I don’t think that in well over a decade I have struggled so much with an editorial. I know what I want to say, but I can’t say it. I know what I want to insinuate, but I worry the line between wishy-washy and self-harming.
There is a government department that I want to write about, but I fear reprisals. Staff of this department run the usual gamut of the hardworking and caring to the corrupt and threatening, and it is the latter I wished to discuss. But, I have been warned. So I find myself shushing myself. In fact, these days many of us who opine on occasion on various affairs of the nation find ourselves self-censoring. It is easier that way, we reason to ourselves. After all, we have staff whose livelihoods depend on us, and lest you think I am being disingenuous, hell yes, my own included.
Thailand has always had a certain censorship of the media. But many of us born and raised here have been so conditioned to these norms that we have accepted them – we respect, therefore we bow. And that is something most of us, perhaps more so of a certain generation, are alright with, as it is almost in our DNA. But the rules have shifted. We are now expected to bow to what we don’t necessarily respect. That is hard.
Corruption by authorities can be an act of great intimidation. They have the power to withhold what we want or to enforce what we don’t want. If we agree to their pressure and pay, then we are immediately complicit. If we don’t pay, then we can expect reprisals. Oftentimes bribes are large enough to hurt, but too small to be worth the fight. When officials can withhold permits, delay applications, conduct unannounced raids and use the full force of the law to intimidate you, most of us find it easier to go against our conscience and simply pay up. It is a tough situation to be in and many Thai people in many walks of life are coming across this impossible decision.
I know it is hard (and look at hypocrite me here) but we can’t allow them to intimidate us. Thailand needs people to speak up, to fight back, to stand up and to push forward. It is for our collective good that we don’t sit back in fear. I had always maintain that I had never paid a bribe. So it came as a shock to be told one day many years ago by one of my staff that she had paid it out of our petty cash to avoid trouble because she knew that I wouldn’t. Apparently we weren’t bribing for having broken any laws that we knew of, but we were told in no uncertain terms that there were multiple infractions which could be discovered should we resist. I have since told them that we won’t be doing so again, and I will keep a close eye on my well-meaning employees. While the spirit of the law is to protect and keep society just, the letter of the law can often be interpreted to exploit.
And that is the rub. The law is a complex beast. That is why we have a judiciary system with tiers of appeal; because the law can be construed in a myriad of ways. The letter and the spirit of the law do not necessarily go hand in hand. When the law is violated by those whose jobs are to uphold them, either through abuse, misinterpretation or even overly literal interpretation, we all lose.
And that is why we have the media. Our job is to act as a checking function, making sure that elected (and, ahem, unelected) representatives work to the best of our nation’s interest as well as to encourage conversation and debate in society. Editorials are a crucial role of the fourth estate. This is where we question the functioning of democracy and society and often raise questions which could cause discomfort. It is a slight rebalancing of the power structure. How are we to do that if we write in fear, if we are unable to criticise and if we sit there, monkey-like, with our hands over our mouths?
And wasn’t that a perky start to the year? As I said, it was a struggle. But what I meant to say is that we live in difficult and muffled times, while my editorial is a mumble compared to the shouts I have written in the past, I will keep at it.