Censoring free speech, caging bright minds
Free speech may be a luxury in a society under a military regime. But for university students yearning to make their political voices heard, free speech may indeed become a struggle as experienced by a group of university students during the traditional 71st Chulalongkorn University-Thammasat University football match at the National Stadium two weeks ago.
Although renowned for stunning cheerleaders, gorgeous drum majorettes, parade processions and, of course, the exciting football match, this annual event has also been remembered for the creativity of young minds expressed in their satirical political messages, usually featured during the pre-game parade and the astonishing pre-arranged flip-card displays on both sides of the stadium during the intermission.
Even in the dictatorial periods of the 1960s and 1970s (before the Oct 14 uprising in 1973 and Oct 6 massacre in 1976 that led to a three-year suspension of the match), the students from these two institutions resourcefully showed off their wit and thought-provoking views on Thai politics -- the leaders, the politicians and practices worthy of criticism.
For instance, Field Marshal Praphas Charusathien who was deputy prime minister and interior minister (1961–1971) and also president of Chulalongkorn University (1961–1969) at the time was mocked in one such event with an effigy donning his signature dark sunglasses, plaid shorts and a colourful shirt that suggested his involvement in a certain scandalous discrepancy.
During the administration of Gen Prem Tinsulanonda (1980-1988), the general was also picked on for his usual but strategic silence and his famous words, "Go home, kid" when dealing with reporters. Meanwhile, his regime was openly criticised as a "semi-democracy" as it featured an arrangement in which elected coalition parties could not agree over a prime minister from one of their parties and had to invite an outside charismatic leader (such as Gen Prem) from the armed forces to lead the government.
In more democratic periods, the leaders and their administrations were usually represented even more harshly. Among others, Gen Chatichai Choonhavan (1988–early 1991) and his ministers were portrayed for their alleged widespread corruption with the infamous metaphor "Buffet Cabinet" (meaning they consumed endlessly) while Gen Chatichai himself was teased as a laid back prime minister who never took things seriously, with his legendary phrase "No problem" used against him.
More recently, the inept Yingluck Shinawatra was ridiculed for always reading from the script wrongly at public events. And if the event in 2014 had not been abruptly cancelled due to the Bangkok shutdown protest by the People's Democratic Reform Committee, we could have expected to see unsympathetic criticism of Ms Yingluck's alleged mismanagement of the controversial rice-pledging scheme.
As could be expected, things changed quite dramatically after the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) took power in May 2014. The rescheduled 70th event took place in February 2015 when martial law was still in effect so it was closely watched for any speeches deemed "detrimental or a threat to national security" as defined by the NCPO. Formal warnings were also given to university authorities on this matter.
At the event in 2015, plainclothes officials stood at the entrance of the stadium to "screen" cloth banners bearing political satire. Last year, banners containing poignant points about the lack of rule of law, cronyism, the 12 social values, good governance and propaganda were taken away by officials.
But the students' ingenuity managed to get some messages across as they hid a stern figure of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha under the camouflage of an IS character. This passed the checkpoint at the entrance and it was only unveiled after the parade was in full swing.
This year, the situation repeated itself as cloth banners positing the contemporaneous yet vexing question "Why do we need the military?" were taken away at the "single gateway" through which all parade processions had to pass. The full length of the banners actually had a rhyme written in Thai: "What is there a military for? Dare we ask? Confiscating mere banners is their task?"
Also, a dummy carrying a rifle was halted at the gate for conveying an excessively violent message. After some bargaining, the soldiers who were clad in varsity T-shirts allowed it but the students had to saw off the rifle to make it look less threatening.
Ever since last year, TU students, who have always been more politically vocal than their CU counterparts, were already experiencing censorship efforts. So, much of their planned political communication was relegated to card displays in the stadium as these were more difficult to stop than cloth banners.
Since last year, the messages in the TU card displays, which were changed to umbrellas for greater ease and continuity, were already very politically expressive. A plea for a "return to democracy" was voiced together with a depiction of the well-respected former TU president Puey Ungphakorn, who had to flee overseas under past dictatorial regimes, alongside the key message: "Right is might not might is right".
This year, the TU card/umbrella display team did it again with political quips on various issues from the rubber price crisis, the 39-million-baht New Year decorative lighting, the Rajabhakti scandal and the 2-trillion-baht monorail project to the new charter, before ending with a picturesque portrayal of Democracy Monument with the stirring words: "Happy enough just to miss it".
But beyond these obvious censorship activities and efforts to evade them, it is less known that censorship in this event actually took place earlier on. This is more true of the conservative CU side since TU is known to be more liberal and allows greater freedom of speech.
Although usually pre-assigned with social satire rather than political ones like TU, CU students this year came up with a witty theme for the card stunts. They planned to portray a continuous stream of images, starting with a QR-code scan (from the widely-used chat application Line), followed by an altered image of the usual blockpage that read "404 -- Democracy not found." This powerful wisecrack was, however, censored by university officials who act as advisers to the student council that organised the event.
In fact, some university students even lamented privately that no censorship is needed at CU as self-censorship has traditionally been the rule of the game here.
All in all, be it the NCPO and their staff, or university officials, it is important to note that censorship will not carry them very far in this day and age where data flows faster than the speed of light. Any act of censorship that's broadcast through social media will do more harm than good to the regime.
What's more is that free minds need to be liberated and nurtured rather than caged and controlled. And it is the task of academic institutions to enrich rather than diminish these promising minds.
Assistant Professor Pirongrong Ramasoota teaches and researches on media, communication and society at the Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University.
Chulalongkorn University Professor
Pirongrong Ramasoota, PhD, is a professor of communication at Chulalongkorn University and a senior research fellow at LIRNEasia