See­ing through the smoke­screen of spin

Bangkok Post - - OPINION - San­it­suda Ekachai San­it­suda Ekachai is for­mer edi­to­rial pages edi­tor, Bangkok Post.

Just as the protests against the ju­di­ciary’s hous­ing es­tate on sa­cred Doi Suthep in Chi­ang Mai reach their height, the pro­test­ers have been thrown off guard by seem­ingly co­or­di­nated spin to de­tract and dis­credit their moves.

In the past two weeks, ques­tions cast­ing doubts over the pro­test­ers’ mo­tives have gone vi­ral on so­cial me­dia: Why protest now? Why was noth­ing done ear­lier when it was eas­ier to stop this hous­ing project? Why wait un­til it’s too late now that the project is al­most com­plete?

In an ap­par­ent ef­fort to pro­tect the ju­di­ciary and the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment, it was said the hous­ing project was ap­proved by a pro-Thaksin gov­ern­ment and that the con­struc­tion con­tract was given to his cronies.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, a map of Doi Suthep dot­ted with sev­eral places at its foot also went vi­ral, ac­com­pa­nied by the ex­pla­na­tion that the hous­ing project for judges and ju­di­cial per­son­nel is lo­cated at the same level on the moun­tain as those build­ings on the map.

It’s the same old trick; when you can­not win your case, de­tract your op­po­nents — and bet­ter still dis­credit them.

In­deed, why ques­tion peo­ple who want to save the for­est, not the ones who de­stroy it in the first place?

Yet the spin was so fierce that many were con­fused and fall­ing for the blame game tac­tics. So much so that sev­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists felt obliged to re­spond.

Here are the facts, they said: The onebil­lion baht lux­ury hous­ing project for some 200 judges and court per­son­nel was agreed upon be­hind closed doors, as is al­ways the case in other state mat­ters.

In 2014, some Chi­ang Mai res­i­dents no­ticed for­est clear­ing near the foot of Doi Suthep. Their ef­forts to get in­for­ma­tion from state au­thor­i­ties, as al­ways, hit a brick wall. In 2016, when the raz­ing of the for­est reached fur­ther up the moun­tain and be­came vis­i­ble from afar, com­plaints got louder, but were quickly damp­ened when the ju­di­ciary threat­ened law­suits.

More im­por­tantly, it was the year revered monarch, King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej, passed away. The coun­try plunged into deep grief. Protests were deemed in­ap­pro­pri­ate. Yet for­est clear­ing and con­struc­tion went on un­abated.

This year, the glar­ing scar high up on Doi Suthep fi­nally trig­gered wide­spread pub­lic anger. Thanks to in­ex­pen­sive drone tech­nol­ogy, ae­rial view pho­tos show the con­struc­tion project jut­ting out into the lush green trop­i­cal for­est. The im­ages sud­denly went vi­ral on so­cial me­dia, trig­ger­ing protests not only in Chi­ang Mai but across the coun­try.

Adding fuel to the fire is the ju­di­ciary’s cold, in­sen­si­tive re­sponses to pub­lic anger.

While the courts rou­tinely send the for­est poor to jail for liv­ing there, they in­sist their hous­ing within Doi Suthep for­est is per­fectly le­gal.

The hous­ing es­tate area — though ev­ery inch a for­est — is not a for­est be­cause it be­longs to the Trea­sury Depart­ment not the Depart­ment of Na­tional Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Con­ser­va­tion, the Of­fice of the Ju­di­ciary main­tains. With land use per­mis­sion, the for­est clear­ing and the hous­ing project it­self are there­fore le­gal, tech­ni­cally speak­ing.

A for­est is not a for­est. Does it make sense to you?

Given en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness nowa­days, why on earth did the ju­di­ciary, which is sup­posed to be on the side of jus­tice, want to build houses that re­quire mas­sive for­est clearance?

The court can le­git­imise their hous­ing project how­ever they like, but the pub­lic still sees it as glar­ing hypocrisy; the poor can­not en­croach on the for­est, but court peo­ple can.

Pub­lic anger rose sev­eral notches when the Of­fice of the Ju­di­ciary main­tained the hous­ing project is not de­struc­tive be­cause peo­ple and the for­est can co-ex­ist in har­mony.

This is a slap in the face for 10 mil­lion poor for­est dwellers in Thai­land. For decades, they have been con­sid­ered il­le­gal en­croach­ers sub­jected to vi­o­lent evic­tion, ar­rest and im­pris­on­ment be­cause for­est laws say peo­ple and forests can­not co­ex­ist.

Lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties tried to spon­sor new laws to le­galise com­mu­nity forests and com­mu­nity land own­er­ship which would al­low hu­man set­tle­ment in ex­change for for­est con­ser­va­tion. Their at­tempts were re­jected. The rea­son? Be­cause peo­ple and for­est can­not co-ex­ist, main­tains the gov­ern­ment.

Last week, in a for­est en­croach­ment case in­volv­ing two indige­nous Karen for­est dwellers, the court ad­mit­ted they were not en­croach­ers be­cause they have long been liv­ing in the area, but still ruled they must be evicted be­cause the law does not al­low them to live in a for­est.

Poor high­landers can­not live in forests, but judges can?

An­other form of spin, mean­while, is quite typ­i­cal in the post-Thaksin era: if you want to dis­credit dis­sent, just paint them as Thaksin sup­port­ers try­ing to un­der­mine the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment.

Ex­ploit­ing the colour-coded pol­i­tics, the vi­ral spin blames the Yingluck gov­ern­ment for ap­prov­ing the hous­ing project and ac­cuses the protest move­ment of hav­ing ul­te­rior mo­tives to at­tack the Prayut gov­ern­ment.

Wait a minute. Was it not the ju­di­ciary which asked for land use ap­proval and kept at it? Pray tell which gov­ern­ment is not “kreng­jai” of the ju­di­ciary, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the height of po­lit­i­cal tensions when the court can de­cide on mat­ters of life and death for politi­cians?

It amazes me so many peo­ple fell for this con­spir­acy the­ory. If any­thing, it re­veals Thai pol­i­tics is still marked by deep po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions, ready to be ex­ploited for po­lit­i­cal gain.

As for the Doi Suthep map spin, it aims at con­vinc­ing so­cial me­dia users that the ju­di­ciary has done noth­ing wrong be­cause its hous­ing es­tate is lo­cated at the same height as other state build­ings on Doi Suthep. But a pic­ture paints a thou­sand words. The ju­di­ciary’s es­tate sticks out like a sore thumb in the lush for­est above those other build­ings.

Why should we pay at­ten­tion to this spin? Be­cause it re­veals dou­ble stan­dards and a lack of en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness within of­fi­cial­dom. It also shows the power of right-wing me­dia in shap­ing pub­lic opin­ion through spin in so­cial me­dia. Equally im­por­tant, it re­minds us to stand firm on prin­ci­ples.

Like other con­tro­ver­sial projects be­fore, state au­thor­i­ties have tried to le­git­imise the ju­di­ciary’s hous­ing es­tate by re­sort­ing to le­gal tech­ni­cal­i­ties, and by as­sert­ing that it would be a huge waste of tax­pay­ers’ money if the project was halted.

This tac­tic is noth­ing new. The use of com­plex tech­ni­cal­i­ties, le­gal or tech­no­log­i­cal, aims to con­fuse the pub­lic, be­lit­tle op­po­nents as ig­no­rant, and to si­lence their voices. The loss of tax­pay­ers’ money ar­gu­ment, mean­while, shrewdly de­flects the fo­cus of at­ten­tion while shift­ing the blame onto the pro­test­ers.

Be­ing firm on prin­ci­ples en­ables us to see through the smoke­screen of spin. If de­stroy­ing lush for­est on a sa­cred moun­tain is wrong, no le­gal tech­ni­cal­i­ties can make it right. If dou­ble stan­dards are wrong, al­low­ing the project to con­tinue does not make it right. Al­low­ing the man­darins to use the law to flout jus­tice will not save tax­pay­ers’ money, it will in­flame state ar­ro­gance fur­ther to squan­der even more money with­out en­vi­ron­men­tal or moral re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Never be­fore has pub­lic trust in the ju­di­ciary been shaken to the core like this. By push­ing for the con­tro­ver­sial hous­ing es­tate, or by hid­ing be­hind the junta’s power to do the job, the ju­di­ciary is mak­ing a huge cred­i­bil­ity gam­ble.

The ju­di­ciary now faces two choices. Press ahead with the plush hous­ing es­tate, but lose pub­lic trust or step back and re­store what lit­tle is left of pub­lic trust in the ju­di­ciary.

If the gov­ern­ment backs the ju­di­ciary’s project, prin­ci­ples will once again be crushed. The protest move­ment will not be the only losers. When prin­ci­ples re­peat­edly lose out to dou­ble stan­dards to serve the rich and pow­er­ful, the coun­try loses out as a whole as it plunges deeper into dis­il­lu­sion­ment and hope­less­ness.

Never be­fore has pub­lic trust in the ju­di­ciary been shaken to the core like this.

BANGKOK POST PHOTO

This April 8 file photo shows en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists hold­ing a cer­e­mony to or­dain trees sur­round­ing Doi Suthep as a de­bate over a ju­di­cial hous­ing com­plex heats up.

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