Politicians and rights advocacy groups on Tuesday urged the public including the media to overcome “Fear Syndrome” to restore people’s strength in fighting against the authoritarian government.
At the seminar titled “Who Counter-Check State Power?” the speakers agreed that the feeling of fear, inhibited by the government’s systematic populist campaigns of deception and concoction, has gripped the whole society.
The seminar was part of several events including the announcement of press awards in best reports and picture categories, jointly organized by several local media professional groups including Thai Journalists Association (TJA) to observe the Thai Reporter’s Day on March 5.
Participants said this social lethargy left the ruling government with no strong and effective check-and-balance mechanism within and without, as envisaged in the country’s most democratic 1997 Constitution.
Abhisit Vejjajiva, deputy leader of Democratic Party said Thaksin administration misconstrued the public that strong government was the one with popular support and did not need to listen to public criticism or tolerate scrutiny.
Abhisit said this was a clear evident that the government tried to distort the spirit of the constitution which intended to put in place a system that will ensure stable government and at the same accountable to the public. “These two elements in fact can co-exist without any contradiction,” he said.
The MP pointed that all the reform process have been stalled over the past two years because Thaksin refused this constitutional approach and opt to absolute power as a tool of effective management.
Abhisit said this totalitarian attitude was manifested in several public speeches Thaksin made in rebuttal of his critics or opponents of his policies and government performances.
Since assuming the office two years ago, Thaksin repeatedly said he would tolerate only constructive criticism, which appeared in this case to mean all favorable.
The police-turned politician went on himself to rebut all criticism via his weekly radio program. By manipulating nationalism and majority, he painted those critical of him as traitor or misrepresenting the people’s will.
Under his administration, Anti-Money Laundering launched an uncalled investigation into assets of editors and columnists of major newspapers critical of Thaksin and the goverenment.
Using pressure via the management and business co-optation, several television and radio programs deemed critical of his administration were either suspended, removed or forced to tone down their criticism.
Prof. Assoc. Sangsit Piriyarangsan, vice chairman of National Economic and Social Advisory Council said the government managed to co-opt those in the academia, judiciary branch, legislative branch and independent watchdogs that ordinary people were afraid to raise their voice for fear they would have no one left to defend for.
“It is a desperate situation that some of our friends and many people in my circle said they fear the leader they voted for,” Sangsit said.
He however believed the media, if not all could still perform its independent role to check the power abuse and government’s wrong doings.
Pradit Charoenthaitawee, National Human Rights Commissioner said the Thai leader cared too much about his popularity, ignoring the rules of laws, ethical precepts, and Thailand’s international commitment toward human rights.
Pradi said among 12 percent of complaints received by the commission last year concerned the government’s controversial natural resource management. Pradith said there were several concessions, issued to private companies to operate mining in the South under this administration.
He said complainants sought justice for their cousins, killed after trying to oppose the licensing of mine fields.
Pradit said after the commencement of war on drugs on February 1, the commission received 104 complaints related to the extra-judicial police killing and killing by drug traffickers.
He said the government ignored the commission’s notice that the scale of violence involved in this campaign concerned the United Nation Human Right Commission which matched the action to a massacre. “I believe they do not know they have violated eight articles in the International Convention on Citizens and Civil Rights to which Thai government acceded in October 1996,”he said. The convention went into effect on January 2001.
Rosana Tositrakul, chairperson of Federation of Consumers’ Rights Protection said the present civic movement was so week that no one raised questions about the impact of the government’s anti-drug drive on the public perception over the rule of laws.
On the contrary, Rosana said this government exploited the loopholes of the law at will to keep them in power.
“This is dangerous that there is systematic attempt to sway people is from upholding the rule of laws” she said,
She pointed out the violent strategy employed in the government’s war on drugs could send a wrong signal to the public that all problems could be solved through the use of violence.
Rosana agreed that while the present constitution intended to put in place a strong public participation in the check-balance-system, the process to achieve this might be difficult. She said it needed support of the parliament and popular signature campaign in order to file a case to independent courts.
She believed to move this process for forward, the civil movement, independent bodies and the media must come together and speak in one voice.
Kavi Choonkittavorn, former president of Thai Journalists Association agreed the Thai media was co-opted into the fear syndrome either by persuasion or coercion.
However Kavi believed the role of media as a social watchdog is still important. “If the media is weak, do no expect the people to raise issue,” he said.
He believed some media could still ride out of the doldrums if they decide to leave out side the patron-client system to create more space for independent reports.
Kavi said to keep the government in check, the media needed a new breed of journalists, who can catch up with the government’s spin machinery, which has been quite successfully in setting news agenda.
He said they should discard the old-fashioned snap reports that concentrated on verbal exchanges between politicians and controversial issues. They should pursue variety of themes with human face that will capture wider readers and build allies.
They should have historical perspectives in their stories because no major scandals occur isolatedly, according to Kavi, who is deputy managing editor of The Nation Multimedia Group.