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THAILAND AND THE PRESS



Published: Sat, February 2, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



THAILAND AND THE PRESS

Washington Post: In December Thailand's much-respected constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, delivered a rare public rebuke to the country's populist prime minister. The government of Thaksin Shinawatra, said the king, had brought the country to the brink of disaster, in large part because of his failure to listen to criticism. Now Mr. Thaksin, a business tycoon turned politician who has devoted the year since his election to compounding his political power, has proved his sovereign correct. Following the publication of an article about the speech in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the government announced its intention to expel two of the respected weekly's journalists from the country -- an act that would ruin Thailand's reputation as a haven for free speech in Asia.

The formal case against the two journalists -- Shawn Crispin, a U.S. citizen, and Rodney Tasker, a Briton -- makes little sense; no inaccuracies have been cited in their 175-word article, and they have been charged under those favorite catchalls of authoritarianism -- threatening public order and national security. As is so often true in such cases, their real offense was to publish embarrassing truths: The king, they wrote, has been annoyed by Mr. Thaksin's arrogance and by his efforts to meddle in the affairs of the royal family.

Power consolidation: Such behavior would be consistent with Mr. Thaksin's aggressive attempts to consolidate power in Thailand. Already one of the country's richest men and the owner of its sole private television station, he has stacked the cabinet with business cronies and pushed his political coalition to a dominant majority in parliament by swallowing opposition parties. The royal family and the press are among the strongest institutions still outside his control, which may explain why this fight has erupted.

Luckily, Thailand's press understands these stakes and has embraced the foreign correspondents' cause as its own. Articles and editorials in the leading newspapers have been blasting Mr. Thaksin; at a meeting of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand, a host of Thai politicians and journalists demanded that the government reverse the expulsion orders, which are currently under appeal. Mr. Thaksin, who frequently strikes nationalist poses, angrily rejected the U.S. State Department's criticism of the expulsions as foreign meddling.

But he'd do well to listen to what his own journalists are telling him. "It's not too late to draw back from this pointless confrontation that can only seriously damage every aspect of our nation's future," wrote Kanjana Spindler of the Bangkok Post. "The world is watching."




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