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Op-Ed

Western Media Perverts Information about Thailand

Andre Vltchek, May 30, 2010

Tourists and Thai walk a street market during a public holiday in Bangkok on May 28. (Photo: Bay Ismoyo/ AFP-Getty Images)

Rebellion was crushed and Bangkok streets were covered with blood, mostly that of poor Thai peasants with their origins in the country's north or northeast. Armored vehicles crashed through the barricades made of old tires and bamboo rods, and government-employed snipers performed their terrible task, shooting people from tall buildings, often aiming directly at their heads.

The reaction of Western media was one of almost calm. "Peace was largely restored in the city Thursday, a day after a military crackdown on anti-government protesters triggered rioting in which 39 buildings were burned," reported the Associate Press (AP) just one day after the carnage. Not surprisingly, it was AP whose news appeared for days on the front page of Yahoo News, shaping public opinion in Europe and the United States as well as Southeast Asia itself.

Early on, it appeared that no one visiting the Redshirts stronghold at the Ratchaprasong area in Bangkok could ignore the pleas of protesters for social justice. While the military coup against Thaksin Shinavatra remained one of the main grievances of the rebels, the issue was gradually fading, replaced by much more urgent ones. Thaksin's images gave way to the red stars on the hats and jackets of defenders of the barricades.

In Western media reports, practically all talk about poverty and discrimination and arrogance of ruling elites quickly disappeared from dispatches of major press agencies. Expressions like "struggle for social justice" became self-censored by journalists in almost all English-language publications and wire services.

A propaganda machine went to work. Government snipers killing protesters came to be described as "clashes between protesters and government troops." The murder (by one of the snipers) of Major General Khattiya Sawasdiphol, who had earlier switched sides and joined the Redshirts, was played down, while agencies, newspapers and magazines in the United Kingdom and United States even invented a derogatory definition for this fallen soldier: rogue general. In the same breath, in one of its recent reports, AP described the country's monarch both as "revered" and "beloved."

With almost no exception, Western media stood by the morally and financially corrupt Thai establishment. Murder of civilians became synonymous with "restoring peace." Shooting into the crowd was labeled as the "quelling of violence."

Rarely was the illegitimate government of British-born and Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva described as a "regime," (a favorite expression of Western media when dealing with anti-corporate and anti-Western governments), despite the fact that he came to power through the barrel of a gun after an illegal coup-d'etat.

While little sympathy or outrage over the killing of civilians was expressed, one could read laments over destroyed high-end real estate properties.

Southeast Asia's history of manipulated news

Southeast Asia is where manipulation of the Western media reached shameful and dizzying heights. Barbaric and brutal bombing of Laotian countryside during the Vietnam War (by U.S. forces, but also with enormous Thai assistance) was called a "secret war," reflecting the willingness of the U.S. and European press to muzzle itself in exchange for the usual perks. The whole truth about Western involvement in Cambodia, including its support for Khmer Rouge, is virtually unknown beyond the boundaries of this part of the world.

Western allies in Southeast Asia became virtually untouchable. The Philippines is very rarely exposed for its brutal feudal system, but is constantly hailed for its "democracy."

Indonesia could be designated as the textbook case. Almost no country managed to escape scrutiny of the Western media as much. The Western-backed coup in 1965 against Sukarno killed between 1 million and 3 million communists, leftists, intellectuals, teachers and people from the Chinese minority. It also opened doors to unbridled capitalism, corruption and religious (Muslim) control of the society, but mainly to the plunder of natural resources.

Naturally, most Western media outlets refused to comment on the occupation and genocide in East Timor or the massacres in Aceh. There was hardly any reporting on the more than 100,000 people who died in Papua, the remote Indonesian province consistently plundered by both Western companies and Indonesian state and military.

Read dispatches of major Western press agencies, and the conclusion you will arrive at is that Indonesia is a democracy (not the brutal feudal state it really is), the largest Southeast Asian economy (not the country with basic services like drinking water at a lower supply than in India or even Bangladesh) and "tolerant Muslim-majority state" (not the country where minorities are historically oppressed to the extreme, where churches periodically go up in flames and atheism is banned by law).

Thailand: land of violent smiles

Despite the cliché of it being a "country of smiles," Thailand is actually a country with one of the most brutal modern histories. In many ways it is a very tough, heartless and aggressive country, which oppresses almost all intellectual, religious and ethnic minorities. But you would hardly find a report on this topic.

The longest-serving (and the richest) monarch on Earth still rules the country that went through 18 military coups. Some coups were relatively "benign," but some were brutal. Pro feudal to the extreme, the Thailand ruling elite systematically liquidates its opposition, particularly any opposition striving for social justice. It has massacred left-wing students and leaders and even burned alleged communists in barrels of oil.

October 1973 saw some of the most brutal massacres on the streets of any Southeast Asian capital, in the name of the fight against communism. Again, there was no word of condemnation from the West, which promoted the country as an excellent place for beaches, massages, cheap food and sex.

AP published a piece in defense of the 1973 massacre with the title, "Experts: 'Bangkok crackdown no replay of Tiananmen,'" proclaiming that "Thailand is a democracy, albeit one now in crisis and long prone to military coups, while China was and is staunchly authoritarian."

For years, Thailand has been ruled by military juntas, with the monarch ceremonial head of state and with anti-communism the main rallying cry of Thai elites. In the name of anti-communism, local opposition was liquidated while the country participated in regional military adventures, basically invading and deeply wounding people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia on behalf of the United States, Australia and other Western powers.

Killing and torturing of the opposition is not the only issue not ventilated on the pages of U.S. and European newspapers. Other topics include terrible treatment of minorities (many non-Thai minorities do not have citizenship and therefore are deprived of basic services and assistance) and refugees (of the more than 1 million Burmese refugees, some endure near slave labor or virtual sexual slavery).

On September 19, 2006, a military junta calling itself the Council for National Security overthrew Thaksin's government while he was abroad. The Yellow Shirts—a movement that defends monarchy and elites—inspired the event, which fell on the 60th anniversary of King Bhumibol's reign. As long as the elite structure and the monarchy were not endangered, the West did nothing to stop this gross interference in democratic process. No major international organizations left Bangkok, and no sanctions from abroad were imposed. (Compare this to the coup in Fiji, which endangered Australian interests there and led to both sanctions and an enormous media campaign). Although Thailand was never actually a democracy, since the country was for decades a staunch anti-communist warrior and ally, it was always awarded democratic status by Western media.

One of the main cadres of the Yellow Shirts, Pipob Tongchai, said in February, "The U.S. wants to have 'traditional' government in Thailand. On September 19 the U.S. took no action against the Thai military. Coups don't matter as long as there is continuity. There was no U.S. intervention. And when Thailand has 'traditional' government, it actually means that the U.S. is fully in charge. It doesn't matter who is at its head—so Thaksin really doesn't matter."

Now Western media is attempting to look objective once again, just as it was "objective" in covering East Timor up to 1999, Indonesian in 1965, or Papua and the Philippines today.

In some publications one can hear voices of reason and truth. On May 18, the International Herald Tribune published a report by Thomas Fuller and Seth Mydans that said, "The protest movement defiantly encamped in Bangkok has its roots as a reaction to Mr. Thaksin's ouster, but it has since expanded to resemble a large social movement by less-affluent segments of Thai society rebelling against what they say is an elite that meddles to control Thailand's democratic institutions."

The same reports later stated, "The government has insisted that soldiers fire only in self defense, but the death toll has been lopsidedly among civilians since violence erupted last Thursday. A government bureau said that 34 civilians and two soldiers, including General Khattiya, had been killed since Thursday and that 256 people had been wounded, almost all of them civilians. … Protesters have attributed some of the deaths to snipers who are stationed in several places around the city on top of tall buildings."

But these voices are in minority.

Not surprisingly, Western media corporations now control almost all news distributed around the world. Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Hata said, "All that Japanese networks report about Thailand is just a copy of what is said on CNN, BBC and other English-language news outlets."

In neighboring Southeast Asian countries, the situation is even more extreme. The great majority of The Jakarta Post articles covering events in Thailand now comes directly from Reuters, and the situation is not much different when it comes to publications in Bahasa Indonesia, including dailies like Sinar Harapan.

"The other side to media distortion and self-censorship is the way that mostly American academia have treated Thailand," explained Geoffrey C. Gunn, a longtime student of Lao politics and society. "What is going on now is a kind of white terror, pay back and disappearances and the entrenchment of a de facto military government. Of course big business and the West will look the other way. It was the Australian foreign minister who congratulated Abhisit on his near bloodless solution."

It has been made increasingly irrelevant what the Redshirts really wanted to achieve, the cause for which they fought and many died. Their voices—those of poor men and women from the countryside and shantytowns—were silenced again, by both media and the military.

Andre Vltchek (andrevltchek.weebly.com) is a novelist, journalist and filmmaker. His latest book, "Oceania," exposes Western neo-colonialism in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. Mr. Vltchek lives and works in Asia and East Africa. This is an abridged version of his original article.

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