Thailand through the looking glass
In his classic moral fairy tale, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll had his heroine walk through a mirror into a world where size, perspective, and moral judgement had become different and unreliable. Perhaps without anyone noticing it, Thailand slid through a cosmic looking glass in 2001. If not, how to explain…
In how many countries of the world are the heroines of the moment the Auditor-General and the leading forensic scientist? In most countries, the auditor-general is a faceless official beavering away in the depths of the bureaucracy. Forensic scientists carry with them the whiff of formaldehyde and the smell of death. They are about as likely to become headline material as the head of garbage disposal and the chief dog exterminator. It takes special conditions to make the craft of checking figures or checking DNA into the stuff of heroism.
In how many countries of the world could the man who put whores on prime-TV only a couple of years ago now present himself as the defender of innocent children against the possibility of having to walk past a giant whorehouse on their way to school?
Chuwit Kamolvisit first came to public notice by putting his family name on police kiosks. This effectively announced the wholesale bribery of the police to which he later confessed. He then appeared as the mastermind behind the thuggish demolition of property and livelihoods in Sukumwit Soi 10. He followed up by using his media notoriety to promote his sex services business, including exhibiting the merchandise on TV, press, and the public stage. Along the way, he educated children by describing how he had misspent his youth in booze, gambling, and whoring as preparation to become a millionaire.
Then all the perspectives began to shift. Chuwit became a crusader against corruption. A scourge of police wrongdoing. A representative of the people. He sold his places of entertainment. He got elected to parliament. He turned Sukumwit Soi 10 into a park. And now he wishes to save the capital's children from exposure to sin. With some skill, you could write up his tale as a modern Jataka story. The Perfection of Redemption. Perhaps soon he'll shave off that raffish moustache, join Chamlong's Palang Tham, and spend the weekends serving vegetarian meals.
Chuwit is not alone. There have been others who have followed a similar trajectory, though with less fuel. Ekkayuth Anchanbutr, who had fled Thailand for twenty years to avoid prosecution for fleecing people with a fraudulent pyramid scheme, returned and posed as a righteous crusader against stockmarket manipulation by politicians. Sanan Kachornprasat, an old-style backstairs politicians convicted for misreporting his assets, was resurrected as the eminence of a new, clean political party. Both of these rockets exploded soon after takeoff, but during lift-off they were imagined as pioneers of hope.
But these vignettes have been mere warm-up acts before the performance of the last fortnight. The looking glass has been raked further awry, and the perspectives are totally out of whack. When Sondhi Limthongkul, Suthikiat Chirathiwat, and Robert Kuok become the thin red line defending media freedom against “capitalism” and “political influence”, then we're in a never-never land where nobody knows which way is up.
Don't misunderstand. Chang Noi thinks it would be a shame if Grammy gobbled up the Bangkok Post and the Matichon group. The motive must be political because the acquisitions don't make much sense in financial terms, and Grammy's Paiboon Damrongchaitham changed his explanation of why he wanted the takeovers three times in a week. The Matichon Group is a national treasure which has pioneered many innovations in publishing, often with limited expectations of returns. Chang Noi also thinks it a shame that Sondhi's Thailand Weekly was banned because it was the only current affairs programme on mainstream TV which is not government propaganda.
But. But. But
Grammy is portrayed as bad because it's “capitalism” threatening the media. What then is powering the business empires of Central, the Kuoks, and the Manager group?
How many editors has the Bangkok Post lost in the last year or so? It has become difficult to keep up. The last one disappeared out the back door without hardly creating a draught. Is this fearless press freedom?
What qualifies Sondhi to be the poster child of free media threatened by political influence? When his ambitious media empire bellied up in the Asian crisis, he seemed intent on saving himself at the expense of many people who had worked for him. He was bailed out of some huge debts in the early years of the Thaksin regime, and promptly reappeared on television as a passionate advocate of Thaksin's premiership. Amid all the dreary propaganda, his television show was an ingenious support for Thaksin, because Sondhi's analyses were so clever and engaging. Chang Noi remembers watching in reluctant admiration as Sondhi presented the Krue Se mosque incident in a way which absolved the government of any fault.
On top, the format of the programme was hilarious. A stunningly beautiful and obviously intelligent lady pleaded with Sondhi to overcome her unfortunate ignorance, and happily tolerated the scolding she got whenever trying to interpose her own pathetic opinions.
Some months ago, Sondhi suffered disillusion about the great leader, and began using the same engaging cleverness to berate the Thaksin government. Of course, he had to go. The reasons which the government-owned TV channel gave for the ejection – that he criticised people who had no opportunity to respond – is nonsense. If that was a universal criterion, the prime minister's radio show would not have lasted one month. But there remains a question whether Sondhi's disillusion with the premier was a flash of light from heaven, or another bit of opportunism.
Most judgements are relative to some extent. We pick the best available. We support one thing because the alternative is worse.
Meanwhile, how do we get out of here? Which way is up?