Interview with Supinya Klangnarong, Media-rights advocate and researcher, Campaign for Popular Media Reform.
The Red-shirts movement, which is backed by the former Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin, has been demonstrating on the streets of Bangkok since the middle of March. On April 10th 25 people died in bloody clashes between the demonstrators and security forces and on April 22nd grenades were fired at demonstrators, who were opposing the Red shirts and pressured the government to restore law and order. Now the situation is very tense, there are occasional clashes between the Red-shirts and the security forces and other groups opposing the Red-shirts are on the streets as well. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva claims to work on a political solution to enable early elections but also points to the necessity to restore law and order. At a recent press conference he appeared with the Army Chief, General Anupong Paojinda, who stated that "politics must be resolved by politics" – basically telling Prime Minister to dissolve the House of Representatives in order to get out of the current crisis that has paralysed the country.
How do you assess this current political crisis?
The on-going political crisis has shown the seriousness of the conflict in Thailand at all levels; it involves every sector and institution. Some might see this as simply a fight between ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinnawatra and his opponents, but in fact it has expanded to other social, political and moral issues. Besides the power struggle between pro- and anti-Thaksin supporters, there is also the war of thoughts on democracy, nationalism, monarchy and social justice. Society is deeply polarized and divided. Hate is widespread. Tension and frustration are everywhere, even within the families that share different views on what’s going on.
This made Bangkokians furious to take action by themselves, which created an even more fragile situation. In fact, the Prime Minister can dissolve Parliament and call for fresh elections if his administration cannot control the situation anymore, but this cannot be done in Thailand at present since public opinion against the dissolution is very strong, especially among urban middle-classes and public scholars.
It can be said that the core pillars of a democratic society – parliament, the judiciary and the government – have collapsed. This crisis will continue for a longer period and the conflict is getting closer to the radical point, which would lead to either mass killings and a bloodbath resulting from the crackdown by the military against Red Shirt protesters or a military coup that is likely to take place, once again, to control the chaos by using full force or by stoking a civil war between the different colored camps.
Where do you see the root causes for this crisis?
Democratic values are not rooted deeply in Thai society, the individual is not empowered enough to influence parliamentary democracy. The patronage system dominates Thai society at all levels allowing corruption to prevail.
The democratic process has been continuously interrupted by the military when the parliament has faced problems. The role of the royal institutions is being politicized by different groups; however, the current government has seen this conflict related to the anti-monarchy movement so it is a very delicate situation. Thais are not allowed to discuss this matter and consequently, the democracy and the monarchy are still critical issues in Thailand since the revolution in 1932. Democratic culture is not well established, people tend to exercise their own rights but refuse to accept the rights of others who think, speak or act differently. The double standards applied by the authorities to the same actions committed by different groups even deepen the cultural conflict. There is also a lack of tolerance to promote mutual dialogue if the conflict occurs.
While the protests were very peaceful in the beginning the situation has escalated on April 10th. What is the reason for this escalation and the violence, which lead to the death of so many people and how are the people affected by the on-going protest?
Mistakes were made by both sides, the protesters decided to take stronger actions and the government decided to use the Emergency decree, which both increased the unnecessary tension. But on April 10th, the government made a strategic mistake by allowing troops to disperse the protesters during the night. The Red shirts have been using tougher action, the military is being pressured to use force to control security, so it created a climate of fear in Thai society. Moreover, a so-called invisible third-party was involved in the conflict which used arms such as the bombs that led to the death of many, too.
One of the main demands by the Red shirts is the immediate dissolution of parliament. Would this really solve the problems and are there any strings attached to a quick dissolution of the house?
It will solve the current confrontation between the Red-shirt protestors and the government but it will also lead to another strong reaction against the Red-shirts movement and the government (Democrat & Coalition parties) from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (Yellow shirts).
In the meantime a number of intellectuals, academics and representatives of civil society organizations have made proposals for the resolutions of the crisis ranging from a referendum to the immediate dissolution of the house. What do you think about these proposals and is there a chance that they will be implemented?
I hope it will be the right solution to have peaceful and democratic measures but it seems unlikely to be possible since the conflict has gone too far beyond the stage of traditional compromise which is usually applied to solve political conflicts.
You yourself are very active in the internet community. How has this community so far reacted to the crisis and do they have any particular proposals for a way out? What is the stand of civil society organizations in general?
The internet has become a crucial space in this political battle. It opens up a space for free expression so it has become a threat for the state, therefore the government censors dissidents’ sites & blogs to a high lever. Everyday thousands of URLs have been blocked under the Emergency decree. However, the internet still crucially contributes to the dissidents’ movement.
But at the same time, the government has gained dramatic support from the urban middle-class that makes their voices heard via social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. More than 300,000 accounts have signed on to the page against the dissolution of the house; moreover, these groups have extended themselves to join the protest against the Red shirts, too.
Since the internet and social networks connect people closely; journalism and political expression have become personalized. The positive and negative reactions can be forwarded at great speed. The hatred speech, incitement of violence against human dignity and discrimination are frequently posted, however the counter-reactions are expressed widely, too. Social networks play a very dramatic role in Thai politics in shaping the way of thinking for the urban middle-class. So far almost 20 million have access to the Internet but it is still concentrated in cities. The lower middle-class is not able to be online; the digital divide is still an issue.
What impact does the current political crisis have on the long-term democratization process of Thai society?
In fact, it contributes to future democracy in Thailand. Eventually, Thailand will gain a lot from this conflict since people nationwide are motivated politically and will increase their participation. However, since Thai politics is still under uncertainty and possible military intervention, the situation will be back and forth, until it is re-settled once again, and it will take another long period to re-stabilize rule of law, social justice and good governance. And it will take time to bring back the needed balance between civil liberty, social responsibility and security in Thai society. The biggest challenge for a transformation towards a well-being democratic society is to prevent the violence and unnecessary bloodbaths.
Supinya Klangnarong, 37, advocates for free speech, media reform and civic engagement. In 2001, she started heading the Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR), a national network of civic groups that has had considerable impact on public debate in Thailand and played a pivotal role in the passage of the Frequencies Regulator Act, which reserves 20 per cent of the media broadcast spectrum for people’s media. In 2006, she won defamation criminal and civil lawsuits, demanding for 10 million USD, against Shin Corporation, a former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinnawatra’s family company. Currently, she is still doing volunteer works for CPMR and running Thai Netizen Network, a citizen’s movement working to uphold cyber-liberty and free expression in Thailand. She is an Ashoka and Eisenhower Fellow. She received the Communication for Social Change Award from the University of Queensland, Australia in 2006. Supinya is the subject of a 2007 documentary film, The Truth Be Told, made by Thai director Pimpaka Towira. This film, dealing with the court cases brought against her by Shin Corp, is being shown at numerous international film festivals.
Interview conducted by Jost Pachaly, Director, Heinrich Böll Foundation - Southeast Asia Regional Office