Monday, August 27, 2012

Save Thailand: Tell no ‘white lies’

Monday, 27 August 2012 15:20 Kavi Chongkittavorn

(Commentary) - Kudos must go to Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Kittiratt Na Ranong for being the first minister to admit to the Thai people that he told "white lies" to boost the country's confidence about economic growth.

If Plato were alive today, he would praise Kittiratt for his sheer courage. To the Greek philosopher, the minister is telling "noble lies" – at least that is what the minister thought at that particular moment – to make the country feel good – even temporarily.

Indeed, by coming out first, he is saving the Yingluck government from collapsing as he is preparing for "true lies" that would gradually emerge in the near future.

Over the weekend, the government played up its accomplishments over the past year with much fanfare, befitting a populist government. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was all but beaming. The message is clear: it is a noble cause to help the poor, imagined or real.

So never mind the white lies: keep telling them, repeating them. Nobody can argue against that. Then, the public will get used to and believe that they are all straight truths. Whoever criticizes the government is biased and dislikes the poor.

One can also venture to say that it is not only Kittiratt that is practicing such ancient oratorical skills. The whole Cabinet has been rather bald-faced in giving information not corresponding to reality since the very beginning. It is true that one can lie sometimes, but one cannot do that all the time – not even Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

Truth be told, the Yingluck government has used all available strategies in managing information and data including news spin and comprehensive publicity campaigns to create public opinion and continued illusions that all is fine with the country as long as the people have money to spend, at least for now.

The American linguist, Noam Chomsky, should have conducted his research in Thailand, because he would find plenty of case studies of "manufacturing consent," as he puts it – something which some Thais think of as mere conspiracy.

That is why it is very intriguing to watch how the mainstream print media and those on the fringe, especially popular media such as Matichon and Thai Rath, have treated the story of Kittiratt's white lies. They did not scrutinize the story as deeply as they should or used to do.

In previous governments, the vernacular press was normally very vigorous in checking officials' performance and governance. They often took the governments to task without fail with their acerbic columnists. But this time around, they have played down the controversy as if it was a small news item, hiding among other news of the day. Somehow their powerful columnists decided that the topic should not be highlighted, as it might harm the public confidence and, most importantly, play into the hands of opposition groups, in particular the Democrat Party. Indeed, the latter has become the most cited reason preventing reporters and other stakeholders from digging further into controversies related to the government.

Other small papers like Thai Post and Naewna have gone ballistic detailing every nook and corner with comments from all concerned parties, especially the opposition party. The English language press has been consistent in reporting the country's economic woes throughout the past 12 months, so Kittiratt's confession was not unpredictable. They have reported statistics from at home and abroad as well as views from businessmen and investors. As usual, the six Chinese-language dailies continue to be outside the loop, reporting domestic and economic news as if they were bulletin items in a broadsheet notice board.

These days, Thai TV and radio are different media instruments altogether, with huge revenue from advertising from the private and public sectors. No media outlets want to jeopardize the status quo. Turning blind eyes to controversial issues is a virtue today.

Therefore, they are treating news with less serious intent than |in the past, when they focused on the public good and interest. Some |of the most viewed news programmes on the tube are those with news reporting in story-telling style, with puns and accompanying comedians. News as entertainment is epidemic among the electronic media. Thanks |to the government's huge public relations budget, the media industry is thriving.

To be fair, Thai PBS, funded by taxpayers' money, stood out as it presented the "white lies" story as it should: as the lead on Thursday's evening news, and followed suit on Friday. Others channels did not pay much attention as some carry the news in their evening news briefly but without Kittiratt's actual comments. This is now quite a common practice in news broadcasting. Whenever necessary, the comments by certain newsmakers from the government are deleted and replaced by impromptu comments by news anchors of the day.

In March, there was a similar incident about lying, which the Thai media failed to seize upon. The continued denial of Thaksin Shinawatra's meeting with Muslim separatists in Malaysia even though the meeting took place with photographic evidence and was widely reported in the Chinese media over there.

However, over here the concerned authorities including Pheu Thai Party members and Thaksin's aides came out in force to dispute the report. Miraculously, the Thai media, both electronic and print, did not follow through. No fact-checks whatsoever. Up until today, the public still believes the meeting did not take place and was merely an opposition propaganda ploy. If the meeting with the separatists was successful then it would definitely be a huge headline all week. However, it lapsed into oblivion within 48-72 hours – the usual Thai news cycle.

The best way to manage the "white lies" syndrome is quite simple: the government must tell the truth, nothing but the truth. Obviously, it was hard to believe that Kittiratt's action was without the consent of his colleagues, after all he is considered one of their top brains. It will be painful for the Yingluck government to tell the people that the economic performance and targets – though it had the best intentions when it announced them – cannot be met in the months to come. But the government has a responsibility to tell it like it is.

This will improve the government's credibility in the public eye and with the international community. The toll on the country as a whole will be reduced. Playing with economic figures is considered a crime in many countries.

Many failed states went through this process before. This government with its majority in Parliament is not likely to face a similar situation. Therefore, it is time for the government to bare all and reject the practice of telling "white lies."

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a widely read commentator on Southeast Asian affairs.

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