Now we live by code words-New Mandala

February 9, 2010

[FACT comments: This is the first cogent analysis of the use of English and English translation in the Thai political subtext. We all play the govt’s game of cat-and-mouse by trying to remain obscure or using English which will likely remain unnoticed, therefore preserving our temporary freedom. Does our use of English mean greater freedom or is English simply irrelevant in the Thai political context. Incidentally, FACT has almost never been reduced to redacting postings or comments. Let’s call a Royal a Royal and not play govt’s game. Don’t let them think they can win, it only encourages them! Will there be a wholesale crackdown on media, Internet and free speech in the period following the King’s inevitable demise? Stay tuned to find out!]

Elephants in the room

Thomas Hoy

New Mandala: February 3, 2010

http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2010/02/03/elephants-in-the-room-part-1/

http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2010/02/05/elephants-in-the-room-part-2/

http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2010/02/10/elephants-in-the-room-part-3/

Elephants in the room: the uses and meanings of English in Thai political discourse (Part 1)

When I moved to Thailand eight years ago, I became interested in the new world of Thai politics which offered so many problems of interpretation with its, to me, foreign and arcane nature. That interest was intensified by the army coup of 19 September 2006 which took me, unlike many, almost completely by surprise. I spent and still spend a lot of time at the computer searching out the minutiae of Thai politics in books, foreign newspapers, Thailand’s two English language newspapers, the Nation and the Bangkok Post, and most of all in the various political blogs that have proliferated like mushrooms.

The nature of the commentary on Thai politics in English is diverse: there are mad rants, thoughtful analyses, cynical asides, cryptic allusions, forthright declarations, commentary from within Thailand and commentary from outside Thailand. The range of the commentators is diverse: academics, English-speaking Thais, Thai-speaking foreigners, the obsessively passionate, the casually engaged, lovers of Thailand, despisers of Thailand, reds, yellows, blues, and every other colour in the spectrum. What to make of all this?

Despite my sporadic attempts to improve them, my Thai language skills remain quite basic.  My understanding of Thai politics is therefore almost entirely mediated through the English language. Obviously this is a severe limitation for me in trying to understand what is going on in Thai politics. But perhaps my monolingualism might be a strength in this project. Some months ago it struck me that a useful way to channel my interest in Thai politics would be to try and use my expertise in English to make some observations and develop some theories about the English language in Thai politics.

What does English mean in Thai politics? What is it used for? How is it used?

My framing answer to these questions is simple and obvious: English serves as a vehicle to broadcast and promote Thai political concerns to those outside the Thai polity and language and in reverse as a vehicle to broadcast the political concerns of those outside the Thai polity and language back into it. English material on politics is translated into Thai and Thai material is translated into Thai. A feedback loop is created that is accompanied by the inevitable change, noise and distortion of all feedback loops.

Several other stories emerge from within this feedback loop.

Firstly, the English language functions (or is sometimes seen to function) as a different space for discussion of Thai politics with different emphases, preoccupations, and content and perhaps with greater freedom.

Secondly, English material on politics is translated into Thai and Thai material is translated into English. These translations are conscripted or volunteered for partisan ends. Alternative interpretations multiply.

Thirdly, like Thai language commentaries, English commentaries and commentators are conditioned by the sensitivities and censorship (both formal and informal) that operates in Thailand. These commentaries have developed a coded language to speak without being publicly caught up in these sensitivities and this censorship.

A different space

There is a widespread perception in the discussions I read that commenting in English in English media and blogs is safer and more open than making the same comments in Thai in the Thai media. Whether this is true or not, Kevin Hewison, a well-known and well respected Thai studies academic based at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, would seem to agree. In a paper presented at the Faculty of Political Science of Chulalongkorn University on June 26, 2009 Hewison said:

The topic is ‘Thai-Style Democracy’. I did have a sub-title which referred to something about ‘A Royalist Struggle for Thailand’s Politics.’ You can understand that with a topic like this, I am going to have to speak in English as, for reasons that are all too well known, I need to be careful in what I say. For the same reason, I will read my paper.

It’s interesting that Hewison presumes that his audience of Thai political science academics at Thailand’s most prestigious university will understand that he is going to have to speak in English, suggesting a qualitative difference in what can be said in Thailand in English as opposed to what can be said in Thai. In a later part of this paper, I will talk about the way English language is coded to sidestep certain sensitivities but still make the meaning available to a select audience. At a basic level then, Hewison by electing to talk in English is talking in code.

Jotman is a blogger who has established a reputation for honest, daring reporting. He has been reviewed favorably by CNN, Der Spiegel, Pravda and L’Espresso amongst others. In 2007 he was awarded the “Reporters without Borders Award” in the Best of the Blogs awards sponsored by Deutsche Welle, largely for the coverage of the 19 September 2006 coup in Thailand which began his blogging career. Jotman sees the English media in Thailand as a freer, albeit threatened space:

I started blogging in 2006 the night a coup happened in Thailand. . . Thailand has been a pioneering region for citizen journalism. This is due mainly to the constant political instability on one hand, and the presence of a large expatriate community on the other. Other contributing factors include a high quality English language press that has — until quite recently – been relatively free, and relatively open access to the Internet — although this also seems to be changing for the worse.

New Mandala is a blog about Thailand and South East Asia run by two academics from the Australian National University in Canberra. It has received a lot of attention – both positive and negative – for being relatively unintimidated by claims of political and national sensitivities and for publishing high quality original journalism, particularly the photo-journalism of Nick Nostitz who has covered both Red and Yellow demonstrations in Thailand. A blogger at New Mandala who signs himself as “A Thai” has apparently migrated there in search of greater freedom:

I’m a member at Pantip, after the coup, I tried to post foreign news about Thailand, news that Thai medias wouldn’t dare to print. My first few posts went well, after that all of them were blocked. Sometimes, I spent hours translating news, but couldn’t post. That happened around the same time where other anti-coup members with quality mind were banned from the site. Is this freedom of speech? You can say that it’s under the judgment of Pantip, but if you have good judgement, you should know what the answer is.

In March 2009 Oxford researcher, Lee Jones, questioned whether Abhisit Veijaviwa had the necessary democratic credentials to speak about democracy at his old Oxford college. The issue was taken up on Thanong Khanthong’s blog on the Nation website. In response to the accusation that Jones’s comments were harming Thailand’s image and that Jones was an ill-informed foreigner with few credentials to discuss Thai politics, the frequent poster FelixQui made the point that the whole media space was freer outside Thailand and suggests that these outside comments are feeding back into Thailand’s media space:

Plaadip, re harm to Thailand’s international reputation: Do you read any international news media? The articles are out there, and they will find you if you seek. I wonder you haven’t already, which is why I asked if you read anything. Another interesting indicator is to Google “Thailand + draconian” and see what comes up – note especially the sort of international publications at the top of the results list. These sorts of things seem like fairly solid prima facie evidence to me. Even Thanong is aware of the international comments. This entire blog post is in response to an international comment.

ML Nattakorn Devakul, is a political commentator with a playboy image, a scion of the aristocracy, one-time candidate for Mayor of Bangkok, and an amart whose shirt seems more red than yellow. He too seems casually to think of English as a freer space. But not because of any inherent value in English. It’s just easy to ignore. In an interview with BK Magazine he says, “The idea of a state religion in a time when we’re trying to make Thailand a country open to all religions is just ridiculous. I wouldn’t say this in Thai, though, because the protesters who want Buddhism to become the state religion would probably come after me. I can say it here because they won’t take the time to read this.”

Likewise, for many commentators and bloggers, perhaps because it’s easy to ignore, the code of English is a prime choice.

Elephants in the room: Part 2

February 5th, 2010 by Thomas Hoy, Guest Contributor · 2 Comments

Elephants in the room: the uses and meanings of English in Thai political discourse (Part 2)

Lost in translation

The importance of politically strategic translation as a weapon in promoting the good coup was evident very shortly after the 2006 Coup took place. Initially, the name promulgated was The Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM) (or in Thai คณะปฏิรูปการปกครอง ในระบอบประชาธิปไตย อันมีพระมหากษัตริย์ทรงเป็นประมุข). The Nation reported on October 8, 2006 that the junta had called on the local press to report this name in full in the Thai language as to do otherwise would, according to a junta spokesman, send the wrong message: “The name is important in relaying a right message and its shortened version might be misleading.” Nevertheless, for English speaking and international audiences the name had to be different. A week earlier on September 28, the Nation reported that the name to be used for overseas consumption was “the Council for Democratic Reform” as the full name that was for use in Thailand only “had led to misunderstanding and false interpretation in some countries and for some foreign media on the role of the monarchy”. One junta, but two names for two different audiences. Two different codes.

Vastly different contests over translation emerged in the lèse majesté cases against Jakropob Penkair, the BBC’s Jonathan Head, and later the entire board of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. Jakropob made a speech in English at club in August 2006 shortly before the coup which later became the basis for lèse majesté charges. The speech on Thailand’s patronage system was translated and interpreted by the Democratic Party as having a “dangerous attitude” to the constitutional monarchy. The Bangkok Post then reported that Jakrapobh had accused Abhisit and the Democrats of ‘‘mistranslating’’ the speech. As blogger Bangkok Pundit recounts, several conflicting translations into Thai were made of this speech and accusations of distortion of the original flew around. One translation was made by the person who laid the original charges, Pol Maj Wattanasak Mungkitkandi of Bang Mod police station, who was apparently acting on his own initiative as a private citizen. There was also the Democratic Party translation. In reply, Jakropob offered his own translation to correct what he perceived as distortions.

The situation becomes even curiouser because the original complainant, Pol Maj Wattanasak speaks little English so presumably it is not the original that offended him but rather the translation which he himself solicited. His translation was constructed by an odd character called Mr Akbar Khan, an English journalist who appears to have held a long term grudge against the FCCT. This one speech began to grow into a Tower of Babel. The Bangkok Post reported that

a team of police investigators from the Crime Suppression Division went to the FCCT on Ploenchit road to gather evidence and question staff and people who were present during the speech by Mr Jakrapob. The investigators also asked language experts at Chulalongkorn University’s faculty of arts to translate the speech into Thai. [I believe that the experts, probably quite sensibly, declined the request.]

A police source said police wanted to get hold of three Thai translations of the speech _ the one made by Mr Jakrapob, one from the Royal Thai Police Office’s foreign affairs division, and the one from the language experts.

For the version to be prepared by the language experts, political science scholars will also be asked to give advice on the political meanings of the language used in the speech, the source said.

Police will consider whether to take legal action against Mr Jakrapob based on evidence including the three Thai translations, said the source.

The complaint also dragged in BBC correspondent Jonathan Head, the journalist who introduced Jakropob’s speech at the meeting.

The matter was later complicated by the filing of lèse majesté complaints on 30 June 2009 against the entire FCCT board by one “Laksana Kornsilpa, 57, a translator and a critic of ousted and convicted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra”. Laksana made further charges that the FCCT was guilty of lèse majesté for translating “into English the statements made by two leaders of the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD), Veera Musikapong and Nattawuth Saigua. ” Their statements, Laksana alleged, are defamatory to the royal family. She alleged that the FCCT board “may be acting in an organised fashion and the goal may be to undermine the credibility of the high institution of Thailand.”

This raises a tantalizing legal possibility. If Khun Laksana is correct in her belief that the translation of lèse majesté statements from English into Thai is itself an instance of lèse majesté, then the dominoes would have to begin to fall were Jakropob or the DAAD leaders ever convicted. First to go would be Pol Maj Wantanasak and his comrade in arms, Akbar Khan, then the Democrats for their translation, then  the police would have to charge themselves for commissioning a translation as well as charging any collaborators among the language experts at Chulalongkorn who assisted them. Jakropob could be charged on two counts: his Englishspeech and the Thai translation. The supreme irony would be that Khun Laksana would have to be indicted for her translation efforts.

To date, as far as I am aware, none of the charges have been dismissed but nor have they proceeded to legal action. I presume they have been lost in translation or are being kept to keep up the intimidation.

But the story about translation does not end here. A new vehicle, the Computer Crimes Act (2007), was on hand to suppress unwanted translation and to charge the translators. On October 14 2009, a story by Richard Frost appeared on the Bloomberg website reporting that the Thai stock market had fallen amidst rumours that the king’s health had been deteriorating. On November 1 Teeranun Vipuchan and Katha Prajaripyon were arrested and charged under Article 14 of the Computer Crimes Act 2007 for endangering national security by disseminating false rumours about the king’s health through the translation of a Bloomberg article. Teeranun had translated the Prachatai article and posted it on www. prachatai.com, a website that has already had problems with the lèse majesté laws. Others were charged later with similar offences related to the translation.

What is most curious about this episode is that the original Bloomberg article and those associated with it were not indicted. Maybe, English is indeed a freer space. In fact, it appears that Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanji has completely exonerated Bloomberg saying, “what the foreign news agency did was just to report on the rumour, just like what was reported by Thai media that affected the stock market.  However, I have not seen the post and don’t know if there was any content added later to the original translation, as [the post] has been removed, but police have it all.”

Teeranun has defended herself on the grounds that she only made a translation and that this translation could not have caused the stock market to fall because it was posted after the stock market had fallen. As many have pointed out, the nature of the charges calls into question the accusers’ knowledge of the basic laws of time, physics and causality. Korn refers to the possibility of other information having been added to the original article but supplies no evidence for this.

Reporters without Borders said of the cases that, “It seems that the translation of the Bloomberg dispatch is the only piece of hard evidence in the prosecution case file. The investigators have not mentioned the original article and have referred only to the translation, which reinforces the impression that the three defendants are being used as scapegoats for the fall in stocks.”

But as Bangkok Pundit points out, the section of the Computer Crimes Act refers to “false” or “forged” data so presumably the translation police may have to be called in to check whether the translation was sufficiently accurate.  Also as Bangkok Pundit points out, as the case went on, the reporting in the Thai mainstream press moved away from mentioning rumours about the king’s health to “ inauspicious news” and “inauspicious rumours” and “ill-intentioned rumours”.

There is an interesting elision of both thought and language taking place here. Auspices are signs that something will be successful. Therefore inauspicious news is news that indicates something bad or unlucky might be about to happen. The literal factuality of both the Bloomberg article and Teeranun’s translation seem not to have come under attack. There was a stock market fall and there were rumours about the King’s health. However, the section of the Computer Crimes Act under which the defendants were charged requires not only that the information be damaging to national security but that it also be false. What we are seeing for translations from English to Thai then is that “bad” news is necessarily “false”. Such news might be distressing. Only good news can be true.

Luckily, the Thai authorities are onto this. A Reuters report states:

Since 2007, Thai authorities have blocked almost 20,000 Web pages deemed insulting to the monarch, said Aree Jiworarak, head of Thailand’s information technology supervision office.

His “war room,” staffed around the clock by a team of bilingual civil servants and young professionals, tackles “systematic attempts” to undermine the throne, Aree said.

Court approval is needed to shut most websites. But for those offensive to the monarchy, his office approaches Internet Service Providers to block access before getting an official court order.

About 100 such pages are found a day, he said.

“It is not just about national security. It’s about the hurt feelings among Thai people. Service providers cooperate because they love the country, too,” Aree said.

Thailand’s many university students majoring in English should not fear a lack of job opportunities after graduation.

Elephants in the room: the uses and meanings of English in Thai political discourse (Part 3)

[This is the third of a three part article. Part 1 is available here. Part 2 is available here.]

Speaking in Codes

On the evening of 19 September 2006, I was watching TV at about 9 o’clock. There had been political tension for a long time, so long that I had become habituated to it just as I had become habituated to the peculiar reporting of Thai politics in general. One would often see serious newspaper reports such as “A general whose name begins with P talked to a politician whose name begins with H who took a bribe from a businessman whose name begins with T.” “Influential persons” would cause mischief through the use of “invisible hands”. General Prem was talking about jockeys, horses and owners. Prime Minister Thaksin was making oblique references to “a charismatic person outside the Constitution”. Generals were flatly denying that a coup would ever take place again saying that that era was past and Thailand was a fully democratic nation and the idea was just about unthinkable.

I believed them. So in this atmosphere, I was watching the Channel 11 show Newsline hosted by ML Nattakorn Devakula. I’d watched his show before and found him to be a bombastic and opinionated windbag but one who occasionally said something intelligent and/or interesting. On this occasion, for about ten minutes he seemed to be wittering on about nothing that I could understand. I paraphrase from memory:

The thing that we thought might be happening does seem to be happening. We hope it’s not happening but it certainly seems to be happening and nothing seems to be stopping it from happening. As we speak it’s happening right now. What’s happening seems to be definitely happening… It’s very bad that it is happening but it continues to happen.

I’d had a long day at work and had no clue what this all meant and little immediate interest in deciphering it. I woke up in the morning to the news of the coup and it immediately became crystal clear. Nattakorn had not been acting as a reporter; he had been speaking in code to those who shared the code. I may have been ignorant but many people would have understood him exactly.

I don’t blame Nattakorn. He may not have been acting in the heroic mode of the reporter who tells the truth in simple, unambiguous language. But he may have been acting quite courageously nevertheless; after all he knew that people in tanks were on their way to his TV station to replace his cryptic chatter with pronunciamentos and patriotic music and to do it with violence if they had to. However, the point this and other incidents demonstrate is that an awareness of coded language is necessary to any understanding of, or as things are constituted presently, to anything that can approach a full discussion of Thai politics. The codes I can understand (or at least identify as codes) are in English, so this area of Thai political discourse will be my focus in this paper.

The government is certainly aware of the way people are using codes to say what they want without being punished for it or to evade censorship and they are trying to work out ways to stop this. Information and Communication Technology Minister Ranongruk (who could perhaps be better named the Minister for the Suppression of Information and Communication Technology) explains how computer systems designed to stop people from making statements deemed offensive are being subverted. She submits her name for use as a codeword:

For example, let’s use my name. If the word “Ranongruk” is on the database, then we can check on anyone who uses the word on the internet. It will pop up and we can see what is being written about “Ranongruk”. But the system is easy to evade. People get smart and they type in “Ranong-ruk” if they want to say bad things … and the system won’t catch it.

Ranongruk is right. People get smart. The history of censorship is replete with examples of successful evasion of censorship through coded language. But she is wrong that they are doing it only when they want to say “bad things”. Sometimes they may use coded language in order to say “good things”. Censorship of the type that Ranongruk is in charge of organizing operates as a dragnet picking up everything in its path.

Ranongruk may be unaware of even blunter applications of computer code than hers. The Bangkok Post has an algorithm that converts potentially offensive words into

\\ ////

Yes, that’s right. \\ /////. It’s not a typo. I spoke with a moderator at the Bangkok Post who did not want to be named. He told me that the algorithm was initially designed to catch four letter words. With the rising political tension and fear of lèse majesté charges, management added other words but in a haphazard and incomprehensive fashion. We can see from the following example that the instrument does not always work very well:

Privy Council president and Statesman \\ //// Tinsulanonda said he had prayed to Phra Siam Thewathirat – the country’s guardian spirit – and cursed those people with malicious intentions towards the country, wishing them misfortune.

It’s quite clear even to the naïve reader who the statesman in question is. But it is not clear that the comment was at all critical of him. The \\ //// code, as we will see, is applied to other people and entities but it is indiscriminating. It does not, in Minister Ranongruk’s terms, sift out the “bad things” from the “good things”; instead it leads to further confusion and opens up innumerable opportunities for misinterpretation. It catches all statements – those that criticize \\ //// and those that praise \\ ////, such as the following comment from a Bangkok Post blog. This statement was made in a discussion of the red shirt petition to pardon Thaksin:

It looks like you may not realize that the only person who is empowered to grant a pardon to any convicted person is \\ ////. This include the petty thieves, purse snatchers or any other common criminals under detention. That is why they’re trying to submit the petition to \\ ////. The pardoning of these criminals is an annual \\ //// undertaking that usually takes place around \\ ////’s birthday. I do not believe it is a deliberate attempt to politicize the institution however obvious the political air is. Honestly, I think they know full well the pardon will probably not happen. I would be very surprise if it does. I honestly do not believe any Thai, UDD or PAD, who knows anything about \\ //// would or could say he doesn’t care regardless whether or not the pardoning happens. His entire life has been about caring for the people of this land. I can’t even begin to count all the projects under his direction that were aimed at making people’s lives better. It is his constitutional restrictions cemented by the military coup all those years ago that prevents him from being able to do even more. There were occasions we’ve witnessed where he said enough is enough.

A naïve reader would have no idea which person it is who has done all these good works because any identifying marks are screened out by this blunt instrument. The only clue we have is the reference to “the institution” something that would also leave the naïve reader puzzled. (I will discuss this term in a future paper.)

And in other cases, for a casual reader interested in learning about Thai history, the device would create problems:

  • 1980 – General \\ //// Tinsulanonda assumes power.
  • 1983 – \\ //// gives up his military position and heads a civilian government. He is re-elected in 1986.
  • 1988 – General Chatichai Choonhaven replaces \\ //// after elections.

And in another message we get this: “Even \\ //// appeared to have been in support of the policy in his ’03 birthday speech.” The informed reader will discern that the two \\ ////s are different people but for those who are not well-informed or are seeking to become more informed or are merely pursuing a casual interest the different identities of \\ //// could become conflated. Does this serve the interests of those who are trying to protect “the institution”?

However, much of the coded language in the blogs is not imposed by the recipient of the information, such as the Bangkok Post, but by the original writer of the message. Whether critical, laudatory or neutral, respondents on the Bangkok Post’s language pre-code their text so that it will not be rendered as \\ ////. People get smart as Minister Ranongruk said. Some of the ways people have successfully tried to get around such devices and the censorious attention of moderators follow:

… a former King of England is suspected of also having German sympathies (or indeed that the Ro.yal family is itself of a direct German background, they even changed their last name to sound more English). One has to also be in awe of the fact that the majority of the Europeans K.ings and Q.ueens of Europe were related by two or three blood lines). Lots of cousins got married I guess. If you or I marry like that it we would be called incestuous. I guess that is the recipe for European ‘R.oyal’.

It’s interesting to note that in this case the poster is not talking directly about Thai politics but presumably needs to change some words because he or she wants to get them past the censor to make the meaning clear. The post reflects the way in which censorship creates confusion and in which it is self-replicating. The poster has assumed the words the Bangkok Post is likely to censor. In fact, a more careful reading as I am carrying out here reveals that, very oddly, King and Queen are acceptable but “Royal” and “His Majesty” and “Prem” must be replaced by \\ ////. Censorship induces self-censorship and coding which is often in excess of what the censors originally mandate.

In most cases, however, Bangkok Post posters are referring directly to Thai politics. The next post seeks to evade the Bangkok Post’s censorship by using the code words, “H…M  and “K…ing”, yet it certainly would not fall under Minister Ranongruk’s category of “bad things”. It adopts the Abhisit government and PAD line that the petition to the king asking that he pardon Thaksin is a potential source of annoyance or discomfort to His Majesty:

Thaksin devisivness only has one goal, to be a false prophet and incite unrest, now insult the K…ing. Might as well add lese majeste to his many charges. Giving gov’t to the people means only if he can be the boss. H…M deserves better, especially after all he’s done and these being the remaining years of his memorable life.

Another longer post on the same topic makes the same point more temperately but uses a different set of code words. I will quote this at some length to give an idea of the confusion that might arise in the mind of somebody who is not well acquainted with Thai politics:

I’m not sure this petition is a wise move for the red shirts. If you look at the past, pardons have only been granted by those who were convicted and began to serve their time, which doesn’t apply to Thaksin. However, from what I’ve read, that doesn’t mean this couldn’t be granted by HIM, it’s just that there is no precedent for it.

Some have said that if HE were to grant a pardon, that it would reflect badly on the courts. Yet, go back and count how many L.M. convictions there have been, especially in regards to foreigners, who were granted pardons almost as a matter of course. Doesn’t that “reflect badly” on the courts? If HE can grant pardons and basically overturn the decisions of the courts in regards to these rulings, without the courts being “embarrassed”, then HE could do so in this regard as well, so I don’t really buy the argument that it would discredit the courts, because they are discredited in nearly every L.M. conviction against foreigners nearly every time there is a “conviction”. …

But let’s be honest here. Not everyone, especially the “Elites”, “Old Money” and Military want to see him come back, other than in a pine box for burial. He scares the he.ll out of them, and it’s possible his life would be in constant danger. But if something were to happen to him, some “accident”, or a blatant assassination, that could plunge this country into a civil war, and no one in their right mind wants to see that.

But let’s look at the other side of that coin and let’s say that HE doesn’t grant it, or even refuses to hear it, what will that do? It will delight everyone who is anti-Thaksin, but it could also have a negative effect on that institution. The other day in ThaiVisa forum it was stated that a man from San Kamphaeng revealed that Thai there had claimed to love Thaksin more than HIM, and that they were mad at HIM. When I read that it sent a shiver down my spine, as I could not imagine any Thai saying such a thing, and it made me question the validity of such a statement. But what if it were true? If so, and HE denied the petition for the pardon, would it turn people against that institution? I’m not sure I even want to consider the consequences of that if it were to happen.

While, on the one hand I can respect the “devotion” of the reds to Thaksin, and understand their reasons for it, on the other I don’t think this is the smartest move they could make, and that it could possibly lead to further divisions within the country. If they get the signatures they want, and I have a feeling they probably could without too much trouble, and then submit it to HIM, that is going to place a tremendous amount of pressure on HIM in which, regardless of his decision, is going to create further divisions in this country.

In this post, we get the code words “HE”, “HIM”, “He.ll” (perhaps one born out of a hypersensitivity to the Bangkok Post’s heavy handedness), “L.M” and also “that institution” (a code word I will address in another paper). On the other hand, the reader must clearly distinguish “He” from “HE” and “him” from “HIM” to make sense of this.  Some might wonder why some unidentified under-achiever from San Kamphaeng was feeling scorned because Thais loved Thaksin more than him and what it was this good man had done to arouse the anger of the red shirts. Admittedly, most people reading this post would probably understand and know the background but posts are recycled and reprinted in different contexts and the censorship/coding  here would sow confusion.

Some other code words used to evade \\ //// in the Bangkok Post are “you-know-who”, “the honest broker of Thai politics”, and in an interesting analogy “that group of trees in the center of the field”.

It is clear that where there is a blunt censorship instrument operating as at the Bangkok Post, code words are used through the force of necessity: on one hand the necessity defined by the Bangkok Post which automatically codes words that are thought of as politically dubious and on the other hand, the necessity of getting their point across as defined by many of the respondents.

However, there are many blogs which do not operate such crude censorship. Of course, some of these blogs, particularly, I suppose, those hosted in Thailand, those whose contributors are Thailand based and those which are sensitive to the always present fear of being banned in Thailand, moderate posts to their blogs. But in these there is also coded language used by both the principal authors of these blogs and by the respondents.

These coded words cover a wide variety of topics and a wide variety of political opinions and I must let the readers work out the possible meanings for themselves. Some are heavily coded and highly ambiguous; others are much easier to work out. Some require extensive background knowledge which is often encoded in the code word itself. Others are more or less arbitrary. Some of these code words are: “the higher place” , “John Doe”, “the inevitable”, “some Other party in the power struggle you’re referring to”, “two obvious Higher parties”, “Germany”, “she and Germany”, “ Someone, before his most unfortunate incident on September 15”, “the Other party”, “Germany”, The pandas Lin Hui and Lin Ping, “the kindergarten kids”, “the kindergarten”,  “the principal of the kindergarten”, “the son of one who must not be mentioned in Thailand”, “powerful and mighty backer”, “Elvis”, “son of Elvis”, “when Elvis leaves the building”, “you-know-who”, “that institution”, “the inevitable”, “the unspeakable”, “you know who”, “you know who”, “the ‘R’ word”, “R”, “the other ‘R’”, “a certain high up person”, “you know what”, “unmentionable connections”, “a certain person”, “one big guy”, “the ‘r’ word”,one central and final event”, “a big-cheese”, “the big guy”, “the big house”, “the big house and the privy (the small house)”, “The principal reason for all of this”, “A group and entity which cannot be mentioned which has over-whelming political influence, has enormous business interests in every aspect of the Thailand economy, all of them impacted by government policies or non-policies”, “a certain birthday party”, “a certain someone: US-born, swiss-educated, thai-chinese mother…”, “a certain draconian law”, “his other friend was in Germany”, “the main man”, “those in a high place” , “someone in the sky”, “someone high up”, “the sky”, “certain people who have always professed not to be involved in politics”, “Someone near and dear”, “numero doce”, “his mom”, “a secret ingredient”, “the one big news”.

There are many other code words which I have not referenced. It would be impossible to do so because so much of the commentary on Thai politics is now written in code, metaphor and analogy. Anyone reading blogs in English on Thai politics has to cut through a jungle of these code words to make meaning of what is being said.

Reasons for codes: a climate of fear/paranoia?

Why do all these codes exist? In many instances, it is clear that the posters are quite critical of their coded referents and might have good cause to worry about being caught by the lèse majesté law or the Computer Crimes Act if they talked plainly. Even if they are not worried about any personal consequences, they may be worried that blog moderators would suppress their comments for fear of being caught as second order violators of the law as happened to Chiranuch Premchaiporn of the Prachatai website.

In other cases, however, the posters either praise or are neutral about their coded referents. It seems that they too might be worried about getting caught in a dragnet or of being misinterpreted or taken out of context. Also, perniciously, coding can become something that develops through force of habit and through imitation and membership of a peer group that habitually talks in the same terms. There is a certain thrill in being able to break perceived mores in this way, to demonstrate the cleverness to talk in a language that few understand. On the other hand, there is a widespread and potent frustration at not being able to talk freely and in a way that is not as subject to misinterpretation and misunderstanding as coded language necessarily is.

There is also widespread fear and anxiety that goes hand-in-glove with this frustration. Many have noted the climate of fear over free expression in Thailand. Brad Adams from Human Rights Watch says, “A climate of fear looms over civil discourse and in cyberspace as a result of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression under the Abhisit government.” Reporters without Borders has been constantly critical of the censorship laws and ups the ante from “a climate of fear” to “a climate of paranoia”. Amnesty International, after a long time on the sidelines, has at last joined the charge and has come out and criticized censorship in Thailand, citing the King in support of its case. Supinya Klangnarong who was hailed as a champion of free speech by the yellow shirts for her David and Goliath battle against the Thaksin government’s attempt to stifle her through a libel suit, (here and here) has said that 60 percent of the Thai population are “silent because of fear” and that the Abhisit government is pursuing a double strategy of “creating a climate of fear and at the same time remaining open”, relying on the fear to do the censoring work and the openness to preserve its image. Pravit Rojahanaphruk, one of the rare progressive voices from The Nation, has written in Prachatai: “This politics of ultra-royalism will restrict even further the already near-non-existent public space that is critical of the royal institution. Unrealistic expectations will likely result, and Thai democracy will fall deeper into the black hole of anti-democratic language and intolerance.”

It would be surprising if bloggers and posters did not pick up on this atmosphere and respond to it. Minor and major panics break out from time to time on the blogs as the cyber community suspects infiltration from the dark powers that be. Questions like these fly around: “Why can’t I access this site? Has it been banned? Or is it just technical difficulties? Can someone tell me what’s happening? Is someone reading my posts or my emails? Are you who you say you are? Are things what they seem?”

It has been said that just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean that nobody is watching you. And obviously the Thai authorities are reading people’s emails as the case of Suwicha Takhor bears out and they are banning websites without going through the proper legal channels. In response to a question as to whether the ICT Ministry had “illegally or pre-emptively banned any website”, Minister Ranongruk answered categorically that it had not. In absolute contradiction of this answer she immediately went on to say: “But it takes time to get court orders, so we may delete certain content deemed inappropriate before we go through the process.” So it should not be surprising that bloggers are alert to the possibility of bans taking place with no publicity. Blogger AbsolutelyBangkok recently reported that Web users all over Thailand had reported

blockings by the mighty MICT as well as hazardous scripts on government sites. A reader reported absolutelyBangkok.com was blocked as were – depending on where you are and what ISP you use – CNN, Yahoo, Facebook, Flickr and others. Quite an honor to be blocked along with CNN, Facebook and such.”

Absolutely Bangkok then speculated as to whether it was a “silly MICT computer tech tweaking something” or whether it was “A test run, a dress rehearsal for the one big news”. The point to make here is not which of these speculations is true; it is that in the absence of reliable information from the authorities about what they are doing, such speculation is bound to intensify and the fears and rumours are bound to intensify.

A poster on BangkokPundit called “Ricefield Radio” recounts an incident which induced this type of fear:

Not long ago I checked my server stats and found had I had no hits from Thailand today. I then realized it was just shortly after 1:00 am, the server resets at midnight, and few if any Thai hits appear at night on the weekend. This insignificant panic attack reminds me that we are all under their thumb to some degree and we have to be vigilant if not careful about what we say. This is not a good situation and is a stark reminder that in other places, not too distant, journalists have just disappeared into the night never to be seen again. The arbitrary use of the LM and computer Crime and other media related laws is a direct assault on the media as well as the people.

A very sad fact is that the majority, media included, either don’t know, don’t care or just go along with the noose tightening around their throats waiting for the floor to drop out from beneath their feet.

I share these apprehensions and I can attest to feeling the same panic attacks when the internet goes awry. We have to imagine new scenarios for repressive censorship. A carload of goons might not arrive at midnight and knock on the door to find the reader of the banned book or the samizdat publishers. They may only have to deliver an electronic knock on the door to destroy the operation. Censorship depends for its effectiveness not merely on actually identifying the dissidents but on making them aware of the possibility of being identified, of making them scared to say what they think or even to say anything at all and making others scared to read these dissident opinions. Or of forcing them into ways of speaking that are incomprehensible, that sound meaningless, mad or inconsequential, that go round and round in ever diminishing circles.

Another classic game that censors play (and that the censored respond to) is that of fomenting suspicion and distrust among their targets. One blog respondent points an accusing finger at the presence of suspect agent provocateurs on the website he is responding to. Siammiddlepath responds to a commentator who has confessed to ignorance of the existence of a clandestinely circulating CD: “I’m not even sure if Chris Beale is a part of the 2.4 operation. Going through his past comments sometimes I can’t help feeling he is fishing for information and just baiting for the next victim of a certain draconian law? Sorry, it’s just an impression.” Siammiddlepath then goes on to warn another blogger of the dangers of being too open saying, “Superanonymous [incidentally, the choice of pseudonym reveals something else about the atmosphere of secrecy and fear], you should be careful.”

We might choose to regard these responses as the paranoiac whispers and over-reactions that emerge in all closed, cult-like societies (and the blog world has some characteristics that match these) but on the other hand, we might forgive these accusations when we take into account the views of The Nation’s editorialist on this matter. The Nation is hardly the voice of anarchic freedom. They have consistently defended the existence and application of censorship and have supported the Abhisit government’s line. But at the conclusion of a general discussion of web censorship and cyber attacks worldwide, the editorial turns its attention to Thailand and unambiguously states that the government’s censorship regime is anarchically propelled by whim not by law and that there are Thai government sponsored agent provocateurs working in cyberspace. The Nation should see it as their duty to back up these very significant claims by publishing whatever evidence they have and demanding that those responsible be indicted:

Of late, Thai authorities have been monitoring private emails with intensity. Sometimes, agencies act on their own accord, even though the Abhisit government has said repeatedly it respects freedom of expression both in print and digital form. But somehow there are discrepancies. Experts in information technology have disguised themselves as friendly users on online social networking groups such as Facebook and Twitter, trying to locate groups and individuals who are considered to have negative views on the country and its respected institutions. Thailand used to be one of the freest countries in Asia, both in traditional and new media. However, in the past three years Internet censorship and heavy filtering of online content has become a common practice here.

Awareness of codes: “now we live by code words”

There is an increasing awareness by bloggers and other commentators of the importance and prevalence of coded language. The prominent political blogger BangkokPundit seems particularly aware of them and equally aware of the limits of free speech in Thailand often stating in response to those limits–quite understandably–that he has no wish to spend time in prison. One of the tactics he uses, as in this instance with a coded speech by Sondhi Limthongkul, is not to decode the text himself but to suggest to the reader that “if one reads though the lines and decodes what in a ‘high place’ and in the ‘sky’ [Sondhi’s code words] means “one can work out Sondhi’s meaning”. BangkokPundit is alert to any possibility of an increased space for free speech through the extended use of codes; he picks up on the freer, less disguised  use of certain code words in new contexts; in one instance, he rhetorically asks “btw, can we now use the code words ‘backing’ and “baramee’ without concern?” after seeing them in a more mainstream publication. Bloggers like BangkokPundit react in a fluid way to censorship. As the space for free speech expands, they occupy it; as it shrinks, they retreat. In another article, commenting on Thailand’s drop in Reporters without Borders ranking of 66 in 2002 to 130 in 2009, BangkokPundit maintains that the situation is not as bad as it seems and that the reporting of “sensitive” issues is actually greater. The reason is that people have learnt to speak in codes: “Now we live by code words”.

Likewise the columnist Chang Noi asserts the increasing importance of codes:

Over the past year alone, the nature of political debate within Thailand has changed utterly. More sections of society are involved in the debate. Things once unsaid are now said. In public forums, speakers have evolved codes, metaphors, and gestures, which their audience can understand. On radio, presenters have quietly transgressed old taboos. In semi-private spaces like the interior of a taxi, exchanges have become more forthright.

One poster to a Bangkok Post forum who signs as “Thai_100%” writes tellingly and sympathetically that pressure from fearful moderators means that posters have to be deliberately unclear. The poster apologizes for speaking in code but holds out the hope that it will ultimately be understood:

I think the “mods” are under new orders, after all, they have to work here and they must tow the “party” line perhaps? (if they want to remain employed that is)
This why we sometimes write in riddles which I know is not fair to people for whom English is a second or third language but hopefully, for those that want to know what we are really saying, there are others that can help, like you and your friend perhaps?

Nicholas Farrelly from New Mandala has also suggested that despite the increasing restrictions of speech the space for open discussion is increasing. There are new “rebellions” constantly breaking out against censorship and threatening its grip. Respondent Ralph Kramden agrees with this analysis and makes the point that internet censorship is actually very difficult as “Much of it appears, is blocked, reappears, is sent around by emails and so on.” The analogy I would make here is with spotfires; the information leaps over firebreak and control lines.

But of course there is argument against these points of view. Some see the use of coded language as falling into a trap which plays right into the hands of the censors, expanding the confusion and powerlessness which censorship induces. A poster called “Curious” sees blogs as a space where codes are not necessary (but as I have shown codes actually proliferate on the blogs, necessary or not):

I’m wondering why Chang Noi can’t say the “r” word. Well I guess if you are publishing in a national newspaper there’s your answer – you can’t say it. In that case then why publish at all, when all you do is continue fuelling the misunderstanding surrounding the event that it was a “military” coup. …

Better to blog it and tell it like it is.

Other bloggers admit to both a desire to stay away from sensitive subjects, and a feeling of as much confusion as anyone else. The following short interchange illustrates a range of attitudes. It could be a scene from Waiting for Godot. It whispers of powerlessness, self-repression, hidden knowledge and deep frustration.  The bloggers seem to be talking about Thaksin’s chances of returning to power but it could be about anything. I have constructed this exchange as a short play. It moves from an attempt to discuss something through an admission of the inability to say anything, to an admonition not to discuss that which you can say nothing of, to an expression of regret that even imaginary nothings can’t be discussed:

THE DOGCATCHER: I still think he’s waiting for something to happen. Then hey presto back in power.

WEFEAROURDESPOT: We all know what he’s waiting for.

THE DOGCATCHER: I have so much to say on this subject but I can’t.

FILCH: Apparently neither can I. I do remember posting on this subject earlier about Mr T positioning himself ready for the inevitable, but alas it has been removed by the powers that be. So what do people think will happen when the inevitable does happen?

STRONTIUM DOG: I think it’s best not to discuss it.

FILCH: Discuss what? It’s kinda sad when we can’t discuss a hypothetical nothing.

Compare the scene above with this crucial excerpt from Samuel Beckett’s play:

VLADIMIR: Say something!

ESTRAGON: I’m trying.

Long silence.

VLADIMIR: (in anguish). Say anything at all!

ESTRAGON: What do we do now?

VLADIMIR: Wait for Godot.

Vladimir’s anguished “say anything at all!” is a plea to keep life going in the face of absurdity. In the absurdist drama of Thailand’s censorship regime, the same imperatives apply.

It’s kinda sad

Like Filch says, it is kinda sad what censorship does.

It produces a necessity to talk in codes. People want to say things and will seek to say them but they want safety. The coding of speech often actually outruns the demands of the censors but this is not surprising because in Thailand if you misread the censor’s demands, you can get a very hefty prison sentence that will destroy your life. The censors talk in codes too in order to pretend that free speech is still the dominant mode of discourse in Thailand. Codes are difficult to understand and open to misinterpretation by their very nature. Speech becomes solipsistic and cliquish, unavailable for public consumption and examination, shadowy and secretive, open to all sorts of distortion. It becomes noise not information.

But, equally, powerful codes can gain widespread currency and understanding. Censorship regimes may begin by censoring direct unambiguous expression. But people are smart. They resort to indirect, ambiguous, coded speech. When code words proliferate and become more and more understood, the censorship either (a) becomes irrelevant and redundant; it falls into abeyance and censorship becomes an exercise in futility. Or (b) the censorship responds to and seeks out the codes thus expanding exponentially beyond its original aims. The discovered codes are recoded and the process intensifies paranoiacally as language tries to conceal itself and becomes layered with hidden and disputed meanings such that all language becomes suspect. The logic of the second type of censorship ultimately means that any expression is potentially subversive, even deliberate non-expression as in the military crime of “dumb insolence”, where mute gesture can be punished.  The mute gesture of sitting rather than standing in a cinema, as Chotisak Onsoong has found out, can be punished as dumb insolence. A thought crime.

Remember Orwell’s analysis in 1984. The Party wanted to create Newspeak by stripping language of all nuance and ambiguity, all irony and gesture, all code. There would simply be “good” and “ungood”. The ultimate logical outcome of censorship is the category of ThoughtCrime.

Annette Hamilton has summed up the dangers of the current censorship situation in Thailand eloquently:

When silence is enforced for a long time noise –when it comes – is deafening …[Censorship] results in a situation where fears, hopes, dreams and interpretations are bottled up for years and decades, circulate through rumor and gossip and may come out in terrible, violent confrontations.

The authorities should heed this warning and not let such a state of affairs come to pass.

[Thomas Hoy teaches in the Department of English at Thammasat University.]

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