Thailand has only recently begun to emerge from the shadows of 19th century colonial rule, 20th century US economic and military intervention, and successive Thai military coups d'état. Political stability is returning but many obstacles remain, not least profound economic and social problems. In the midst of this, as the following article shows, Thai national identity is attempting to reassert itself.
Communication can be considered as a dialectical process in the construction and deconstruction of a nation. In this sense communication is more than the transfer of information from one place to another. But as Wimal Dissanayake points out, it denotes 'the creation of a shareable life-world.'1 From this perspective communication, therefore, involves questions of values, perspectives, and human understandings. Jürgen Habermas even suggests that through communicational activity, which is a venue for human interaction aiming at political and ethical goals, individuals as social subjects are able to emancipate themselves.2
If we take into consideration the social process of communication, especially in the post-industrial era, as a mode of information, we could designate two major roles of communication: domination and liberation. Since communication involves human interaction with social environments, including the state, productive forces, and culture, its impact upon the life and mind of a particular group of citizens is immense.
The audience in a society to which communication directs its influence also depends more or less on the nature of the state. Since communication originates and develops with the help of technologies, which in turn are controlled or supervised by the state and market forces, the role of the state and production in communication is crucial. Nevertheless, given the dual nature of communication, at certain times and in certain places, it could also have immense impact upon the state and its economy.
In the history of pre-modern Siam, official communication was conducted through the religious practices and political control of the court. Both utilized one-way, top-down communication. The language of communication was formal and sacred. The Buddhist sangha used Sanskrit and Pali texts for teaching and learning. It was a universal language in terms of cutting across state boundaries and time spans. Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka and India or China could communicate with Siamese monks through their common Pali language.
But on the local life and activities of the ordinary people or subjects of these kingdoms, religious language had limited impact, partly because it was hard to access because of its strict religious character and usage. Another form of communication were the court orders and commands intended to instruct and create a desired social order within the state. The aims of absolute rule were obedience without question or doubt.
A modern communication system was introduced into Siam together with the formation of a nation-state around the turn of the nineteenth century. It was the Age of Colonialism and expansion of capitalism on a world scale, processes which were enhanced by applied scientific knowledge and technology. Along with the government and legal reforms in Siam, there also came communication reforms, including transportation, education, and the press.
The main area in which technological transfer took place was in transportation by water and land with engines replacing the human labour of old. Next came wired communication - telegraph and radio and telephone. Because of its high cost and control by the government, wire services were rather limited to an upper strata of society and government.
The most influential and far reaching impact upon Thai society was the printing press, which, by comparison, was accessible and crucial in creating an active audience for a new form of communication. By and large, the introduction of modern communication into Siam in the early twentieth century therefore brought tension and soon conflict into the kingdom. On the one hand, it tended to disseminate modern or western science and culture among the elite class, thus preserving the essentially elite culture. On the other hand, by demonstrating modern science and knowledge to the 'public' (which was also a western invention), it unmistakably unleashed the potential of local cultures and a sense of personhood among the ordinary people.
The Great Tradition and the Little Tradition
The notion of elite culture is very important in understanding Thai national identity because it is the former that largely informs and shapes the latter. Thai elite culture in the pre-modern state was essentially based on Hinduism and Khmer kingship united with Theravada Buddhism. The development of traditional Thai culture, or the Great Tradition, also drew its strength and vitality from the local culture, or the Little Tradition, of various ethnic populations and communities around the kingdom.
Even though there were spatial differences and discrepancies between court culture and people's culture, the two were not exclusively separate from each other. On the contrary, they coexisted and borrowed from each other to feed their own development and creation. This pattern of cultural exchange and relationship between the high and the low was dramatically changed after the transformation of Siam into a modern nation-state.
Modernity brought in a new meaning of culture and communication. For example, works of art in the old days were associated with spiritual experience and the unity of one with the universe. With the formation of modern classes in a capitalist mode of development, the upper class felt the need exclusively to demonstrate their unique and particular culture and expression of themselves. Now cultural practice was no longer an expression of spiritual experience in isolation from worldly development.
André Malraux once wrote that for Asians the objective of art was not public enjoyment and intellectualization. Rather works of art demanded isolation from the public so that the owner could contemplate them in a fitting state of grace. Thus the function of art in pre-modern Asia was to 'deepen and enhance his [the owner's] communion with the universe.' That spiritual function of art has gradually been replaced with the modern idea of art and culture as a means to self-expression and intellectual stimulation.3
The creation of the self, sexuality and class in the age of modernity thus pitted the old world and culture against the new. For a nation, the creation of a national identity was an extension of the self and personhood through the state. In Siam, the monarchy assumed responsibility for transforming the old Siam into the new one under the Chulalongkorn Reforms of the 1870s and 1890s. The important result was that Siam managed to maintain its independence from colonial threats and pressure and the Jakkri (or Bangkok) dynasty retained its sovereignty.
The absolute monarch became stronger and more stable with the aid of the modern standing army, revenue and taxation, communication and transportation, and education system. For example, in the late 1890s Buddhism was institutionalized in accordance with the reform movement. Ecclesiastical commissioners were posted to all regions of the country. The government surveyed rural monasteries and schools, and reconstituted the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Channels of communication were opened through which religious practices, texts, rituals, and ideas could flow from Bangkok to the provinces. Buddhist reform almost achieved a uniform and common Buddhism for the kingdom.4
In the mid-nineteenth century in the reign of king Rama IV, the government also prescribed the use of central Thai language in official communications throughout the kingdom. In fact, Bangkok had never ruled and exercised its power over the whole kingdom as effectively as from this period onwards. Thus Bangkok and its elites became the symbol and centre of the newly created Thai nation-state.
Mass media and national development
The press came quite early to Siam with its introduction by the American missionary, Dan Bradley. Since its inception, the press enjoyed a relatively high degree of freedom of expression. In part the monarch did not know what to do with the contents of the newspapers and could not see that it would have any effect or influence on the mostly illiterate population. After the 1850s, the king began to realize the impact of newspapers on the increasing number of townspeople, but he still could not suppress freedom of the press. Because Siam had signed unequal treaties with many Western countries and Japan, allowing extra-territorial rights for Western citizens and subjects, many Thai newspapers which were critical of government policies and practices would hire foreigners to be their editors. Thus they could avoid prosecution by the Thai court.
This is not to say that the Thai government always allowed freedom of the press throughout the country. On the contrary, once the government succeeded in modernizing Thai law to Western standards, the government started to use it as an instrument to curb undesirable freedoms of the people. For example, a law of defamation was issued in 1899, prohibiting criticism of the leaders of foreign nations with whom Thailand had friendly relations. A second restriction on freedom of speech was directed at criticism of the Thai government or the king. The law strongly discouraged the people from changing the form of government by extra-legal means. But the right to representation in government was not allowed or encouraged, with the exception of a limited popular election at two provincial levels.
Even without the censorship law, the government could punish those who violated and defamed the king's rule and authority. The famous journalists and intellectuals who were prosecuted by the king were Tienwan and K. S. R. Kularb. Tienwan was editor of a magazine which criticized the backward policies of the absolute monarchy, and even called for a parliament and modern education for citizens. K. S. R. Kularb published a revisionist history book. As a result of his liberal interpretation and rewriting of royal history, he was punished and his name was known to the public as synonymous with 'lying'.
The tradition of a critical press is still alive in contemporary Thai politics and government. The best example was during the bloody May crisis in 1992 when the Thai press really stood up against the tyranny of the military-led ruling clique. They defied and bluntly turned down the order of the Police Chief to comply with censorship. Instead they told the police to come and close down the press by themselves, and the editors would not show up at police headquarters as was customary in the past. The police were confused, knowing not what to do. This scene was possible at this time due to the presence of the masses in the streets of Bangkok, demonstrating against the appointment of an army commander as prime minister.
After May 1992, the press became more respectable and influential. It is not an overstatement to say that the press has exercised its influence and criticised the past two elected governments much more than any political institution or pressure group.
Television comes to Thailand
Governments and bureaucracy have a rather conservative attitude towards the role of mass media. They tend to look at the media as part of the system working to preserve and fulfil the goals of national unity, stability and social order. Given the weak tradition of democratic rule in Thailand, the government bureaucracy became the most powerful organization in the country. This can be seen in the introduction of television into the country.
The idea of having television broadcasting began around the late 1940s.5 The reasoning of the prime minister and concerned bureaucrats was that TV was the latest symbol of modernity and national progress. This project of installing a TV station was resisted by many members of the Parliament as not suitable and not addressing the right problems then facing the nation. The cost of the TV transmitter, 14 million Baht, almost equalled the combined budgets of the two ministries of foreign affairs and industry.
Because of media criticism and parliamentary scrutiny, the government had to organize the TV station as a private enterprise. But the board of Thai Television consisted of army chiefs and government bureaucrats, using money from the military budget and excise taxes on liquor, cigarettes, lottery and sugar from the department of revenue. So Thai Television was the first and only company in Thailand which was private but owned, operated and subsidized wholly by the government.
Ten years later, the company was turned into a state enterprise. Since then the television has expanded into many channels but it remains owned and strictly controlled by the government and the responsible bureaucracies. The content of programmes is mainly entertainment and government news with no comment or feedback from the audience.
The first independent television in Thailand finally came after the bloody May event of 1992. However, by leasing stations to private groups, the government simply whispers softly to the operators that it doesn't want to see or hear negative or radical opinions and stories on these stations. And that is enough to get censorship working in the Thai media. However, this kind of 'soft' censorship will not be tolerated by the public much longer. With the spread of cable and satellite TV alternatives, the Thai public notices missing facts and information and begins to demand more quality and accuracy.
Communication has thus has been vital to the process of national development and identity. Such a process cannot be monopolized by the state and the market but should allow the public to participate actively and meaningfully too. In order to facilitate and encourage popular engagement in maintaining national identity, a democratic government and responsible civil society must both be encouraged and respected.
This article is based on a paper given at the consultation on 'Communication and Preservation of National Identities' by Thanet Aphornsuvan, Thammasat University, Thailand. It took place 28-30 November 1996 in Ho Chi Minh City, Viêt Nam.
1 Wimal Dissanayake, 'Global Society and Local Culture: Notes toward a Communication Strategy', in Malee Boonsiripunth (ed.) Information Superhighways and Cultural Diversity: Communication and Local Culture in the Global Age. Bangkok: International conference report, 1994. p.195.
2 Disanayake (1994), p.195.
3 André Malraux, The Voices of Silence. Paladin, 1974, p. 14.
4 David K. Wyatt, Thailand: A Short History. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1984. p. 216.
5 Sinit Sitthirak, Kamnerd tortat thai, 2493-2500 (The Origin of Thai Television, 1950-1957). Bangkok: 60th Anniversary of Thai Democracy Programme, 1992.