Thailand's Media and Lese-Majeste

The German seizure of Thailand Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn’s private Boeing A737 a week ago has made headlines across the world. But it is interesting to see how gingerly the story is being treated in Thailand, where the world’s stiffest lèse-majesté laws mean any negative discussion of the prince’s affairs can mean prison time and often has.

Now that the government has changed hands democratically, there's some small hope that the lèse-majesté laws will be less misused to silence political opponents. But it’s a bit too early to tell. Caution appears to be the best policy right now, as the seizure of the plane shows.

The aircraft was ordered impounded by German authorities in Munich as the result of a marathon commercial dispute between Walter Bau, a construction company that declared bankruptcy in 2005. Walter Bau was part of a consortium that designed and built the Don Muang Tollway. In 2009, an international arbitration panel found that the Thai government had contravened its contractual obligations in refusing to raise toll fees on the highway and ordered the government to pay Walter Bau US$42 million damages and legal fees.

“This drastic measure is virtually the last resort,” a Walter Bau official in a said prepared statement. “The Thai government always stalled and did not respond to our demands.”

The outgoing Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya claimed that the plane is not Thai government property, but is rather the Crown Prince’s personal aircraft. The German court regarded the plane, which is nominally owned by the Royal Thai Air Force plane, as a government vehicle.

What’s interesting to see was how the Thai media handled this story – or not at first, given the sensitive subject. This story broke exclusively on Financial Times Deutschland (google for “Der Insolvenzverwalter des ehemaligen deutschen Baukonzerns Walter Bau streitet sich mit Thailand um Millionen”) last Tuesday, which quickly was reported in German and international media – only in Thailand the media was predictably silent.

This was until outgoing foreign minister Kasit Piromya called in for a press conference on last Wednesday evening shortly before he got on a plane to Germany to attempt to recover the prince’s plane, effectively making the issue a state affair. Still, despite explaining the legal reasons (the debt to be paid by the Thai government), many Thai media outlets were treading a fine line on what to mention and what not. Let’s take this article from The Nation as an example:

Thailand will make all efforts to release a Thai national’s Boeing 737 impounded in Germany due to a payment conflict between the government and a German construction firm, outgoing Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said yesterday.

“Germany made the great mistake of confiscating property that does not belong to the Thai government,” Kasit told reporters yesterday.

“I made it clear that this matter has nothing to do with the royal court,” he said. “It is a huge mistake for Germany to do this and we will not allow this issue to jeopardize relations between the two countries.”

“Thailand’s making ‘all efforts’ to end aircraft spat: FM“, The Nation, July 15, 2011

Initially no references to the Crown Prince were made by an extremely skittish press here. But slowly over the course of the next day the newsrooms began to realize they couldn’t tell the story without the owner of that plane. So bit by bit they started to mention the Crown Prince as the owner of the craft, for example Thai Rath, Bangkok Post and also the evening news on Thai TV (with ThaiPBS even leading with the story on Friday). The Nation was most likely the last media outlet to hold off mentioning the Crown Prince’s name. Even when the newspaper put articles together from foreign news agencies as they referred to it only as a “Thai national’s personal plane“. It took until Sunday, two whole days after everyone else, when they have finally mentioned the monarch’s name, albeit again only with agency material.

The only original content from The Nation on this whole plane saga was an opinion piece by a certain Alexander Mohr, who wrote in an article titled “Plane Stupid: the Damage is Done” on July 19 that … “first of all, the seizure of a plane from a royal fleet is simply not the most straightforward approach. One cannot help thinking that the insolvency manager went for the most sensational approach. Seizing a plane from the Thai royal fleet guarantees media attention and exposure.

“But while the identity of the aircraft’s owner may remain unclear, the action of seizing a vehicle used by a member of the Royal Family exceeds all bounds of a reasonable approach towards a solution. The damage is done,” Mohr wrote.

“The Thai side tried to solve the issue on a political level last week. Foreign Minister Kasit flew to Germany where he met with Cornelia Piper, an undersecretary of the German foreign ministry. The German side does not want to intervene in the case and refers to the independence of the judiciary. It is very likely the dispute will be settled soon. However, the avoidable damage caused to bilateral relations between Germany and Thailand is done, with both the economic and also political ties suffering.

First off, the author is billed as a “partner for International Relations at the government relations firm Alber & Geiger in Brussels,” which is on its website says it is a “political lobbying powerhouse … known for representing foreign governments.”

Alber & Geiger’s Global Political Solutions service, the website says, “supports governments, companies and NGOs to navigate the complex and changing worlds of geopolitics and global economics. We work with top executives and government officials to achieve their strategic goals with the necessary political support.”

A partial list of Alber & Geiger’s clients includes the countries of Bulgaria, Latvia and Morocco. Although Thailand wasn’t mentioned, pretty much this was most likely written for the Thai government who wants to get their message across. What this piece reveals as well is that the Thai side seems genuinely astonished that the German government cannot influence its judiciary whatsoever and that only they see the bilateral damage, since they made it a state affair.

It was an interesting lesson in how the Thai media handles such sensitive stories – if at all. After the void of total silence at first was mostly filled by the international media and the internet, the floodgates opened as soon as this was made into an affair of upmost national importance by the foreign minister.

Granted, due to the legal restraints no one is allowed to publicly say why the Crown Prince and that plane is in Germany in the first place…

(Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Bangkok. He blogs for Asian Correspondent (www.asiancorrespondent.com), with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement. He can also be followed on Twitter @Saksith.)