoured, look over there, a pradoo tree right in front of the police station! The tree was graciously donated by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn on Oct 14, 1992."
"Now, as for the so-called People's Party," Seksom continued, gingerly pivoting back to the so-called topic of the day. "The protesters have declared their intent to hold a protest at Government House for three days. As for police, whose job it is to uphold the law, well, they are now meeting to evaluate the situation and figure out what to do."
"So, for the latest, let's go to my colleague Supatra Thongin who is on the scene."
"I'm reporting from the intersection where protesters have gathered," says Supatra, whose stoic, sweaty appearance hints at a long day in the sun. "Right now, 'Penguin' is speaking to people who've been here all day."
Parit Chiwarak, a popular speaker who goes by the nickname Penguin, can be heard in the background but the voice-over made it hard to hear him in his own words. The camera cuts to a small crowd giving three-finger salutes, silhouetted by indistinct figures milling about on a dark street.
"Penguin is discussing three points, including the point that PM Prayut [Chan-o-cha] is being asked to step down."
The reporter sidesteps touchy points regarding reform of the monarchy, but seems to consider the prime minister fair game.
Ignoring the incendiary language coming across the speakers, Supatra suggests a spot interview. "Let's talk to some of them to see why they're here."
Supatra directs her camera crew to a clean-cut young man and young woman in dark shirts with white face-masks draped loosely around their necks.
"We are here to ask for government accountability," says the young man, speaking for the two of them. "Just being here should have some impact, shows what people are thinking, shows the government what we think, maybe they'll take notice of us."
Supatra: "This is the thinking of today's youth who travelled here to join the rally. Now, as for how long this will go on, whether it will go overnight or not, and what will happen next, we'll have to see what the core leaders and speakers are saying."
But the programme never addresses what the core leaders said. Protest leader Arnon Nampa, who speaks profoundly of democracy and law, stressing that the king must not be above politics and under the law for democracy to have a chance, does not get an airing. Instead, the show cuts back to Seksom at police HQ who wings it for the rest of the time slot.
At one point, he rambles on about an impasse involving "two hours of discussion" during which time "a royal motorcade passed by", but no pictures were shown to back this. He then says that the authorities had the buses moved to open a passage for the crowd.
The impact of not showing the royal traffic snare, and instead focusing on how the police made possible a passage to Government House again hints at an editorial line in which the interests of the prime minister were deemed secondary to preserving the image of the monarchy.
While waiting, protesters put stickers on a bus that was blocking the road. The video shows a bus covered in peel-off stickers slowly pulling away from crowd.
"One has to admire the officials," beams Seksom. "They kept their cool and avoided confrontation pretty well today."
There's an element of truth in that statement, but distressing scenes of yellow-shirted thugs ganging up on protesters while police looked on, though circulated heavily on the internet, did not get shown on TV.
The programme concludes with Seksom saying that anyone "travelling in from the provinces tomorrow should be aware some roads are closed around Government House, Ratchadamnoen Nok and Phitsanulok Road in particular".
This enigmatic traffic report could be construed as helpful advice for rural travellers heading into Bangkok unaware, but perhaps it was also a veiled warning to stay away from the scene where police were preparing for a massive crackdown.
Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics. He is the author of 'Tiananmen Moon'.
Philip J Cunningham
Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics. He is the author of Tiananmen Moon.