If every single person who spread false rumours and prophesies in this country was to be prosecuted _ by being either jailed or fined _ then Thailand could become either a prison-land or filthy rich.
Seriously. Can we go through a single day in this country without experiencing prophesies or falsehood in one form or another? Open a newspaper and there is the all-time-favourite horoscope column. "Play by the rules and keep your hands squeaky clean. You may be ambitious about finances, but it's not the right time to show your hand." That was my prediction for yesterday. Too bad it's one of those that appears difficult to prove whether it's true or false. Otherwise, I could have sued the newspaper for causing financial damage by telling me to be reserved about my financial prospects!
I hope by now you can rightly predict what I am getting at. The most interesting news out of this land so far this week, one that got picked up by an international news agency, is a summons by police in Tak province for a 73-year-old man to face a charge of causing public damage by publicising the false prophesy that a large dam in that province would burst on New Year's Eve. The thing is, old man Thongbai Khamsi has achieved the dream of many a multimedia upstart, in becoming a YouTube sensation overnight after his tale based on predictions made by his late son "Plu Bu" before he died at a young age some 37 years ago, was uploaded to the internet before the new year. In his tale, Mr Thongbai claims that not only did his late son foretell his own death _ informing his father of it 15 days before he actually passed away _ but he had also made predictions about many tragic events that would occur in future, including the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001 and the tsunami in 2004.
The most recent forecast, however, was that Bhumibol Dam in Tak province would collapse on the eve of 2012. No doubt the prediction, fanned up by both traditional and online media, caused a panic. Some people living in the area were reported to have tried to sell their land and evacuate. The provincial governor and the manager of Bhumibol Dam had to come out and give reassurance about the dam's durability _ that it was built to withstand an earthquake up to 7 on the Richter scale. Eventually, the authorities took to organising a New Year Countdown Party right on the dam's structure, so as to quell the panic.
As is clear now, the dam remains standing. But the old man might not. The police have set a deadline of Jan 10 for Mr Thongbai, who lives in the eastern province of Chanthaburi, to report to them. If he fails to show up, he will face an arrest warrant. The charge is serious. According to the complaint filed by a member of the Tak provincial administration, the old man's tale had resulted in a loss of economic opportunities to the province's residents estimated at more than 400 million baht, because it had caused a 90% drop in the number of tourist arrivals to Tak province.
My question is simple. Is Mr Thongbai being prosecuted because of the "falsehood" or because of the "prophesy"?
I mean - speaking hypothetically - if what he related had indeed turned out to prove correct (and this does not mean I want the dam to burst) would he still be prosecuted? Or would he become a hero?
The other question is, who really is in the wrong between the old man who spoke of what he believes in, even if it has no basis in science; and the people who chose to believe in what he said without demanding any more proof and the members of the mass media who further spread and sensationalised the story without attempting to counter-balance it? It will be interesting to see if the old man can cite "freedom of expression" to defend himself against the charge. After all, he didn't force anybody to believe in the prophesy he spoke about. And he had made it clear that this was a prediction made by a young boy who died more than three decades ago. There was no other evidence or proof to make it more convincing. It was a dire prediction, certainly, and a very specific one regarding both time and place. But shouldn't people exercise their own judgement in this prediction business? They can choose to believe in an augury and do something about it, or leave it at the source. If they can make a choice, don't they have to take responsibility?
Besides, old Mr Thongbai is definitely not the only person in town in the business of making predictions that do not come true. If he is charged merely for making a scary prophesy, what about others who have foretold scarier things about the country and its political future? In short, what type of prophesy is legal and what is not? A double-standard in soothsaying will not augur well for the country's future, that much I can predict.
Atiya Achakulwisut is Deputy Editor, Bangkok Post.