Friday, June 22, 2007

Can Thais Handle the Truth?

Another great article by Don Sambandaraksa (below).

As Don suggests, there is indeed something fundamentally wrong with Thai society that makes it allergic to the truth. Remember the massacre on 6 October 1976, on the grounds of one of Thailand's top universities? To this day, the murderers who lynched the students at Thammasat University have never been brought to justice. The police didn't even look for them, although their faces were clear enough in the photos taken by foreign journalists.

The Thai public has never come to terms with the events of that day, preferring to avert its eyes from an aspect of itself it would rather not recognize. Thai society has never done any soul-searching, never called for a truth-finding effort on that day of national shame. "Forget it and move on" seems to be the attitude.

All very well and good, except that it leaves open the possibility that the monstrous rage behind the Thai smile may yet again be unleashed should the conditions once again arise.

The problems with censorship

Bangkok Post Database, Wednesday June 20, 2007

A while back I sat down to talk with someone I respect who was actually pro-censorship - he felt that the situation justified the action. His reasoning was simple: if the ICT Ministry had allowed the video in question to be publicly available, it would lead to so much anger and hatred that people would try and attack, harm and quite probably kill those who created the video. Thus, the authorities had no choice but to try their best to maintain peace and stability in the country by doing what they did. It was not really a question of honour or propriety, but simply one aimed at keeping civil society from falling apart.

Strange. If society is so fragile that one video, no matter how insulting, can turn people into crazed, axe-wielding murderers, then something is fundamentally wrong. Pretending that everything is peaceful is akin to an alcoholic in denial.

The question is, did it work, or did it merely postpone the inevitable? Society seems pretty much in decline today if the antics of some people next to Thammasat university are anything to go by. Thailand is at war. Information warfare, and with lies, half-truths and accusations flying, trust is one of the most difficult items to find. The way governments (note the plural) have long tried to silence dissenting opinion and present the people with only happy thoughts has resulted in a breeding ground of mistrust and suspicion.

I remember one of the first web sites to be censored in Thailand was that of PULO, the terror group down south trying to set up a separate state. Back then, I voiced my opposition to it, not so much from a freedom of speech perspective, but from a pragmatic perspective. By leaving the site up and running, it would be much easier to quietly monitor the activities of the group as well as keep an eye on the nature of public reaction to it, essentially a barometer to gauge the public's opinion of the South. With these sites closed down, people and policy makers alike are left guessing.

The very act of trying to silence a group through heavy handed means gives them an air of credibility that they would not otherwise have. Better let their points of view be aired in public, so that they can be verified or disproved, than to pretend nothing is wrong.

After all, the British government silenced the leaders of the Irish Republican Army for years. Only when this veil was lifted and dialogue began were people able to make an informed decision for themselves and things moved on.

Had this government embarked on a mission of disclosure and truth from day zero, things would not have come to this. By trying to control information - and in a much more ham-fisted way than the previous government at that - the government has only themselves to blame for the lack of trust among the people of Thailand it faces today.

The reason often given, that is it a cultural thing that foreigners do not understand, is simply not good enough. Many Thais, born and bred here, do not understand it either. Why is being honest such a difficult thing? I myself am often left confused by the logic disconnect I face when interviewing individuals of power, and if I, someone with first hand access to these leaders, come away wondering what it was they meant, it is unsurprising that most of the people of Thailand do not have any idea which direction we are heading.

My most recent interview with our esteemed communications and IT leader and his comment on how we will focus on becoming a centre for open source was conspicuous in the silence it generated from the open source community. Not a peep. Not a single comment emailed to me on that, which probably means that nobody took that comment seriously.

Nor does anyone today seem to take the official stance on censorship seriously any more for that matter. The Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) group puts the number of censored websites at around 11,000 to 17,000 depending on how they are counted. They also claim that the previous government blocked only 2,400 sites prior to the September 19 coup. While this would not have been a disastrous figure in itself, the problem is compounded (or completed) by the way nobody seems to be responsible for it.

In my most recent interview, the ICT minister admitted to around 30 blocks and blamed the rest on either the previous regime or on censors doing censorship without proper authorisation. If anything, the answer was more worrying than the question. Being an authoritarian regime is bad enough, but being in one where nobody is at the helm is arguably even worse. After all, where would you rather live if forced to choose between Cuba and Iraq?

On a side note, FACT held a civil disobedience day recently at Pantip Plaza where activists gave out CDs with the latest MICT blocklist and 41 different programs that can be used to circumvent the Thai government's block. Most of the software can also be downloaded from FACT's web site and in itself should be perfectly legal.

It is also interesting to see security experts in denial when I point out that the censorship has made things much worse and harder to control. Some children I talked to recently told me that TOR (the onion router, a particularly popular and quite zippy way to hide one's identity and avoid censorship) is now everywhere and "everyone" has it installed. Perhaps by not censoring so much, censorship would still be effective, as nobody would have the reason to install this circumventing, anonymising software on their machines in the first place.

I am starting to wonder if things will actually begin to get better; if the next government we have will continue to control the flow of information or if they, like the government we are encumbered with today, continue on autopilot to block, control and censor, and blame everything on their predecessors.

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