Thailand: Land of smoke and mirrors

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By Justin Alick, Bangkok, photos by Nick Nostitz/New Mandala

May 5, 2010 -- FM4 -- Thailand is many things, but a bastion of transparency it is not.

On the night of April 10, 2010, a distraught group of red-shirted, pro-democracy activists stormed into a Bangkok hospital and demanded that it hand over the bodies of fellow protesters they had witnessed being shot to death by the Royal Thai Army in a bloody military crackdown, which was still in progress. At first they were turned away by the hospital director, citing medical procedures as well as specific regulations that had been handed down by the military regime -- but as more angry protesters arrived, he had no choice but to relent.

The protesters feared that by morning, there would be no way of proving that anyone had actually been killed. Taking no chances, they draped the corpses, which had suffered horrific bullet wounds to the heads and chests, in national flags, and displayed them before thousands of people, including members of the international press, gathered at the main United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD or Red Shirts) protest stage. It was only then that hospital directors across the city began admitting that people had indeed died. The death toll would reach 25,  with more than 800 wounded.

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Up to a week later, the official story was that the protesters had either shot each other, or had been assassinated at long range by malicious terrorists seeking to discredit the government; few soldiers had been issued with live ammunition, and those who had been fired only into the air. But as recorded images and videos of the massacre, which occurred in the vicinity of the city's Democracy Monument, began to flood the internet, the military administration was forced to admit that live rounds were fired into the protest. This was a major upset for a regime that had up until that point been largely successful in impressing its particular version of reality on the urban populous, and even some international journalists -- that Thailand is a democracy, and the Red Shirts are a threat to it.

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The crackdown failed, in the face of unexpected retaliation that some suspect points to a dangerous split in the military. Yet 50,000 troops remain in the capital, poised for a second attempt at removing Red Shirt protesters who have been camped out in the city for almost two months as part of a campaign demanding general elections. To date, there has been no independent investigation into the April 10 crackdown. Thailand is many things, but a bastion of transparency it is not. The modern Thai state was born out of an unsolved murder more than 60 years old, which still cannot safely be spoken or written about from within the country.

George Orwell once famously wrote: "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future." In Thailand, I have witnessed history being written and then unwritten before my very eyes. I have taken part in events that never officially happened. I have seen footage of protesters being shot or beaten by soldiers disappear behind censorship notices, later denied by authorities as ever having actually existed. This is a country where internet speeds have been reduced to a crawl due to the sheer volume of web sites being blocked, where people who speak their minds get put away with murderers and rapists.

Camera phones, internet vs M-16s

It is said that war is being unleashed in Bangkok, and this may indeed be the case. The nights are punctuated by the sounds of bomb blasts and gunfire, and coils of razor wire criss-cross the footpaths. Soldiers with M-16s wait in side streets, or upon blacked-out pedestrian overpasses, taking sight at pro-democracy protesters armed with stones and bamboo spears. But there is another war going on in Thailand, fought not with machine guns or grenades or even sticks or stones -- but with camera phones, an internet connection and a good proxy server.

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It's a war over what will and will not be in tomorrow's newspapers, television shows and history books, setting those who expose the uncomfortable truths about Thailand against those who wish to cover them up. It is nothing less than a war over reality itself -- over what is truth and what is lies; what is real and what isn't. The most potent weapon that can be used in such a war is censorship, and it is a weapon that the current Abhisit Vejjajiva government, which came to power in December 2008, backed by the royalist, ultraconservative establishment and its military and judicial arms, has used with great enthusiasm since it gained power through the ousting of three successive democratically elected governments via a coup d'état and a series of legal manoeuvres.

In a "simpler" time, the most potent example of censorship in Thailand was the lese majeste laws, which prohibit expression that may be construed as slanderous, critical or insufficiently respectful of the monarchy. After the coup of 2006, the Computer Crimes Act came into place, which was a fusion of lese majeste and broad anti-sedition laws upgraded for a digital age. Yet since the imposition of the draconian Internal Security Act in early March, and more recently the no-holds barred Emergency Decree, Thailand's censors have taken even greater liberties in blocking or removing any online content deemed by them to be threatening to "national security, public order, or good morals". According to Freedom Against Censorship in Thailand, the number of blocked websites numbers in the tens of thousands.

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On top of all this, an unprecedented crackdown against free-thinking netizens, independent news sources and activist networks is underway. The editor of the respected Prachatai online newspaper was recently arrested and potentially faces up to 50 years in jail for subversive content deemed insulting to the monarchy.

Early yesterday evening, a friend of mine from the Student Federation of Thailand was issued a summons by a group of policemen to appear at the military headquarters at 10 am this morning. In a particularly Kafkaesque twist, she was not informed as to the basis for such a summons, but was informed that she could be arrested if she failed to comply with it. She and her apartment were photographed, and was basically warned to stay out of the current political crisis. And she was but one of hundreds, including a military general and former prime minister, who received similar summons and warnings.

In a country where hundreds of such "dangerous" websites are closed daily, Youtube footage disappears as soon as it has been made available, and the mainstream press either self-censors or enthusiastically and sycophantically tows the government line, there is no substitute for your own eyes as a reliable source for information.

And so it was that I found myself picking my way through the shattered concrete, glass and gore left behind at the scene of the April 10 massacre, barely an hour after the last shots were fired. I wasn't alone -- all manner of people including urban families, police officers, protesters and tourists alike had come out in anticipation of the inevitable government spin-and-denial campaign that was to come. The entire area had already been transformed into a history museum of sorts, complete with shrines for the dead, tour guides, and even a guestbook -- basically every available surface that could be written on had been covered in angry or sorrowful messages.

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The soldiers were lurking only a few blocks away, the blood was still wet upon the ground, and remnants of tear gas still itched at the back of my throat. There was little reason for any sane person to be in that part of town at that time of night. Except to see for yourself what would not be in the history books tomorrow. To sear an image into your brain so powerful that no amount of government propaganda could cloud it or wipe it away. To see the real face of Thailand before the establishment had time to paint a smile over it for the tourists and investors.

And as I wandered the streets that night, watching angry protesters rip abandoned armoured personnel carriers apart with little more than their bare hands, running my fingers over the bullet holes that peppered the shopfronts, and listening to the chanting of Buddhist monks during the memorial service for the dead protesters that lay upon the stage, I took small comfort in just how many ordinary Bangkok people had come out to see the truth with their own eyes. And how hard it was going to be for the establishment to cover this one up.

[Justin Alick is a freelance journalist and politics student in Bangkok. This article first appeared at Austria's FM4 website. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Justin Alick's permission.]