The Grey Area of Freedom of Expression in Thailand

Being a committed advocate for freedom of expression, I have recently had the honour of being accused on Twitter by one foreign supporter of the red-shirt movement, by the name of Andrew Spooner (@Andrewspoooner), of supporting the right of yellow-shirt mouthpiece ASTV-Manager Weekly News Magazine to engage in “hate campaign” against one young red-shirt woman on its current weekly issue (Issue no.138, May 26-Jun 1, 2012).

Perhaps it’s because I have yet to publicly denounce the cover-page article on the lady referred to as Orm (อ้อม) on page 4-5 of the magazine or make it explicit that I disapprove of such article when Spooner tweeted to accuse me.

While we can debate whether the article constitutes an outright hate campaign or not, or more like a witch-hunt article which is the view I subscribe to, let us examine the socio-cultural as well as political context of freedom of expression before we proceed to the very grey area of freedom of expression in Thailand.

In a society which largely equates facile consensus and harmony as good, a substantial number of Thai populace from both sides of the political divide do still believe in the ‘virtue’ of censorship and one-sided positive-only information.

Tolerance and appreciation for honest criticisms in Thailand is very low – almost nil. Think of the lese majeste law with its 15 years maximum imprisonment term, the Computer Crimes Act which makes intermediaries equally liable, think of many banned books and undistributed foreign magazines critical of the Thai monarchy, the censorship of movies that criticize Buddhism or Thaksin Shinawatra. Even the otherwise amusing and hilarious movie and play, The King and I, is still banned in this kingdom!

Currently, Red Sunday group leader Sombat Boon-ngam-anong has been in the hot seat, for having ‘dared’ to criticize Thaksin Shinawatra as some red shirts accused him of being a traitor to the red-shirt movement. Basically, it’s hard for some reds to believe that you can be red and still want to criticize Thaksin. The same can be said for Thais who are critical of the monarchy institution. They are often summarily cast as anti-monarchist republicans.

Many Thais continue to believe that information critical of the monarchy must be banned and censored for most Thais, who they believe cannot differentiate facts from fictions, truths from untruths and are easily misled. Such beliefs offer the state the ‘legitimacy’ to continue to suppress the freedom of expression in the name of protecting the monarchy or national security.

It is against this backdrop of rampant censorship, self-censorship and climate of fear that I feel Thailand will have to first learn the merit of freedom of expression and cherishe it as well as guard it.

Following the inception of yellow-shirt media, then red-shirt media, as reactions to the perceived bias and censorship practiced by the Thai mainstream mass media, these new overtly partisan media that I called ‘vigilante media’ often stray into the grey area of freedom of expression that at times involve hate speech and witch hunt campaign.

In the current issue of the yellow-shirt weekly news magazine, the name and residential village location in Khon Kaen province of Orm is provided in the article. While there exists no direct invitation to attack Orm, the article concludes that Orm’s displeasure at the monarchy must mean she is a republican, like other reds who seek to overthrow the monarchy institution.

While I do not condone such disgraceful and virulent article disguised as journalism, I do believe that it would be wrong and harmful to Thai society in general to start calling for some authorities to shut down the magazine altogether. (In case some readers wonder whether I am ‘in bed’ with ASTV or not, please note that there have been over seventy mostly rude and insulting remarks against me from the media outlet’s fans following a news article on me facing a lese majeste police complaint on ASTV news website, with one suggesting that my mother must have had a sexual intercourse with dog.)

My belief is to cultivate maximum tolerance to freedom of expression and to endorse minimum censorship if not at all. In the case of Orm, I think it would be best for organizations like the Press Council of Thailand or the Thai Journalist Association (TJA) to issue a statement or warn ASTV-Weekly News Magazine. The lady referred to in the article could lodge a complaint at the two media bodies and also lodge a police complaint if she feels threatened and harassed by the magazine.

It must be also noted however that the magazine showed a picture of Orm allegedly holding a pretty incendiary placard during a recent red-shirt gathering to mark the second anniversary of the April-May 2010 bloody crackdown on red shirts. The placard can be interpreted by ultra-royalists as being ‘indirectly’ offensive or insulting to the King.

'I am phrai. Does it bother your father?  I don't love. Will your father die?'

So did both Orm and the magazine entered into the grey area of freedom of expression? I believe so. Freedom of expression must also take into account the rights of others from being violated, physically and emotionally. But learning to tolerate extreme views that stop short of a direct physical threat is also needed in Thailand.

And even if I were to follow Spooner’s knee-jerk stance, then there’s also the question of who is to decide what to censor and what not to be censored. And who will select or elect this censorship board and how can we make them accountable to the public?  Mind you, Thailand has a Film Board which has just recently banned the movie ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ which criticizes Thaksin.

I don’t think Thailand can afford to hand back the power to censor mass media to a handful of ‘enlightened’ beings. It’s already bad enough with the lese majeste law and the Computer Crimes Act. More censorship would simply plunge Thailand deeper into the abyss of ignorance and immaturity. When people are mature, no amount of hate speech can influence them. Preventive censorship will almost certainly keep citizens from ever becoming mature, however. (It should be worthwhile for concerned citizens or state organizations or NGOs to set up an organization to campaign against hate speech and educate people about the pitfall of hate speech though.)

Even if you shut down the ASTV, it won’t stop hate messages against red shirts, and vice versa. Do we then need to shut down the internet and read just one ‘appropriate’ newspaper and watch just one ‘appropriate’ television channel? And how do we know whether these ‘appropriate’ media are not feeding us with propaganda if there exist no competing views from other media, no matter how incendiary?

The truth is, nobody can or have the right to babysit us forever. Thais will have to learn to be more tolerant, use good judgment, exercise the freedom of expression more responsibly, and not be easily tempted by hate speech, the vulgarity and shallowness of some news articles, or the urge to establish the Ministry of Censorship.

Enough censorship and self-censorship persists in today’s Thailand. Let’s not plunge deeper into the instant-gratification urge to have someone decide for us what we can and should read, listen or watch.

The answer is more tolerance, not more censorship, more maturity, not more censorship.

When you see a rubbish article like the one on Orm, recognize it as such and be tempted not to join a witch hunt, even if you are a royalist.

(By the way, if Spooner thinks the witch hunt goes in one direction only, please note that some who feel sympathetic to the lese majeste police complaint against me, have also put the picture and address of the man who lodge the police complaint against me, on the internet. This is not something that I am proud or can approve of.) 

Note: Below are the tweets I received from @andrewspoooner and a kind rebuttal from @naphat, a Thai whom I have never met.



I wouldn't pay too much

I wouldn't pay too much attention to Andrew Spooner, or to myself, or any of the rest of us just brimming over with free advice and acting as self-appointed arbiters of the committedness of others to 'the cause', Pravit.

You're doin' just fine no matter what Andrew Spooner or myself or any one else says about you. And don't pay too much (any?) attention to twitter. It was created to fan the flames and stoke the fires of the otherwise completely forgettable topical comment. Here today ... gone today. And after all, you've been awarded the Croix de Guerre from the terrorist bozos in Roi Et, so actually have skin in the game.

Certainly censoring the Manager is out of the question. But why didn't you at least put a link to the "pretty incendiary placard ... interpreted by ultra-royalists as being ‘indirectly’ offensive or insulting to the King". Having to guess at the 'offense' is very tiresome and unfair to all involved.

If the Manager can publish it then so can you. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander as well.

There is a little tiny

There is a little tiny picture of a woman holding a sign on the link to this article now ... I'm sure it wasn't there when I complained above. I assume its the lady in question. Still cannot read what her sign actually says. The letters are too small, and too blurry on enlargement.

Well .. now it's big and

Well .. now it's big and legible and translated! She's cute, too. Or should I say attractive. Don't want to offend anyone.

Her sign doesn't seem to me to evidence "displeasure at the monarchy" or to "mean she is a republican". Maybe both those opinions are held by herself, or maybe they're not. There's certainly no way of knowing from what's written on her sign.

And even if she did feel "displeasure at the monarchy" ... that's a crime? Chapter and verse, please. Military Constitutions don't count.

Being a "republican" is a crime? Chapter and verse, please. Military Constitutions don't count.

Sovereign people, and the people are sovereign even in the present military constitution (Chapter 1, Section 3), are certainly the sovereigns of their own minds.

I'm reminded of Junya's very thoughtful and heartfelt essay, Why I don’t love the King?. What is expressed there, according to my lights, is a disenchantment not with any real, flesh and blood being, but with the fetish the Hyper-Royalists have constructed in the likeness of a real person, which they ... foolishly if not blasphemously, for it is not a real person ... call Father, for instance.

Both Junya's essay and Orm's sign signal to me mature minds reflecting on childhood beliefs, attempts to "differentiate facts from fictions, truths from untruths" and therefore not to be "easily misled".

Which is probably the whole problem from the dictatorial, top-down, yellow, minority, 'elitist' perspective.

I haven't read the article

I haven't read the article and I'm not a lawyer (which renders what follows essentially meaningless) but it's hard to see any justification for printing her name and address and given the prior history of the organization and its followers, it does seem hard to escape the conclusion that it is incitement of some kind. And I have no problem with criminalizing that (whichever way it goes, yellow to red or red to yellow). Obviously, understanding and tolerance are in desperately short supply in Thailand but actions which fall, or ought reasonably to fall, into the realm of the criminal, whether or not they infringe on freedom of speech (itself not an unlimited right), should be treated as such. I also think positing, or making reference tom Orm's placard is a bit unnecessary. กูไม่รักพ่อ might be an unpleasant thought for some but it's hard to think of any soundly considered morality where having or expressing that though offers any justification for incitement to violence.

And whilst we're on the subject of censorship, doesn't it seem a bit odd to translate กูเหี้ยมะ? as "Am I bad?"

"thought" not "though"

"thought" not "though"

In reply to your essentially

In reply to your essentially meaningless comments l will add one or two or my own.

Orm ought to seek out and receive police protection.

That's absurd on its face in Thailand, but so is reining in, in away, the hate full Yellow shirts.

The courts are yellow, the Amaat is yellow, the Democrat party is yellow ... Always remember ... "It's not that you can do anything you want because you have the majority vote" ... in Thailand. It's that you can do anything you want in Thailand only if you are a hopeless minority ... with the Royal Thai Army on your side.

Sorry Pravit but I see you a

Sorry Pravit but I see you a total fake when it comes to the phrase "Freedom of speech". I hope you still remember who I am in FB. The one you failed to debate with and blocked me off totally......I don't know what this article of yours is about as I didn't bother reading it after knowing what you really are. You are no different from the Democrats who says one thing does the other, anyone who criticize your opinion, you blocked them off and call it insults and that's the real you.

Oh yes, I still remember the

Oh yes, I still remember the words you wrote on the comment before you blocked me off in FB "I'm begining to dislike you"....Well Pravit, I was going to say to you "I'm beginning to despise you" but you click on the block button faster than I can type....So, here it is again 'I DESPISE YOU, PARVIT AND I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN NOTHING COULD HAVE CAME OUT REAL FROM THE NATION"

Out of curiosity, I read on

Out of curiosity, I read on your article and man, you are the biggest hypocrite of all kinds. In your article, you try to defend yourself with again the "Freedom of Speech" when the yellow pigs are posting threats, hate speech and yet you block me off from FB for questioning your opinion and status? Pravit, A real scholar you're more like a joker to me.

Dear Lalida, I don't think I

Dear Lalida,
I don't think I have ever conversed with you at all. BTW, I do not have a Facebook account! Not now, not before. Also, I have never blocked anyone on Twitter, ever.
Have a nice day.

Pravit, I'm happy to read

Pravit, I'm happy to read that you have sense enough not to have offered yourself as marketing fodder to facebook ... so how come you have done so at twitter?

Someone pointed out the other day that Thailand has a disproportionately high number of lambs on facebook and of those a disproportionately high number are in Bangkok. I imagine twitter is full of the same sort of twits. So you surely cannot be surprised at these 'attacks', can you?

Maybe you should just drop twitter? The information content seems low. And, selfishly speaking, then the rest of us wouldn't have to see these long exchanges among the twits, complete with their cute little pictures ... accompanied by your shocked! tsk tsking at the receipt of such absolutely predictable flotsom from the sea of the twits.

I'm sure the Mubarak's of

I'm sure the Mubarak's of this world would support your call for people to abandon twitter & facebook.

Personally, I've never liked the facebook concept, but reckon twitter is great (for lazy, opinionated, intellectual featherweights like me:)

Now here is someone who is

Now here is someone who is consistent. Let's hear it for all the lazy, opinionated intellectual featherweights of the world. Proud to be in their number!

Hobby if you like twitter

Hobby if you like twitter keep twitting in good health. And thanks for not bringing all the twits with you when you come. I don't have to turn in my lazy, opinionated, intellectual featherweight card just because I don't twit, do I?

And gee whiz, Pravit ... now

And gee whiz, Pravit ... now they're following you home!

John Francis Lee Actually I

John Francis Lee

Actually I didn't just tweet random comments to Pravit before he wrote this piece but also made it clear that my position on limits of FoE were more fully expressed here in an article i wrote in August 2011.

i sent that to him several days before he wrote this piece and made it clear that was my position on the matter.

When I asked him today why he didn't reference any of the issues I raise in that piece his response was that as that article wasn't directed at him personally he wouldn't respond to it. Of course, I would argue that if we're dealing with important issues such as FoE that they are guided by principles and do not, therefore, need to be directed at anyone personally to have cogency and remain relevant.

Here is my response, in full, to Pravit.

Andrew sent me an email and I

Andrew sent me an email and I replied as followed.

Mail from Andrew to me, sent on June 1:


Have to say how disappointing it was to see the way you referred to me in the opening line of your Prachatai article.

You could have described me as a colleague or an "associate", a "blogger", a "writer" or even, god forbid, a "journalist".

Instead you chose the word "foreign" placing that above every single description you could have given to me and before my arguments themselves.

You also refused to even refer to the more carefully constructed arguments I sent you in my Aug 2011 Asian Correspondent article instead relying only on a handful of tweets, which you then published, and not the main basis of my argument which you wilfully ignored and did not publish. I don't know why you would do that.

Therefore I would like an explanation as to why you knowingly misrepresented my views in your Prachatai article and why you considered my "foreignness" to be a point of relevance in this debate.

Best wishes



I replied:

Dear Andrew,

As for your old article. I had asked you to updated it and specifically address it to me so I can reply. But you had earlier refused, as appeared on our earlier e-mail conversation. I had already RT the link after you tweeted, however.


Actually Pravit you're

Actually Pravit you're deliberately misrepresenting what I wrote to you and the timeline - no matter.

Did I or did I not send you this on the 29th May, two days before you wrote this article?

"I wrote about these matters back in Aug 2011 here -

My position is still the same so you can use that as a starting point."

You then said you'd only consider that argument if it was directed, personally, at you and that I'd have to "re-write it"

I then responded on 29th May

"No, Pravit, that's the exact same position I'd take. I've articulated it in full, over 500words, with clear historical examples."

I also made it clear that even that that Aug 2011 article was in response to your statements from that time.

I wrote to you and said, on 29th May

"In fact that Aug 2011 piece was in direct response to you, at that time, making similar comments supporting the rights of ASTV etc to engage in hate campaigns.

I didn't put your name in it as I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt."

Ho hum.



Bruno - suggest asking

Bruno - suggest asking someone to remove your latest Thai, which was unfortunately way off the mark. 'Long' in English can be translated into Thai several ways, and means something completely different each time. The word long you intended to use here seems to have been นาน, but even here is out of context without some heavy grammatical treatment. The Thai phrase for Long Live the King is not that Google mistranslation copied here but ทรงพระเจริญ. The literal translation of this is not, as Google errs in telling us "Bonzai!," but May [the monarch] live a long and prosperous life.
Always check with a Thai speaker, who can read and knows what he or she is reading, prior to posting Thai language. We native speakers, me included many times over, make enough mistakes in our own language without mangling a second one - and possibly getting into a fix doing so. Many Thais are not as tolerant of honest efforts as they should be, and it's not always friendly advice you will get.
Keep trying, however, and don't give up. You put forth an effort and not everyone does that.