Rebellion had been 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 had crashed through the barricades made of old tires and bamboo rods, and government-employed snipers performed had their terrible task, shooting people from the tall buildings, often aiming directly at their heads. Neither were Western or local journalists spared.
As expected, reaction of Western media was almost anonymous. “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”, trumpeted AP, the most radically pro-establishment agency, 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, United States, as well as Southeast Asia itself.
Early on it appeared that no one visiting the Red Shirts 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.
Most readers of Western media reports would have no clue that this was happening. 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 completely self-censored by journalists in almost all English language publications and wire services.
A brilliantly performing propaganda machine went to work. Government snipers killing of protesters came to be described as ‘clashes between protesters and government troops’. Murder (by one of the snipers) of Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol who had earlier switched sides and joined Red Shirts was played down while agencies, newspapers and magazines in the UK and US even invented a derogatory definition for this fallen soldier – rogue general. In the same breath, in one of its recent reports, AP described country’s monarch both as ‘revered’ and as ‘beloved’.
With no shame and almost no exception, Western mass 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 ‘quelling of violence’. One could easily read between the lines as to what message the Western media tried to send to the world: “protesters got what they were asking for!”
Not once was the illegitimate government of British-born and Oxford educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva described as regime (favorite expression of Western media when dealing with anti corporate and anti-western governments), despite the fact that he clearly came to power through the barrel of the gun after an absolutely illegal coup-d’etat.
While no sympathy for and no outrage over the killing of civilians were expressed, one could read laments over destroyed high-end real estate properties. One day after the carnage, AP reported:
For many Bangkok residents, the 21-year-old CentralWorld was more than a shopping center. It had recently undergone a multimillion-dollar facelift and boasted more than 500 shops, including a Gap and the Japanese department store Isetan.
Larger than the Mall of America in Minnesota, CentralWorld also had a public library and what was touted as the biggest food court in Asia.
"Our hearts sank when we saw on TV what was happening to CentralWorld," said Mathurawan Deo-isares, a 31-year-old lawyer. "It was a weekend home for a lot of people. That’s where they went to meet with friends, family, to dine.
Central World, Emporium and other high-end shopping malls on and around Sukumvit Road were the symbols of Southeast Asian consumerism, chain eateries and boutiques, places to be seen for rich and beautiful; as well as favorite haunts for foreign expatriates. In these establishments, one cup of coffee equals one-day wages for a farmer’s family in the countryside.
MANIPULATION OF NEWS AND HISTORY IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
Obviously, much has been written about the history of this unfortunate part of the world – Southeast Asia. But much of it is lies or half-truth. Only the bravest and the most independent of foreign correspondents – as with the expatriated Australian Wilfred Burchett in the 1960-80s – and academics – like Cornell University scholar, Benedict Anderson – ever dared to say what they saw with their own eyes, directly quoting those people and events they encountered and witnessed, not recycling what was expected from them by the establishment.
Manipulation of the news by Western correspondents who are known for artistically applied self-censorship and servility is legendary. On top of it, Thailand is the staunch ally of the United States and the West since the Vietnam War, even earlier. The US designed the local power structures, including that of the highest rank, offered propaganda know-how and then began to comment on how close to divinity certain Thai institutions became. The process can easily be followed in several books recently published abroad but banned in Thailand, as well as in an extensive report by The Economist, one of the very few English language news outlets brave and honest enough to address this propaganda charade.
It is needless to say that Southeast Asia is exactly the part of the world where manipulation of the western media reached shameful and dizzying heights.
Barbaric and brutal bombing of entire Laotian countryside during Vietnam War (by US forces, but also with enormous Thai assistance) was nicknamed a ‘Secret War’ reflecting the willingness of the US and European press to muzzle itself in exchange for the usual perks. The whole truth about the 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 are always constantly hailed for its ‘democracy’.
Indonesia could certainly be designated as the textbook case – almost no country managed to escape scrutiny of the Western media as much as this, the largest archipelago on earth. The Western-backed coup (1965) against Sukarno killed between 1 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 – something that the Western companies and governments are appreciating until these very days.
Naturally, most of the Western mass media outlets refused to comment on the occupation and the genocide in East Timor and well as on massacres in Aceh. Until now there is hardly any media 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 most of basic services like drinking water supply on the lower level than in India, 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).
When confronting the Jakarta office deputy director of a major Western press agency about unwillingness to cover brutal attacks by Islamists on children from a Christian school in East Jakarta (many of them indigenous, from Papua), he laconically and cynically replied: “Well, nobody would be interested in reading about this stuff.”
It is clear that people like him are hardened, emotionally bulletproof and well trained.
THAILAND – LAND OF VIOLENT SMILES
Back to Thailand, which is one of our ‘closest allies’. Despite the cliché of being ‘country of smiles’ (another of our inventions from the old days), 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. And also, those of us who live in Southeast Asia, understanding its cultures, know that even smiles do not always mean the same things as they do in the West or elsewhere.
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 elites to the extreme, Thailand was (and is) systematically liquidating its opposition, particularly any opposition striving for social justice. In its Northeast and elsewhere it was massacring left-wing students and leaders and it was known to even burn alleged communists in barrels of oil. No word of condemnation from the West, which kept promoting the Kingdom as excellent place for beaches, massages, cheap food and sex. And naturally – smiles: another nonsense – Thailand’s per capita homicide rate – 7.9 per 100.000 inhabitants in 2009 – is the 33rd highest in the world, well above that in the United States, Peru, or Pakistan, while more foreign women are raped here, on a per capita bases, than in South Africa.
October 1973 saw some of the most brutal massacres on the streets of any Southeast Asian capital (interestingly, just one month after the fascist and US-backed military junta performed a coup in Santiago de Chile). Equally brutal was the killing in 1976 – that of at least 46 protesters – injuring and raping hundreds – mainly at the Bangkok campus of Thammasat University. All this, naturally, was in the name of the fight against communism – therefore approved and never seriously criticized by the Western media.
To make sure that nobody gets ‘wrong ideas’, AP published an open propaganda piece with the title: ‘Experts: ‘Bangkok crackdown no replay of Tiananmen’, utilizing well-established anti-Chinese propaganda clichés, while proclaiming, with no proof whatsoever, 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 (including so called "Three Tyrants" — Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, Praphat Charusathien, and Narong Kittikachorn or Tanin Kraivixien several years later) – with the monarch being ceremonial head of state.
Anti-communism was the main rallying cry of Thai elites. In the name of anti-communism, local opposition had been liquidated, while the country participated in all regional military adventures, basically invading and consequently deeply wounding people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia on behalf of the United States, Australia and other Western regional powers.
Tens of thousands of poor Thai women, most of them from the North, were ‘encouraged’ to staff whorehouses created around former Western military bases and airports, particularly Pattaya.
The human rights record of the Kingdom is thoroughly appalling and not unlike that of Indonesia, but the English speaking reader would hardly stumble over the details of those well manicured and orchestrated reports on Thailand in Western mass media. Killing and torturing of the opposition is not the only issue not ventilated on the pages of the US and European newspapers. Other topics include terrible treatment of the minorities (many non-Thai minorities do not have citizenship and therefore are deprived of basic services and assistance) and refugees (more than a million Burmese refugees, for instance, some endure near slave labor or virtual sexual slavery).
As recently as during the presidency of George W. Bush, Thailand was providing ‘assistance’ by flying terror suspects to interrogation sites.
On 19 September 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 US and the West did absolutely nothing to stop this gross interference in democratic process of the country. No major international organization left Bangkok and no sanctions from abroad were imposed (just try to compare it to the coup in Fiji, which endangered Australian interests there and led to both sanctions and enormous media campaign). The allies of Thailand were used to the countless military coups. 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.
When I visited in February 2010 one of the main cadres of the Yellow Shirts – Pipob Tongchai (the main organizer of the occupation of Suvarnabhumi International Airport outside of Bangkok at the end of 2008), did not try to hide where allegiances of the United States and the West lie:
“The US wants to have ‘traditional’ government in Thailand. On 19 September the US took no action against the Thai military. Coups don’t matter as long as there is continuity. There was no US intervention. And when Thailand has ‘traditional;’ government, it actually means that the US in fully in charge. It doesn’t matter who is at its head – so Thaksin really doesn’t matter.”
Now Western mass 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. Their correspondents look lovely in all those helmets and bulletproof vests (I never wear them, but I admit they look great). Reporters may not tell the truth – they may not even say what those men and women came to die for on the barricades. They may call new national heroes who already died for social justice all sorts of derogatory names – but whatever they tell, they tell it with conviction and pathos. They do it ‘professionally’, as is expected from the members of big corporations that they actually are.
Naturally, even now one can hear some voices of reason and truth. On May 18 2010, e the International Herald Tribune published a report by Thomas Fuller and Seth Mydans which suggests that: 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 elite that meddles to control Thailand’s democratic institutions.
And the same reports later states: 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. Television networks, including CNN, BBC and even Al-Quaseera are strongly pro-government, adopting open or covert language, which basically blames protesters for the violence. It is evident that men and women they interview on the issue are either openly or covertly disagreeing with protesters and their demands and tactics. When airing interviews with Red Shirts, the most neutral and unconvincing fragments are broadcast.
Not surprisingly, Western media corporations now control almost all news distributed around the world. Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Hata notes that: “All that Japanese networks report about Thailand is just a copy of what is said on CNN, BBC and other English language news outlets. I think most of the people who are really concerned with the situation don’t watch TV news, they are following news blogs, twitter and Ustream. Although, one should add that some of the radio stations are adopting critical line, including TBS radio and the other podcasting stations.”
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.
Readers in the West and in the rest of the world hear and read nothing about longing for social justice by Thai masses; there is no mention of the morally corrupt feudal state. Such points of view are simply not allowed to hit news wires and television screens. No in-depth analysis exposes how this country has been shaped before, during and after the Vietnam War by both Western neo-colonial interests, multi-national companies, and by unscrupulous and brutal Thai elites.
“The other side to media distortion and self-censorship is the way that mostly American academia have treated Thailand”, explains Geoffrey C. Gunn, a long time student of Lao politics and society; “Practically the only academic who came to terms with Thai violence – and broke from smiles and Buddhist merit model – was Ben Anderson about 25 years ago after he was expelled from Indonesia (and then studied Thai).”
As Gunn concludes “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 is made increasingly irrelevant what the Red Shirts really wanted to achieve, what they came to fight for and for what many of them died. Their voices – voices of the voiceless and poor men and women from the countryside and shantytowns – were silenced again; by both Thai and Western media and by the military booths and precise shots of snipers.
As the leadership of rebellion is in detention, as the purges of opposition are reigning all over Thailand, the unbridled and unopposed orgy of western misinformation on Southeast Asia continues.
Andre Vltchek (http://andrevltchek.weebly.com/) is a novelist, journalist, filmmaker, and playwright, co-founder of Mainstay Press, and a senior fellow at The Oakland Institute. A contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, he is presently living and working in Asia and Africa. His recently published book, Oceania, is exposing Western neo-colonialism in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia.