PUSHING THE ENVELOPE OF freedom of the press isn’t an easy thing to do in a country run by the military. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand has tried to walk a fine line in continuing an active events program despite some serious restrictions – and even shutdowns by the authorities. What it can and cannot do is weighed down by some fairly draconian pieces of legislation and, since the 2014 coup, a military government with very definite opinions about the press.
Things got off to a rough start in the early days of the coup when the Club upset the authorities by allowing the fugitive politician Chaturon Chaiseng a platform.
“Chaturon was one of the last of the former cabinet members to turn himself in, and a subject of genuine media interest,” says FCCT President Dominic Faulder. “He made no attempt to resist arrest after he had finished making a statement, and the soldiers sent to collect him from the clubhouse in steel helmets and webbing arrived twenty minutes late. Three weeks later, we had the new junta spokesman sitting in the same spot.”
Six times since the coup, police have shut down or forced cancellation of Club events . . . it is clear who still wields the power
Things have improved since. Police no longer enter the Club and sit around as they did in the early days of the coup. “It’s pretty stable, and it’s not gotten worse,” says Faulder. “Our relationship with Lumpini police station, which has the Club in its precinct, is civil enough. We are not an activist organization – we are a press club. Much of our programming is geared to current events and whatever happens to be topical. That can unavoidably cause friction.”
A non-provocative approach has been key to how the FCCT has dealt with Thailand’s military rulers. The military was looking for a way to talk to the foreign media and the Club’s attitude has been that it is there for the generals as much as the politicians. That seems to have some traction with the military.
“We want to hear what they have to say – our door has always been open to them,” says Faulder, though appearances by government officials, in some ways the lifeblood of any press club, have been scanty since the coup. In fact, since 2014, no prime minister has appeared at the Club, while prior to that it was an annual event. Only three ministers have visited in that time.
There have been moments, especially in the early years of military rule, when the Club’s position was precarious. Six times since the coup, police have shut down or forced cancellation of Club events. The most recent incident shows that it is clear who still wields the power.
The FCCT had organized a panel discussion for Sept. 10 about a UN report on the Rohingya. That itself, while there are parallels with Thailand, wasn’t the trigger for what turned out to be a swift and brutal response. But the flyer promoting the event named General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military commander. Although he’s been cited by the UN for his involvement in the crackdown on Rohingya, he has some friends in very high places in the Thai military and political establishment and was able to mobilize them to halt the event.
With two hours to go, a dozen Lumpini police officers showed up, shutting down the event on the grounds it was a threat to national security. They were quite clear about the Club’s lack of options. “We are not asking,” said Police Col. Thawatkiat Jindakuansanong. “We are ordering you to cancel.”
“In hindsight, we should have left [his name] out,” says Jonathan Head, former FCCT president and one of the organizers. “It’s a reminder that they are watching and that they will intervene.”
Such heavy-handed responses have forced the FCCT into some nimble footwork about rescheduling and repackaging their events. Another event in May 2017 that promised to focus on the theft from a public place of a plaque marking the end of Thailand’s absolute monarchy (still unsolved, by the way), was also shut down. So the Club very quickly held an event on the freedom of the press where the issue of the plaque, among others, was raised.
With elections scheduled for February, the hope is things will get easier, although given the turbulence of Thai politics that is not a given.
The FCCT has kept going through four sometimes difficult years, been one of the few places in Thailand where rational debate is free and open and kept the issue of press freedom alive in a country, and a region, where it is under constant threat. That is a significant achievement – one it hopes to build on in the coming years.
Michael Mackey is a journalist based in Bangkok and author of the book Sulphated Dreams.