Tuesday, October 21, 2008

An Insider's Take on the Demise of the Bangkok Post and Thailand's Democratic Politics

Joshua Kurlantzick: Going backwards in Bangkok

National Post (Canada)

As Thailand disintegrates into scenes at the prime minister’s offices more reminiscent of Animal House than Government House, average Thais could be forgiven for not being able to follow every other news story. But this month, one story about the news has received virtually no coverage. In the last week of August, after nearly two decades, the Sunday Perspective section of the Bangkok Post, the leading English newspaper, closed down forever, to virtually no notice.

It shouldn’t have. In a society where the elites — the military, the bureaucracy, the rich — long went unquestioned, Perspective, a tough investigative reporting section, provided Thais with a service people in other countries take for granted: questioning the powerful. It also happened to be my first job — I was a cub reporter at Perspective just one year out of university more than a decade ago. Sharing fresh mango with a grizzled reporter, I realized for the first time how hard many of these men and women, through their reporting, had fought for Thailand’s democracy — an inspiration that convinced me journalism would become my career path. Today, contacting an old friend from the section, I realized a sadder truth: While the growth of Perspective showed how Thailand itself was building a democracy, its demise reveals how that democracy has collapsed.


In the streets of Bangkok today, those same middle-class people storm Government House, wrap themselves in royal colours and protest in the streets, claiming they are once again taking the country back for democracy — even though, just as often, they are actually instigating fights with police, which have left several dead on the streets of Bangkok in recent weeks.

They’re not fighting for democracy, either. Thailand’s one-time democrats, the people who once delved into Perspective each Sunday, have totally lost their way. Since the first election of Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister in 2001, Thailand’s urban middle-class has forgotten the principles it stood for. Though Thaksin was far from an angel — an autocratic egomaniac who disdained the rule of law — he won two elections, using populist policies and corralling the mass of rural voters who’d, until then, played little role in Thailand’s new democracy.

Rather than responding to tough politics with tough, but effective, democratic politics of their own, Bangkokians have fallen back on tired, anti-democratic tactics. Instead of trying to help educate rural voters so they, like Bangkokians, value clean politics and progressive platforms, too many city-dwellers just disdain the rural masses, not realizing that these elections were the democratic result of the blood they spilled before on Bangkok’s streets.

Instead of trying to take the fight into parliament, Bangkokians storm the streets and, in 2006, threw flowers on coup-makers, after Thailand’s army launched a coup promising to return order and democracy to the country — the coup was really initiated to take power away from Thaksin and return it to the elites. Instead of fighting for Thai institutions, rival paper The Nation welcomed the 2006 coup and then became little more than a Pravda for the post-coup government.

A city that returns to entrenched ways of the past is a city that no longer needs Perspective, since it is a city that no longer cares for reform — and a sign of how a once-promising democracy has come unraveled. In recent years, friends at Perspective told me, readership of the section had declined. Top editors no longer really cared whether the paper invested time and money pursuing long investigative pieces, because they knew few readers really paid attention. And in truth, facing these pressures, the section hemorrhaged staff and sometimes produced less impressive work, like printing inspirational pieces about local business leaders.

Perspective’s writers will still find their bylines in the paper, but now they’ll be jotting down news briefs, or covering the stocks. Readers can still find tough stories, but they will have to look harder, perhaps to online sites with less penchant for facts. And cub reporters might still arrive at the Bangkok Post, which now looks like any newsroom with banks of gleaming computer screens. They’ll learn to take quick notes, edit copy in the newspaper style and work with page layout. But nothing more.

— Joshua Kurlantzick is a special correspondent for The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s China Program.

It is a good article. You have to read the whole thing. The journalist was an intern for the Perspective section of the Bangkok Post, which no longer exists. The Perspective section and Database have always been my favorite parts of the Bangkok Post. They are by far the best edited sections of the newspaper.


Bkkdreamer said...

He should have kept the two issues - PAD's protest, and Perspective's demise - separate.

As a journalist, the author must know these decisions are political - and here I am talking about Perspective's end, rather than the PAD. The man's a former intern, for goodness sake.

If his complaints had come from a full-time member of the Thai staff, they might carry more weight. But even then they should be put in some context.

On the last day it published, the Perspective editor took it upon himself to write a piece criticising Post management for its decision, and published many comments from regular readers who also opposed the move.

How often do you see that in the paper? Almost never. They are a disgruntled bunch, even to this day. They ran their own personal fiefdom in there, and resent its loss.

How 'democratic' is that?

J said...

Thanks for the link - I rebloged it on my website with credit to yours - really sorry about Perspective leaving.
Love your site - J

Hey since you have the "Happy Days" thing going, wondering if you saw the new video of Ron Howard and Henry Winkler reprising their old roles for the Obama campaign - it's at this link: