Goodbye Isaan Record

20 05 2012

PPT is sorry to see the (hopefully, temporary) end to The Isaan Record. We found it a refreshing take on the northeast and its people that was not found elsewhere.

The two authors have a goodbye post that is well worth a read. This is the part that intrigued PPT:

Lèse-Majesté

The lèse-majesté law changed our work in significant ways: we didn’t write what we heard and people didn’t tell us what they thought. It doesn’t take 15 months in the field to know that that’s what a law like this does. What did come to surprise us, though, was just how differently our interviewees would adhere to, interpret, sidestep, or just outright ignore their half of the bargain. Many chose to place the onus of censorship squarely on our shoulders, which is, of course, a most regrettable duty. Villagers were often surprisingly candid about exactly who and what they didn’t like about Thailand’s political elite – they could be refreshingly critical. Others would clam up the very moment we said the words “lèse-majesté” (which was, incidentally, the longest and most esoteric word in our Thai vocabulary). In response to a question we posed to a particularly influential Red Shirt leader about lèse-majesté reform, the woman said, “This is something that is simply not in the Red Shirts’ interests at this time and that is all I would like to say about that.” That was as far as she would go.

Still others found a comfortable compromise between these two extremes. A very well-known Isaan Red Shirt leader and Pheu Thai Member of Parliament (MP) had taken a liking to the Isaan Record and always found time to talk to us at a rally or demonstration, for which we were always grateful. Most likely the man relished the opportunity to practice his English, and he never failed to entertain us with his innuendos regarding institutional reform. He’d gesture to the sky, wink, give a knowing laugh or pat one of us on the shoulder when he talked about the power of “The Invisible Hand.”

Nevertheless, almost none of these interactions ever made it into our stories. Though we wrote a couple of articles about the Campaign Committee for the Amendment of Article 112 (CCAA 112 – a movement, in part, to reform the lèse-majesté law) in Khon Kaen, we only ever wrote one story that addressed lèse-majesté directly and it only stayed up on the site for a couple of months before we reconsidered the possible consequences of our decision.

Early on, when our readership was still small and our work was not yet translated into Thai, we ran a story about a Northeastern MP who had been accused of lèse-majesté for the comments he had made at a Red Shirt rally the week before. It was hastily written and was based solely on a thirty-minute phone interview with the accused, and really, at this point, is more a testament to our idealism than it was a gutsy exposé. Nevertheless, we agonized over what we could and could not publish. We consulted with an expert in the field and concluded that if the remarks had been published elsewhere, we could cite that publication and we’d be in the clear. But of course, it wasn’t that simple.

The MP had caught the public’s attention the month prior when during a nationally broadcast parliamentary debate he shouted down a particularly despised government politician with an idiomatic (and quite commonplace) vulgarism: “Shut the hell up!” Literally translated, it works out to “Holler for your father.” In the weeks that followed, the MP’s outburst on the House floor had grown into something of a rallying cry. Not long after the televised debate, on the stage of a Red Shirt rally the MP repeated his catchphrase at the audience’s insistence. Then he said it again with a slight alteration: “You don’t just have to holler for your father,” he said, “you can holler for your mother, too.” Two days later he was summoned to a Bangkok police station and charged with lèse-majesté.

Though to a Western audience the MP’s remarks may appear entirely innocuous (even if indecorous), Thailand’s hierarchical and familial system of pronouns allows this to be read as an affront to the king and queen, the “father” and “mother” of the country at large.

So, what could we publish? The catchphrase’s origins were on YouTube for goodness’ sake. He was simply repeating a rude colloquialism. Did that mean we could link to the video and we’d be safe? Or was writing about its repetition at the Red rally tantamount to slander? What about the reference to “your mother”? Was that crossing the line?

Most Westerners are blessed with legal systems in which innuendo and sentence constructions cannot constitute felonies.

We ran the story, but with one glaring omission. The remark about “your mother” was excised. In retrospect, it seems like an overly cautious decision, but with a long history of arbitrary enforcement comes an unhealthy dose of journalistic paranoia. Charges can be brought, dismissed, put on hold and reanimated without any rhyme or reason. Just last Thursday, the Bangkok Post reported that the charges brought against this MP and others around the same time are likely to be dismissed – 13 months later.

There are few silver linings to be found in discussing lèse-majesté. “Uncle SMS”’s tragic passing while behind bars is yet another reminder of just how devastating the law can be. What we can say, however, is that we are amazed how in the last year alone, lèse-majesté reform came out of obscurity and started regularly making front page headlines. Finally, the conversation has begun.


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