“Thai women are fighters” – for World Press Freedom Day 2008

In 2003, Thai media rights activist Supinya Klangnarong was sued by former Thai prime minister’s Thaksin Shinawatra’s Shin Corp over comments quoted in a Thai newspaper. She never imagined the case would be drawn out over three years and have possible far-reaching repercussions.

This was an impression I received from watching the documentary of her saga, “The Truth Be Told: the cases against Supinya Klangnarong”. It was shown at this year’s 21st Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) recently. The first public and international screening outside of Thailand, the film was only previously shown in Bangkok to a private, invitation-only audience last September.*

Supinya had stated in the Thai Post on 16 July 2003 that Shin Corp had benefitted through favourable government policies, as it was politically connected to the Thaksin government and suffered from conflicts of interest. Because they claimed that Supinya’s allegations adversely affected Shin Corp’s stock value and credit rating, the conglomerate sued both her and the newspaper for criminal and civil libel. The latter suit sought 400 million baht (that’s about 18.2 million Singapore dollars, give or take a few hundred thousand) in compensation.

Photo from Poakpong

Director Pimpaka Towira showed key snapshots of her life throughout the years of her trial, culminating in the Criminal Court throwing out the criminal suit in March 2006 and Shin Corp dropping the civil suit in May that same year. For the former lawsuit, the court ruled that the article in the Thai Post was presented in good faith and in the public’s best interest.

The film actually has a subtler but more powerful underlying theme – that of an activist fighting for media reform to put power into the hands of the ordinary people; to control national resources such as radio and television broadcasts, from production to consumption. The timing of the screening in Singapore was incidentally appropriate for this year’s World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, and as expressed by the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) focus this year – empowering people through media freedom and access to information.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s rule as prime minister of Thailand was one that saw a gradual attempt at clamping down freedom of expression. This was before he was ousted in the September 2006 coup that witnessed even more restrictions on media and political freedoms by the interim military-backed government, at least in its initial stages. His regime can be described as one of “democratic authoritarianism”, where he had centralised and personalised power under his dominance, leading to “authoritarian rule under democratic guises”.

Among his various methods of power consolidation were media coercion via threatened expulsion of foreign journalists for critical coverage, the banning of an issue of The Economist in March 2002, and using the Anti-Money Laundering Office to probe the back records of more than 200 prominent Thai journalists and civil society activists for “financial wrongdoing”. There were more subtle suppressive measures such as threatening the contract cancellation of The Nation cable TV channel by the government-linked UBC cable operator, as well as the Shin Corp-owned AIS mobile phone operator withdrawing advertising on The Nation‘s media outlets.

It was in this environment that the Thai Post published Supinya’s comments and in which she found herself in the eye of the storm.

The film is infused with very human moments, and is not always strictly about her fight. Her parents and extended family are featured prominently, and at times nearly steal the limelight. There is a strong sense of the Asian traditions and bonds of family life, shown through the lens of life in her hometown of Surat Thani (in the south of Thailand), and her parents’ concerned yet unwavering support for her – even though her mother would rather Supinya do something else other than going against the power of government interests. The audience is reminded that Supinya is engaged in a struggle that few in her family would fully understand.

But she was not alone in her fight. The timespan of her cases coincided with the increasing anti-Thaksin agitation and tension; there are scenes of her attending rallies by grassroots movements and other anti-Thaksin forces, and interacting with people there. In one scene, a woman approached her to give support, saying “We Thai women are fighters…we [must lead and encourage] the men.”

At a point in the film, Supinya’s expresses frustration at accusations from some quarters that her cases and related causes from anti-Thaksin and civil society elements had served as a catalyst for the military coup of 19 September 2006. (In fact, the reason for “The Truth Be Told”‘s late 2007 release was because footage of coup scenes were added to round up the film. The coup had surprised almost everyone, including the director.)

This blogger understands the above sentiments but disagrees with their basic premise. I argue that Thai society had begun to develop noticeable ruptures shortly after Thaksin took office in 2001. The military, always an independent political force in spite of Thaksin’s manoeuvring, was by 2006 dominated by anti-Thaksin officers in the high command with close ties to the Thai monarchy. The latter’s turbulent relationship with the erstwhile prime minister was already well known and a subject of much speculation. It should have come as no surprise that the military sidelined the various grassroots forces, and with the endorsement of the monarchy, launched their coup.**

At the very most, individuals like Supinya and various groups were used as unwitting pawns – specifically, as excuses by anti-Thaksin middle class forces with vested interests, the military high command, and the monarchy to strike at Thaksin. These latter groups were perfectly capable of colluding and acting on their own once the timing was deemed right; they did not need Supinya and others to supposedly deepen divisions within Thai society before taking action.

Film director Pimpaka (left) commented to the audience after the Singapore screening on 7 April, that the current political situation in her country might re-create similar conditions and tensions leading to the 2006 coup. That was her greatest fear for Thailand, since a known Thaksin proxy had been recently elected as prime minister and might antagonise anti-Thaksin forces.

What this bodes for continued press freedom and freedom of expression in Thailand is uncertain. Grassroots groups and civil society would almost be sure to suffer from the political machinations of those in power. As long as these varied forces are still in play, all hope is not lost and we may yet see some conflicts alongside positive developments.

We can draw this hope from Supinya herself, who is still actively campaigning for her causes. (See here and here)
More information:

Online

Thai media activist fights lawsuit (BBC)
Shin Corp withdraws defamation suit against press freedom activist (RSF)
Supinya Klangnarong (Ashoka)
2006 Winner of the Communication and Social Change Award (Queensland University)
World Press Freedom Day (UN Canada)
World Press Freedom Day 2008 (UNESCO)
The Truth Be Told in Singapore (Wise Kwai’s Thai Film Journal)
Review: The Truth Be Told (Wise Kwai’s Thai Film Journal @ The Nation)
The Truth Be Told: The Case Against Supinya Klangnarong (THAICINEMA.org)
People vs the Ruling Class – Legal battle and beyond in Thailand (the paradoX files)
Supinya Klangnarong, secretary-general of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform (video)

Others

1. Thailand: Democratic Authoritarianism. Thitinan Pongsudhirak – Southeast Asian Affairs 2003, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

2. Thaksin’s Political Zenith and Nadir. Thitinan Pongsudhirak – Southeast Asian Affairs 2006, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

* Apparently, plans for a public screening in Bangkok fell through when the Thai official censors did/could not give permission in time to director Pimpaka in the uncertain climate of the Thai political situation in September 2007. That is, if I remember her words correctly at the Q & A session after the film screening at the SIFF. Another sad reminder of why we commemorate World Press (and other media) Freedom Day.

** This comes with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge, after working and living in Bangkok for a few years and experiencing the 2006 coup, along with studying Thai politics in graduate school.

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