The Big Issue: Redefining Defamation

The Big Issue: Redefining Defamation

Credit marketing flair and impeccable timing for the sudden new shine on an old idea whose time may have come around again.

Until last week, Rienthong Nanna was the director of the Mongkutwattana General Hospital at Chaeng Watthana. A serious supporter of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) of Suthep "Kamnan" Thaugsuban. He had once clashed verbally with red shirts near his hospital, and had recently offered modest medical discounts for PDRC mob members while hoping red-shirt mob members would go elsewhere with their aches, pains and gunshot wounds.

And then, in a flash, he became the leader of a new group, with one member, serious aspirations and more than a touch of 21st century clickbait. He called his creation the Rubbish Collection Organisation, where by "rubbish" he means deviant people who do not love His Majesty the King or Thailand as much as Dr Rienthong. These people must be hunted down and eradicated - his words.

The new super-patriot won massive media attention. Not all of it was positive, which was probably his goal in the marketing campaign.

Dr Rienthong explains the purpose of his Rubbish Collection Organisation. (Photo by Thiti Wannamontha)

Cause and effect is always a tricky subject, but the day the RCO was founded, men on five motorcycles staged a petrol bomb attack on the Pathum Thani radio station run by the lese majeste fugitive Wutthipong Kochthammakhun, aka Ko Tee, already on the wanted list for lese majeste. Two days later, a grenade hit a nearby red shirt community radio station, where the owner said the attacker was probably so witless he thought his station was Ko Tee's.

The same day, PDRC monk Luang Pu Buddha Issara led mob members to the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), and demanded it close radio stations he said were uttering lese majeste messages. When the NBTC told the monk it had no such power, it only made his mini-mob angrier.

The next day was worse. Someone gunned down Kamol Duangphasuk, better known as Mai Nueng Kor Kunthee. He was a 45-year-old poet, a regular contributor to the Matichon daily, who fairly recently had become an outspoken and peaceful supporter of the red shirts.

Police said they couldn't figure out why anyone had ambushed and killed Kamol with a shot to the heart just after lunch on Wednesday. The media, deep within news pages, echoed that. This isolated police and the media from the rest of the population, who definitely could figure out at least one reason.

Typically in these days of huge national division, the PDRC had no comment. It's yet another measure of the chasm that violent deaths cannot be abhorred, and the victims mourned, by everyone.

Human Rights Watch called the killing "brutal and outrageous". Suporn Atthawong, a prominent red shirt and deputy secretary-general to the prime minister, turned out to be a better detective than the police generals. "I suspect his death was politically motivated," Mr Suporn said.

No one blamed Dr Rienthong for killing the poet. Yet Kamol was exactly the profile of brazen dissident that the RCO had vowed to track down and eradicate. Kamol was a blunt and vocal advocate of amending the harsh lese majeste laws. The RCO holds that as proof of disloyalty.

After the Kamol killing, the police warned the doctor directly he could expect a visit if he tried to arm any of his volunteers. Dr Rienthong sought to "clarify" some of his remarks. He didn't mean he was literally going to hunt down anti-monarchy figures. And he didn't mean he would actually eradicate them, perish the thought, just report them for prosecution under the lese majeste laws and get the "rubbish" off the streets and out of decent society.

The media drew instant parallels with the bad old days of 40 years ago.

The Krating Daeng (Red Gaur) movement, inevitably and correctly described as an extreme right-wing organisation, was established in 1972 to counter the growing trend and strength of the largely student-led democracy movement. The Krating Daeng failed to prevent the Oct 14, 1973, overthrow of the "Terrible Trio" dictatorship. But it fought a strong, sometimes violent rear-guard subversive campaign to oppose democracy.

It was widely believed to operate under the patronage of the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) which then, as now, was a secretive, often covert arm of the Royal Thai Army.

The Krating Daeng leader was Maj Gen Sudsai Hasadin, a charismatic leader able to rabble-rouse crowds and recruit followers. The recruitment pitch and training motivation was a simple and unvarying litany of pro-monarchy, anti-communist and anti-intellectual slogans.

The Krating Daeng trained with weapons to fight deviancy — citizens who did not love the country enough, or revere the monarch enough. On several occasions newspaper photographers who tried to document the sessions were beaten. Sudsai and his followers were active for three years, often intimidating or clashing with pro-democracy rallies, and protests against the return of the three dictators: Thanom and Narong Kittikachorn and Prapat Charusathian. The group harassed and attacked what it considered leftist parties and voters at the 1976 elections.

In 1975 and again on Oct 6, 1976, the Krating Daeng was the principal group behind attacks on so-called foreign or communist students of Thammasat University, then a hotbed of student politics. The actual death toll at the unspeakably brutal Oct 6 massacre, which also included regular security forces, is unknown. It was followed immediately by a military-sponsored coup that temporarily ended the country's democratic aspirations. After that, the Krating Daeng faded away. It was almost as if ultra-nationalists and entrenched powers had created the movement to intimidate democrats.

There are important differences between the Krating Daeng group and the RCO. For one thing, the Krating Daeng actually had competent leaders, not just at the top but through its paramilitary-type ranks. Its members were openly armed. RCO has one non-combat general at the top and, by his testimony and available evidence, some volunteers who share his ideology.

Dr Rienthong talks the talk of the Krating Daeng, but fortunately has a long way to go before he is walking the walk.

Just like the Krating Daeng of the 1970s, however, the RCO has crystallised a mood that until now has seldom taken form. The RCO blatantly seeks to replace respect with reverence; civility with intimidation; pride with doctrine.

Demands for respect and loyalty have never produced successful regimes or societies. There is far more than a whiff of witch-hunting in a group whose success is measured entirely by how many deviants it can find.

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