Bambi vs Godzilla in Thailand

Jan McGirk
26 April 2005

Supinya Klangnarong’s trial may be the most outrageous mismatch since Bambi met Godzilla in the world’s briefest animated film.

The 31-year old Thai journalist has dared to point out that the soaring profits of Thailand’s biggest corporation may have links to political decisions made by Thailand’s billionaire prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. When Shin Corp, the flagship of the family telecommunications empire which Thaksin founded, slapped her with a punitive lawsuit equal to 2,800 times her annual pay, Supinya did not cower or negotiate a quick settlement. Rather, she waited for the industrialists to bring it on. “Of course I am confident we can win the criminal and civil cases”, she says with a sweet smile. “I’ll see them in court.”

The libel case, due to start on 18 July, will put Thailand’s press freedom under the international spotlight. The gutsy defendant and media freedom advocate – now preparing to battle the £5.4 million lawsuit while on bail – is unfazed.

Supinya and three editors from the Thai Post, an alternative newspaper which in 2003 published her concerns about a conflict of interest between power politics and big business in Thailand’s first family, will face two years in prison and a heavy fine if found guilty of criminal defamation. Amid the furore, Supinya refuses to be muzzled and continues her advocacy as secretary-general of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR).

This determination was fuelled by her study for a master’s degree in communications from London’s Westminster University in 2002. She recalls: “After I came back from London, I felt inspired and much more confident. I learned the standards to which the press should be held and saw a chance for reform here. I am not against the Thai government or against capitalism, but I believe freedom of expression is a human right. In an open society, we must be able to express our opinions.”

Supinya doesn’t shirk from the big questions. Why does the Thai army still own two television stations and 220 national radio stations? Where do the profits go? Whatever happened to the outcry for media reform, so strong after the army gunned down Bangkok street protesters in May 1992? When the family of the leader owns the airwaves, the internet, and the mobile-phone networks, can his political opponents avoid surveillance? Is democracy endangered?

“When business mixes with politics at the highest level in Thailand, it is impossible to distinguish a libel suit from an attempt to silence the prime minister’s critics,” says Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch. “Thailand’s once-vigorous free press is being slowly squeezed to death.”

From tiger to crocodile

Thaksin Shinawatra, a notoriously thin-skinned leader despite his landslide election victory in February 2005, loathes criticism. He frequently takes personal swipes at any detractors during his own hour-long weekly radio broadcasts. Over the past four years, dozens of news editors and journalists have been sacked or transferred by publishers eager to appease his government. Thaksin created the powerful ruling party, Phak Thai Rak Thai (“Thais love Thais”). But no love is lost on Thai sceptics, it appears.

Reporters are expected to soften their news coverage so publishers may compete for lucrative corporate and government advertising contracts. These are withheld to punish those who won’t adhere to the government line. Anchalee Paireerak, a radio talk-show host, has complained that she came under intense pressure to quit shortly after she prodded opposition politicians to compare Thaksin with former Thai tyrants. The prime minister’s office warned the outspoken Anchalee that the transmission signal from her radio station is jamming mainstream frequencies and required her to dismantle its tall mast.

The foreign press also irritates Thailand’s tetchy leader. Thaksin threatened to expel journalists from the Far Eastern Economic Review after they reported discord between the monarchy and the prime minister. He then berated a financial columnist, from the International Herald Tribune, as “idiot scum” for questioning the feasibility of some of his financial targets.

Thaksin remains one of the best-connected politicians in Asia. He once served alongside George Bush senior on the board at the preternaturally influential Carlyle private-equity group. He even has a Texas pedigree of sorts, earning a doctorate in criminology at Sam Houston University during the 1970s. Rhetorically he comes across as “Thaksin the Texan”, who shoots from the lip.

Supinya points out that she was hardly the first to express concerns over the Thaksin’s long reach, but reckons she was singled out as a soft target with scant funds who might be easily intimidated. Academics have for years accused the telecommunications tycoon of consolidating his political power through market manipulation. Even Thailand’s steady economic growth is seen as benefiting the Shinawatra family firm and other big businesses more than the nation as a whole.

The normally blunt-speaking Thaksin is rather coy about any public mention of his potential conflicts of interest. “He and his spokesman ignore my case even when asked directly about it,” Supinya says, “but it’s not going away.” Once regarded as Thailand’s wealthiest man, Thaksin was required by law to transfer his vast and varied assets to relatives when he was elected prime minister.

Either directly or through Shin Corporation, his relatives have stakes in Thailand’s only commercial satellite firm. They also own the largest mobile-phone company, an internet service provider, an airline, a bank, a television channel, plus interests in advertising and property development and a host of similar investments in the region, particularly in Burma.

Supinya complains: “These days we have more cronyism and nepotism. It is like running away from the tiger but stumbling into a crocodile. This means that, as we Thais try to democratise, we run from the strong state regime, from authoritarianism, but we face global capitalism with all its foibles. We would like the international community to be alert about this.”

A family affair

Thaksin’s political savvy is as acute as his business sense. In the ten years preceding the last election, Thailand reeled under eight different regimes, including rule wrested through a military coup. Yet after his four-year term as prime minister in a coalition government, February’s election gave Thaksin the first one-party victory in Thai history.

He is a shrewd political marketeer willing to “rebrand” himself. His ambitious schemes set absurd deadlines and quotas for eliminating poverty, drug dealing and human trafficking, and he readily sacks underlings who fail to meet them. More than 2,500 small-time drug dealers were allegedly killed during his first anti-narcotics blitz, and he is unapologetically reviving this popular crusade.

Thaksin’s grave mistakes – hiding the outbreak of bird flu to protect the world’s fourth-largest source of poultry exports, ignoring the insurgency in predominantly Muslim areas of southern Thailand then using excessive force which provokes new recruits – might have felled a less brazen politician. Yet Thaksin’s popularity keeps cresting – particularly after the tsunami, when he raced to the devastated shoreline, upbraided officials for their incompetence and ordered instant fixes; as always, with a television camera aimed at his good side.

Democratic conventions are bothersome for this man with a mandate. Thaksin gripes about having to answer to unelected judges, and jokes that he needs no restraints on his authority, since his wife can keep him in line and he already is so wealthy, there is no need to pilfer from public coffers. He has appointed a cousin as supreme commander of the armed forces, and his brother-in-law assistant chief of the national police.

Under Thaksin, Thailand’s formerly independent watchdog agencies have lost their bite and the separation of powers have started to merge. The senate named two of his ex-staffers to serve on the constitutional court. His friends now sit on the National Counter Corruption Commission, which had once accused him of graft.

Fighting and reconciling

On 30 March, though, a chastened Thaksin reached out to political opponents to help him quell the insurrection in predominantly Muslim areas of southern Thailand in which around 800 people have been killed. He even appointed a predecessor, Anand Panyarachun, as head of a National Reconciliation Commission.

Supinya is cautious about Thaksin’s U-turn. Suddenly the undisputed helmsman is willing to admit an error of judgment and consult across party lines, and it seems out of character. “It appears to be a good move, but I worry that he is lowering our expectations so eventually he can shift the blame,” she says.

“We must face the fact that in the fight for any kind of justice or rights anywhere in the world, one runs into hurdles. Supinya is one of the voices of conscience that reminds the society of what is right. She’s not alone”, Anand Panyarachun told reporters at a fundraising event for Supinya’s sizeable legal fees.

Supinya may be facing what the Asian Human Rights Commission calls “a gigantic and disproportionate civil defamation suit”. But Godzilla too better prepare for battle.

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