Some Perspective on Thai Community Radio

2Bangkok Situation Update: Some perspective on Thai Community Radio - October 23, 2010

This blog post on Thaksin's lobbying blog once again brings up the interesting case of community radio.

It is extraordinary that Thaksin, a stalwart foe of community radio during his time in power, also criticizes the present government for opposing political expression via community radio as he did.

Community radio has a long and checked history in Thailand. The modern heyday of community radio has been in the last 20 years when it was revived as an innovation in the aftermath of the events of Black May in 1992 to create modern democratic discourse and decentralize power. In the last decade, grassroots criticism of governments has clashed with the belief in the necessity for deference to maintain an orderly society.

Community radio, as well as other independent checks and balances in the 1997 constitution, were persistently undermined by Thaksin's governments. Community radio stations were to be managed by a broadcasting association. The Thai Rak Thai government simply refused to set up the association and thus treated the stations that began to operate as illegal entities.

Considering the many existing political factions that had been cobbled together to form Thaksin majority, it is likely that allowing community radio at the time would have allowed local political bickering that would have impacted Thaksin's one-party dream. Some links and background to the Thaksin community radio years are here.

The trick of refusing to enact organic laws to stymie rights granted in the constitution was corrected in the 2007 charter which did not require governments to enact agencies in order for portions of the rights granted in the charter to be valid.

The Democrats tried the same tact recently by contending that, since they had not set up environmental oversight panels, no environmental impact studies were required on industrial estates. The courts ruled against them.

This issue of community radio within the context of Thai society is not really about free speech, but about two other linked issues.

First is the willingness of a hierarchical society being able to accept independent checks and balances--or even open criticism--of those in top positions of authority. While this may seem hard to appreciate or even risible to Western minds, it is key to understanding the underlying dynamics of the challenge faced in the highly stratified Thai world.

Secondly, Thai society is having to determine acceptable limits of both speech and protest. For instance, what sort of free speech oversteps traditional greng jai notions of respect and deference? Should radio stations be allowed to call for insurrection and the killing of the prime minister's family? Should throwing bags of urine or overrunning government house be considered acceptable forms of protest in a democratic society? Can Thailand create its own standards or must it accede to Western standards of free speech? These are valid discussion points in a society that considers open protest to be a shameful display of disunity rather than a normal venue for free expression.

Despite attempts to restrict it, community radio is rapidly allowing local criticism to proliferate and impact central authority. Along with SMS messages, which reach even remote villages, these technologies are creating the expectation of free speech and expression--while at the same time being aggressively co opted by forces on every side of the political landscape. The challenge is how society will integrate these new forms of expression into existing morals and values.

It is important to note that the nature of the protests earlier this year, when Red Shirts were saying (and continue to say) that they had broken no laws and must overthrow the government by any means, do not reflect a dawn of new democratic thinking or free speech. This behavior is still entirely within the existing Thai cultural context.

These types of statements and activities imply that peaceful people who become "dissatisfied" have every right to act violently (more about this sort of idea here-> About Thai protests).

Having explained all of this, it is probably important to note that we are in a reactionary time, with epoch-defining events to occur in the near term and a new military clique in the ascendancy. The present government is coming out of a period of near civil war chaos so it is perhaps not surprising that they would take a heavy handed approach to Red Shirt activities. We can expect more conservatism from the establishment and probably not any revolutionary change in Thai thinking about these issues.
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