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Ban on critic could backfire on Thai govt
Publication Date : 01-03-2013
Freedom of expression is a slippery concept. Ask Sulak Sivalaksa, the well-known social activist who is one of Thailand's most critical voices when it comes to the monarchy, but who has ironically been subjected to an online ban because he criticised Thaksin Shinawatra.
The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology has blocked Sulak's Facebook account, on which he essentially asked Bangkok voters to support the "lesser devil" Democrats in the city gubernatorial election, in order to pre-empt political domination by the real patriarch of the ruling Pheu Thai Party.
The clampdown on Sulak has created a messy political scene, a free-for-all mudslinging match in which no one knows for sure which side he is on. Sulak is widely considered an eccentric anti-monarchist, but controversy surrounding him has been amplified thanks to the ban. Now he is not portrayed as an entirely anti-monarchist activist, but someone who harbours good yet critical intentions toward the royal institution. His so-called "disciples" have been caught off guard by his pro-Democrat stand, which he insists is only warranted by the threat of Thaksin's omnipresence - but Sulak's opponents have been equally confused.
Debate on what Sulak is up to has gone parallel with the issue of freedom of expression. His normal rivals are defending his right to say what he thinks, while his usual followers are either muted or half-heartedly attacking the government for its harsh action.
The rest of society has been practically splintered. There are pro-Sulak but anti-monarchy observers who do not quite know what to do. There are royalists who hate Sulak but like the latest thing he has done. There are those who are anti-Sulak but are decrying the ban imposed by the government.
Even why he has been banned is a controversial issue. The government, predictably, has defended its action by saying that what he wrote "politicised" the monarchy, although his contentious statement pointed out the importance of the institution. The government's rivals, however, insist that Sulak would not have been banned if he hadn't singled out Thaksin as the "real" devil allegedly threatening our constitutional monarchy. Sulak, they say, suffered the same fate as the soap opera "Nua Mek", which was recently taken off the air due to content highly critical of political corruption and the telecom industry.
So is Sulak entitled to say what he thinks? His latest Facebook posting might provide grounds for soul-searching when it comes to "freedom of expression". If the government contends that his writing dragged the monarchy through gutter politics, it can be argued that he simply recognised, in his statement, the institution's importance - something a lot of people do. But if the government's claims that Sulak was banned because he wrote something "untrue" about Thaksin, the administration is taking a risky stand that could backfire badly.
The Ministry of Information must come out to make it clear whether all other "untrue" Facebook postings should be banned. Otherwise the ministry runs the risk of institutionalising Thaksin. In Thailand there is a lot of "untrue" content about people, some in high places, that has escaped the ministry's scrutiny, so what is the standard? If the previous government was accused of going after websites deemed a threat to national security, what is this government doing to show it has a better democratic standard?
Sulak has made followers frown and won unlikely cheers from former opponents. That's understandable, because he was always considered to be on one side, but has come out against that camp with all guns blazing. The political mess he has generated, however, should not distract from the fact that freedom of expression is just one among many principles that need to be "standardised" in Thailand.
All through our political crisis, one term that stands out is "double standard". Nobody denies that it exists. The real problem is that not even those who decry the practice are ashamed to embrace it when it suits them.