Seeing through the smokescreen of spin
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.
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.