Updated: Royals and tsunamis

15 04 2012

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist based in Hamburg. At Asian Correspondent, he has a post worth considering. It raises the issue of criticism of the mainstream media over a failure to give adequate warnings during the recent tsunami scare.

The reason for this was the fear that cutting away from the funeral of a royal, largely unknown to the public, but feted by the royal family, would get too many people hauled over the royal coals. More on this below.

This is not the first time there has been a conflict of royal interest at work. And it won’t be the last. The other event we are thinking of was the tsunami in December 2004 that killed more than 5,000 normal, average Thai and holidaying foreigners. The conflict appeared when royals were caught up in the tsunami. But let’s look at Saksith’s report at Siam Voices first:

At 3.38pm (all times local) April 11, 2012, an earthquake occurred at the bottom of the Indian ocean west of Sumatra…. The … magnitude … [was] very strong 8.9 (subsequently downgraded to 8.6). At 3.45pm, the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning … predict[ing] the arrival of the waves on the Thai islands of Phuket, Kho Phra Thong and Kho Tarutao in a timespan of two hours beginning at 6.18pm local time. The Thai authorities issued their own warnings in six provinces and many coastal areas were evacuated….

However, on Thai television there was hardly a hint about it. All Thai terrestrial TV channels were covering the funeral ceremony of Princess Bejaratana Rajasuda, a cousin of King Bhumibol and the only child of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI), throughout the afternoon until they switched over for “breaking” news coverage.… But how could that happen?

All terrestrial TV channels … were broadcasting the TV pool live footage … and the Royal Palace exclusively for this occasion and not, as some have suggested, by the government or a similar agency. When the first warnings about a potential tsunami were issued, all TV channels stayed on the ceremony.

Viewers were at best informed by an occasional ticker at the bottom of the screen (it could be argued that this should have been run not only in Thai but also in English, considering the many foreign tourists at the beaches)…. It took two hours since the first tsunami warnings before ThaiPBS decided to pull out of the royal coverage at 5.42pm, shortly followed by a few others after 6pm.

Surprisingly, there was criticism, and in response, it was stated that “the Royal Palace actually allowed the TV directors to cut away from the royal ceremony ‘at any time’.” Big of them indeed! Saksith asks why the broadcasters stayed with the unknown royal. He cites ThaiPBS deputy director Vanchai Tantivitayapitak who:

wrote on Facebook that the decision to pull out of the royal ceremony coverage required “presence of mind and courage” – a clear hint at a deeper-lying problem.

Since this was a funeral involving a member of the royal family, it was social pre-emptive obedience that prevented the terrestrial TV channels from reporting on the tsunami warning anytime sooner. In these times, where public loyalty to the royal institution is being demanded and any perceived move outside the norm is being heavily scrutinized (and at times punished), it is difficult to put the priorities desired by some over the essential priority to inform.

Saksith makes the excellent point that:

The relief, when the tsunami warnings have been lifted, was no doubt high among all involved. However, this should not dilute the failures of Thai television to comprehensively inform and report on a developing story and an emergency situation.

The second tsunami-royal case is from 2004 and draws from Pornthip Rojanasunand’s recently published book The Dead Do Talk (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2012).

As a long footnote, we should say that the book is a shambolic mess that probably should never have seen ink on paper as the royalist and former member of the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situations tells readers of her unhappy childhood and calling for pathology. Along the way, she kind of re-endorses the failed and expensive (especially to her institute) GT200 bomb/drug (non-)detector, her conflicts with the police – all Thaksin Shinawatra supporters – and her exploits as a pathologist, none of which are explained in the book as being very successful. Her interesting observations come in her account of red shirt uprisings and the 2004 tsunami, where PPT goes now.

In her book, on pages 166-8, Pornthip writes of her role in identifying the bodies of the dead. At one point, from the earliest moments of the crisis, she reports:

Problems continued to develop…. The minister [of interior] was unable to provide us [Pornthip’s team from the Central Institute of Forensic Science] with any particular support. Initially that was understandable as he was very busy helping with the search for Poom [Phumi] Jensen, the son of Princess [she’s not a princess] Ubol Rattana, who was missing. Unfortunately, Khun Poom had perished and his body was recovered soon after.

PPT doesn’t really think the minister of interior was actually a part of the team searching for the boy, but it does indicate that huge resources were expended in searching for the body of the son of a former princess when thousands of others had also perished and many more were injured, had had their homes washed away, and so on. This was a huge disaster, and the head of the most significant ministry was looking for a missing royal. Well, almost royal. Readers can get a sense of the event here, although there is no mention of the minister.

Every human life is important, but it seems that, in life and death, some are far more significant than others, most especially in Thailand.

Update: For Thai readers, the story on this in Matichon (สรกล อดุลยานนท์ : สึนามิ “ความกลัว” ….), sent by a reader, is worth considering as it sets out clearly the fear associated with considering potentially millions of others over one royal event.


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