Monday, August 19, 2019

The Western media’s hall of mirrors 

Oct 20. 2016
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By Pornpimol Kanchanalak
Special To The Nation

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“I have yet to see a piece of writing, political or non-political, that does not have a slant. All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular,” wrote American essayist EB White. 

But when one is a journalist, you have a duty to pull yourself vertical. It’s known as professionalism.

That is why it was unacceptable when, immediately after the passing of His Majesty, some Western media began recycling falsehoods about the King written by ersatz journalists who couldn’t care less about facts and truth. The stories in question were based on theories that the writers never bothered to verify. Some of those theories have more holes than Swiss cheese. But that has never worried the writers. Worse, there appear to be no fact-checking mechanisms in place in mainstream media such as The Economist or the New York Times, which allowed such pieces to be published. Lies and falsehoods that these respected publications spread about some faraway land becomes “fact”.  Those faux facts are repeated and reproduced, and the hall of mirrors reflects the distorted images ad infinitum. 

Take for example the obituary published in The Economist, whose well-written and well-researched epitaphs are widely read and admired as they usually provide a rough but complete picture of their subject, and more importantly, captures its essence.

In contrast, the magazine’s hastily-penned piece on His Majesty fell badly short of its own high standard. Simply a poor cut-and-paste job, it failed to get eve one fact straight. Maybe it is because Thailand is thousands of kilometres away – with a culture, mindset and narrative completely alien and unfathomable to indolent Westerners – that such ignorance has become an acceptable norm.

Maybe that was why someone who wrote worthless and fabricated accounts of His Majesty’s life, and called it an “Unauthorised Biography”, was allowed space in such a respected newspaper as the New York Times to repeat malicious lies that are more toxic and baseless than those published in supermarket tabloids like the National Enquirer. The latter are less harmful because no reader in their right mind actually repeats the stories as fact.

It is time to correct the record of the life and times of a person that a New York Times editorial called the personification of Thailand.  

First and foremost among the distorted Western perceptions is the role of and relationship between the monarchy, the military and the development or lack thereof of democracy in Thailand. In 2013 an ill-informed article in Foreign Policy magazine blamed the dysfunction in Thailand’s democracy squarely on the throne. That proposition was then repeated as fact because people did not know any better and did not care to learn. As Jawaharlal Nehru once said, “Ignorance is always afraid of change.”

Democracy arrived imperfect in Thailand in 1932, because it was born prematurely. The small Revolutionary group of military and civilians brought an abrupt end to 150 years of absolute monarchy of the present dynasty but failed to provide the country with a viable incubator for the new system. The group focused on destroying the old system, ruthlessly purging the old establishment rather than honestly ushering the country into a new political era where the people could fairly participate in writing their own destiny. Governments ever since have been far more concerned with their own narrow personal and financial interests, than establishing a sustainable and functioning democratic apparatus that could garner real democratic development. Such development was even perceived as an impediment to their greed and addiction to power. As such, they have systematically exploited every loophole that exists under a dysfunctional political system for their own gain, not only shamelessly, but also with pride.

First, if the conspiracy theory about the role of His Majesty in Thailand’s dysfunctional democracy were to be accepted, then one must agree to the statement that there is someone in particular behind the political mess the United States is in right now. Who would be blamed then? The Bogeyman? 

Second, let us not forget that the military’s role in Thailand after the 1932 coup was largely a design of the West, particularly the United States. The overthrow of the liberal Pridi Banomyong government by Field Marshall Plaek Pibulsongkram was in significant part orchestrated by the West out of the morbid fear of rising communism in Asia. The same goes for the rise to power of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat. His tenure (1957-1963) coincided with the Vietnam War. The US did more than its share of supporting him as a strongman. After the end of the war, Thailand experienced intermittent democracy. But aside from the military-coup installed government of prime minister Anand Panyarachun, which was sincere about ushering in bona fide democracy, no other elected government has done much for democracy here. And they didn’t even try. Democracy was for them merely a convenient tool to sanctify corruption, fraud and abuse of power.

Third, the Thai monarchy is not the richest institution in the world. In fact, it is far from it. Western sources state the monarchy’s net worth based on estimates of the assets held by the Crown Property Bureau, which does not belong to the King. The Revolutionary group confiscated all the assets that belonged to the throne in 1932 and turned them into national assets. These comprise prime real estate responsible for sending the net worth estimation sky high. The monarch’s personal wealth is different and separate from that of the Crown Property Bureau. His Majesty used a great portion of his own money to support worthy and well-thought-out community projects to improve the livelihood of the people in a sustainable manner. The funds were never used to dole out freebies for political popularity.

Fourth, it is fundamentally incorrect for Western media to identify political divisions in Thailand as a class war between the rural Thaksin-supporting poor and urban elites branded “royalists”. The truth of the matter is, the last massive street demonstrations comprised people fed up with runaway corruption and a culture of impunity, and the brazen sense of entitlement of a handful of political elites and their cronies. Cast a glance over the crowds who come out to mourn the passing of the beloved King and you will see they are drawn equally form every social strata and walk of life.

Fifth, the West likes to say that the military received the His Majesty’s  “endorsement” after the coup to become a government – with the implication that the King himself had a choice. The fact is, constitutionally, he had none. He had to sign the piece of paper appointing a new government regardless of his personal approval or disapproval, because the paper would have cited an article in the constitution or interim constitution stipulating that the King had the obligation to sign the document.

Sixth, nothing is farther from the truth than to claim His Majesty did nothing to promote democracy. Isn’t the rule of law and the act of upholding it one of the most important pillars of democracy? One must be reminded that throughout his reign, His Majesty attached much importance to the judicial branch. One of his last activities in public was a ceremony to swear-in new judges, where the King reminded them of their solemn duty to the country and its democratic system. He also emphasised the importance of education, moderation, prudent planning, conscience, and sustainable development in preventing the country from falling into the traps of rapid economic advancement.

As for certain Western writers and journalists who cannot comprehend the genuine and rare benevolence and magnanimity of our King, we can only hope that the tears of our people after his passing might wash away their prejudice and misconceptions. Aesop’s fable of the Cock and the Jewel teaches us that the foolish cock ignores the jewel – the gift of wisdom for which he has no taste.

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