The poverty of our political discourse
Given the often war-like weekly announcements of tough, sometimes intimidating positions by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on a variety of controversial issues since the May 22 coup last year, highlighted by occasional attitude adjustment sessions enforced on some politicians, intellectuals, academics, journalists, and non-governmental activists, the battle of verbal confrontations between competing groups — yellow-, red-, blue-shirt, and what not — has been decidedly quiet, by the pre-coup standard.
In terms of freedom of expression, the pre-coup years were characterised by the anarchy of open extremism unknown in previous Thai history. Soon after Sondhi Limthongkul, chairman of the Manager Group, started his campaign on television in 2006 to bring down Thaksin Shinawatra from power, the polarisation of Thai political life took a definite turn that would change the face of Thai life in the years to come in ways that had escaped the forecasts of any famous astrologers or academic futurists.
During the mid-2000s, Shin Corporation, which was then owned by Thaksin who was not only leader of the Thai Rak Thai Party and but also prime minister, took over the bankrupt iTV. This move was subsequently followed by the red shirts running satellite television networks to lend unconventional support to their political parents. In response, the Democrat Party also began to operate its blue-shirt satellite television devoted entirely to the advancement of its own political views.
With the public space openly dominated by politically motivated groups, despite all the talk of genuine- and pseudo-media, the differences between the two were steadily blurred. With much of the public space intoxicated by the one-dimensional views of opposing political parties, many sectors of the genuine press were pushed into the corners, gradually becoming more and more partisan, either by choice, by being taken over, or simply by the force of events.
On top of this phenomenon, the voices of the independent intelligentsia disappeared almost completely from the public space, ushering in a poverty of political discourse, whereby authentic discussions of the public good were treated either as irrelevances or nuisances.
This implies that, for years, ordinary Thais were fed with one-way talk rather than unpartisan political discourse, resulting in a widespread, unhealthy scepticism and distrust.
While sympathisers might argue that the current regime has done some good in restoring peace and order after a chaotic situation, those committed to another school of thought could certainly suggest that had the political showdown been allowed to proceed its natural course then Thailand might by now be experiencing a boom of democracy, albeit with some casualties, which some might submit a seemingly harsh argument that these were the inevitable price to pay for a transition to another stage of democratic development.
Be that as it may, after 17 months, this administration has set political reform as its mission. With the draft of a new constitution written under the chairmanship of Borwornsak Uwanno voted down with a lot of rumours and drama, a second constitution is already in the pipeline.
No doubt a major problem with the first constitution draft was limited participation by those recruited to serve on the National Reform Council, that is, the voice of the public was essentially barred because of the curtailment of freedom of expression.
Given its strong, uncontested position, the time is now ripe for this government to rethink its approach by enlarging the space for public participation in reform processes by consciously encouraging press freedom, which would pave the way for more diversified news and views that would be necessary and beneficial to democratic development.
The broad-stroke, indiscriminate intimidation and prohibition of freedom of expression and mobility are now in need of some revisions to improve the quantity and quality of political discourse in the media and public space. There is no question that such an initiative would broaden the political market for the reigning government, creating badly needed goodwill and legitimacy, nationally and internationally.
In principle, controls, if there must be, should be focused only on those with an indisputable reputation as “professional demagogues”, who are well-known to pursue only group-specific goals by mobilising and polarising the political public, without clear and distinct regard for public peace and order.
Even so, treatment of these people should always be fair, clear, humane, and respect the basic rules of human rights.
Technically, a universally accepted step-by-step standard procedure of warning and punishment of those believed to be intentionally attempting to disturb public peace and order with self-interested motivation must be put in place and executed in a transparent manner, with full justification that can pass the test of public trust.
This suggests that the press and the rest of society who are in need of voicing their individual plights and aspirations must be encouraged to display their wishes and dreams without fear of any form of retaliation.
Politicians, journalists, intellectuals, academics, representatives of non-government organisations, ordinary folk and anyone else who has something to say must have the right to say it so long as they act as individuals in a personal, professional capacity so as to participate in the fate of social policies and affairs.
If we are serious about political reform that is legitimate in the eyes of the general public, internally and elsewhere, this is precisely the time to be loosening up, rather than tightening up. Once the people can speak up, trust will follow, probably slowly because of a longstanding, unprecedented scepticism and distrust that have intoxicated our political society for almost a decade.
This is indeed high time to start a revival of our political discourse so as to sensitise and liberalise the imagination of our people in preparation for the upcoming reform programmes. By targeting the trouble makers narrowly and precisely, and consciously broadening and deepening the space for legitimate public expression, this regime will be cheered for steering Thailand smoothly toward a new era expected after the general election.
A good public policy is always looking upward and forward, not downward and backward. What is at stake now is mutual trust, and the people’s trust can be cultivated only through trust guaranteed by the state.
Boonrak Boonyaketmala is a former professor and dean at Thammasat University, and a founding programme director at the Thailand Research Fund. He has published 11 books and many book chapters on media policy, industry, politics, culture, and society in Asia, America and Europe, and by UNESCO.
Former dean at Thammasat University
Boonrak Boonyaketmala is a former professor and dean at Thammasat University, and programme director at the Thailand Research Fund. He is the author of 11 books and many book chapters on media policy, industry, politics, culture and society printed in Asia, America, and Europe, and by Unesco. Comments welcome at email@example.com.
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