Monday, April 09, 2007

Thailand Vs Google youtube

If there is a Thai equivalent to the old adage "There's no rest for the wicked", then Thailand's ruling junta must be asking themselves just how bad their karma is right now.

As if the escalating tensions between the junta and the PTV (see my previous blog) and various other anti-coup groups were not enough, eh? Protests are becoming more popular and various allegations of graft and abuse of power are doing the rounds. This being Thailand, it's very rare for anyone to actually be specific, simply because everybody has some blackmail on some one else so a typical allegation is simply "a man who recently came to power has been extorting the TV stations". Another popular allegation method is to use some silly epithet. For example: "Chinese older sister has been alluding to evade tax" and so on. The junta have made counter threats as thinly veiled as possible against protesters as well as suggesting they have all been sponsored by "ostracised politicians". All to no avail, protests continue.

It seems the old brass are not learning by error though. About one week ago, an appallingly badly made "movie" on depicted pictures of HM The King accompanied by bad quality music slowly having some kind of lines drawn across the picture. It resembled the work of a maladjusted hermit. Had it been ignored, it would have faded away. But, in their infinite wisdom, the MICT or ICT (Ministry of Information and Computer Technology) decided to ban it.

Before we knew it the issue had mutated from a bad and vulgar but unpopular video to an international expose of insecurity, lese majeste and restrictions on freedoms in Thailand.

There was nothing new about this decision. ICT have been revelling in their self appointed role of purity guardians for a long time, and any of their staff will proudly quote the number of blocked sites as being well into the thousands. What was new this time around however was that the blocked site wasn't internal pornography or a local university website that dared to question the coup, this time the victim was a very popular international American nerd site. And of course, western nerds don't like being told what the hell to think.

After the usual tactic of denying responsibility didn't work out, the ICT accepted they had blocked the site and "demanded" youtube take down the video. Youtube initially refused but eventually succumbed -- presumably due to the drop in advertising revenue for the region -- and removed the offending "clip". However, the first frame (i.e. a still picture) remained viewable. The ICT continued the ban and again "demanded" that even the first frame go down. This time, a collectively vexed youtube issued a statement explaining they "will not assist censorship."

Having lost face, the ICT responded in the only sensible, modern and adult manner possible. Like a kid in the playground that doesn't want to admit he lost at marbles , the nation's moral thought police responded with "We were right, and to show we were right we'll ban more sites!". And indeed, the ICT made an official notice of more closures and official "warnings" to other sites. This time though, they played it safe and stuck to bullying Thai websites. The most popular Thai newspapers which print pictures of dead and mutilated bodies of woman and children on its cover almost every single day, remain non - samizdat.

The backlash against such censorship was inevitable and, in my opinion, self inflicted by the medieval level of incompetence and maladjustment by the ICT. Various other forms of disrespect to sacred Thai institutions have appeared on line and youtube have issued a statement offering to "educate" the ICT on how to block a specific video rather than an entire site. The offer appeared genuine but the stress placed on the word "educate" means a further loss of face to our juvenile minded moral guardians and , ergo, more tantrums and more censorship from Big Brother seems sure to follow.

The ICT represents a microcosm of Thailand's developmental conundrum. They want to be viewed as a modern, developed country with rich tradition, yet the rulers are neither modern nor developed. Their Jurassic beliefs that people will respond to cogency dictatorship and their embarrassing level of incompetence at communications censorship has bought nothing but problems for Siam. It smacks of insecurity and hidden agendas. What's more, it may prove to be ultimately self defeating. It seems that for the first time in a long time, Thais are actually starting to ask something to the effect of: "If people have nothing to hide, why are we not allowed to criticise them?" A good question indeed.

A bizarre cartoon and a silly reader's letter appeared in 'The Nation Thailand' today. The letter slated Google for its defence statement: "we also have videos mocking George Bush on our site". The writer stated "Effigies of Bush are burned across the world by those who revere the Thai king." I found this statement in condemnation of Google not only false, but bizarre. The writer seemed to be using the logic "If the person is already disrespected it's OK to do it on youtube, otherwise, it should be censored".

I suspect fanatics like this are the people who would most benefit from a dose of global reality and un - manufactured truth. Freedom of speech does not allow freedom to incite or encourage harm, but it most certainly does include freedom to say something we might not like.

One can only hope some good comes out of this. Some foolishly optimistic part of me hopes that the ICT will learn that not only is it wrong to tell people what to think, it's impossible. The more one is told not to peruse something, the more recalcitrant and curious they become. Sadly, the kindergarten mentality of ICT's "each time someone denies us we'll block more sites" response does not bode well. The temperature climbs.

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