Tuesday, June 08, 2010

“The soldiers might have acted just out of an emotional impulse”

Michaël Nelson, a sociologist from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies of Passau university in Germany has been an acute observer of the Thai political scene for several decades. He is currently a visiting researcher at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Political Science. Among others, he is the author of Central Authority and Local Democratization in Thailand, a landmark study on the bureaucratic polity in the countryside and the evolution of the relationships between the centre and the periphery at the time of political reform and decentralization (Studies in Contemporary Thailand N°6, White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 1998). Dr Michaël anwers our questions on the medias coverage of the Thai Political Crisis. Interview by Arnaud Dubus.

Question : There has been a big debate in Thailand on the coverage of the Red Shirts demonstrations by the Foreign press. Many Thais in Bangkok find the Foreign Press “totally irresponsible” in their coverage. Yet, if we look at the reports, some are of course dramatized and exaggerated, but the basic facts are there – even if in a simplistic manner – and the voice of the Reds is taken into account by these foreign medias. So why such an anger by the Thais against the foreign medias coverage, especially the coverage by the big international TV channels ?

Michaël H. Nelson : Maybe the crux of the matter is what you have just mentionned, that they have given a voice to the Reds, while the mass-medias in Thailand have tried very hard to cut off the voice of the Reds and to replace it by the voice of the governement.
So these people that are so much against BBC or CNN might merely think that these medias do not present a view of the governement, of the elite, and therefore they are wrong. And it is not only the view of the Thai elite and some Thais right wing commentators and middle class people, it is also the view of many foreign observers, because we must not forget that one of the most nasty article against CNN was written by Andrew Biggs who happen to have been working as an Australian at the Nation newspaper, a right wing paper, for many years.
An the other hand, there are also Thai observers who are grateful for having those such as BBC and CNN, because they fell oppressed by the facts the Thai mass medias, in particular the TV channels who are mostly in governement's hands, have been turned from State governement TVs into propaganda tools of the governement.

Question : Do you think that there is also an element of cultural behavior in the sense that there seems to be a sort of preconception among parts of the Thai elite that Westerners are not fully able to understand the behavior of Thai people and the Thai culture. And so there should not be any interference, because anyway, there are not Thai and they can not understand ?

Michaël H. Nelson : Well, they are quite ambivalent about this, i think. That is, if a totally ignorant foreigner says something nice about Thailand, they will be very happy about this. They know he is ignorant, they know he knows nothing, but since he speaks nicely about Thailand or nicely about this governement, they accept it and they will give him front page coverage, they will give him place for interviews, etc... So never mind if he is ignorant, since he gives a positive voice to Thailand, he is accepted.
Then in those cases where they know they are confronted with a person who knows something that does not share their opinions, they reject it. It takes often quite strange forms. For example, you have this general reaction that there is an article published in a foreign newspaper or by some foreign TV crews, and then the commentator will say : see, these people from far away, perhaps even not having been in Thailand, write something about us. How can they understand us, since they are so far away and since they are foreigner ? How can they write anything good about us ?
But they will never dare saying anything if they know that that person, who has said something critical about their country and their politics, has been here for 15, 20 or 30 years. Normally they don't quite know what to say any longer because they can not say that this person does not know anything, that even after 20 years he is totally ignorant about Thailand, how can that be ? Maybe that person knows even more about Thailand than themselves. Because if that person happens to be, for example, a political scientist who have been studying Thai politics empirically and theoritically for decades, this person surely knows a lot more about Thai politics than most of his critics.
But of course, it is a different kind of knowledge, because that person was not born in Thailand. So, as a Thai you have a different connection to what your society is. But precise, concrete, accurate knowledge about how politics works... all that, a foreigner who has studied about Thai politics might know much better than those Thais who criticize him.

Question : But would you say that the kind of “rational logical” analytical framework that we are using in the West is not always completely suited to analyze Thailand, in the way that we give rational motivations to the Thai people. For instance, when i discuss the Pathum Wanaram Temple's incident, some foreigners tell me “But why would the soldiers have shot the people in the temple, because they had not interest to do that ?”. My point is that often the behavior or the actions of Thai people won't have rational motivations. And so it is a bit difficult to analyze them in rational terms.

Michaël H. Nelson : I am really not sure about this, because i happen to be a sociologist and sociologists talk much about motivations of people rationality and all this. We would normally differentiate between rational behavior, emotional behavior, routinized behavior.
One point in this context is rationality is directed towards a goal. So you can have very different goals and you might look at behavior in a way that it appears non rational because you use your own goals in interpreting this behavior. But if you use other goals, that is the goals of the Thai actors, then that behavior might be completely rational in the sense that this behavior is a mean to achieve their goals. It is only that we don't understand their goals.
As for your example with the soldiers. I have not talked to any of those soldiers. One might say that the soldiers were in a specific situation. Many of them were probably quite stressed. Many of them were widely emotional against the Red shirts. They might have acted just out of an emotion impulse. They might have seen all these protesters as bad, people whom they must fight. One observer has quoted them as having shouted from the BTS station : “you are all bad, we will all kill you”.
So they have a goal. They say “Reds are all bad”. And they want to relieve their emotion. By pulling the trigger and shooting bullets into people, they relieve their emotional anger, they relieve their political anger, etc... So this would still be an emotionally rational behavior in that sense.

(to follow...)

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