Michael's Dispatches

Even as the World Watched IV: Peaceful, or Pistol?

Thai Soldier Watching for Snipers in Bangkok (May 2010).

12 July 2010
Chiang Mai, Thailand

During the Thailand fighting in May, the rain of media mixed with the dust of politics, creating mud that left honest people feeling bogged down.  People desiring clarity slogged knee deep, then waist deep, and it kept coming.

My reports avoided politics largely because I do not understand Thai politics.  There can be value in this, just as a Korean, for instance, can come to the United States and observe from a “here and now” perspective and, quite possibly—if he sticks to what he sees and not what people tell him to see—render a more accurate observation from a riot.  The “mouths of babes” are not restricted to children.

For many Americans, Asia is a murky, mysterious place inhabited by primitive people and repressive governments.  We see what we expect to see.  Mixing that with muddy journalism, many people at home in America seemed to think the Thai government was slaughtering helpless protesters in Bangkok.  This was untrue.

During bloody fighting on 19 May, a Thai soldier shows a good luck piece.  Heavily armed soldiers don't need good luck charms against unarmed fighters.

Many people—and even some journalists who were present—espoused that protesters were unarmed.  Some clearly were armed and to miss this would be egregious journalistic malpractice.  If a medical doctor missed something so big, a lawsuit might be the least of his problems; he’d probably lose his license to practice.

CNN’s Dan Rivers took heavy flak for what many believed was distorted coverage.  The themes would have been recognizable to Americans who watched the Iraq war unfold.  (I was not watching CNN enough in Bangkok to build viable perspective.)

This story ran in Thailand:

CNN, BBC fully deserve criticism
By Dave Sherman

Special to The Nation

Dan Rivers' assertion that CNN's coverage of the crackdown on the red-shirt protest was "impartial" ("CNN, BBC correspondents defend coverage", The Nation, June 12) is simply untrue. The misinformation, generalisations and biases seen on CNN and BBC cannot be easily excused, especially because these reports brought the story of Thailand's conflict to the world - and the story the world saw was not the story of what actually happened.

The point is not that CNN didn't report that some of the red shirts were armed or show those armed men to the viewers. This they did. Where CNN and Rivers failed is in properly explaining the context of what was happening during the May 14-19 crackdown - and without proper context, understanding the story becomes impossible.

When Dan Rivers reported on May 14 that soldiers were firing on protesters, whom Rivers repeatedly insisted were unarmed, he was misinforming his viewers. He was omitting the fact that the soldiers were firing defensively on men who had been attacking them all morning with makeshift weapons, guns and grenades after the Army tried to secure a perimeter around the protest zone. Rivers did not mention that such red-shirt assaults were part of a long-standing pattern of militancy. The red shirts had been attacking legal authorities and civilians for weeks - invading Parliament and Thaicom, beating and killing military officials, fatally attacking peaceful anti-red-shirt demonstrators in Silom, and storming Chulalongkorn Hospital, forcing it to evacuate its patients.

CNN, BBC fully deserve criticism

‘Ronin Warrior’ from Red Shirt Camp, with firebombs.

Insurgencies are like animals, and veterinarians deal with many sorts of animals.  Polar bears are different from kangaroos are different from dogs, and every sort of dog has different qualities and issues.  A highly experienced and equally determined veterinarian could probably spend a year explaining differences between cats and dogs, then switch hats a spend years explaining similarities.  The same is true with insurgencies.  Each is very different and similar.

Today, the insurgency in greater Thailand is in a pediatric stage.  It’s still in a condition that it’s small enough and sufficiently in control that an observer can make out the parts.  If a war matures, it will grow long hair; it will become wild and confusing to everyone.  (The Islamic issue in the deep south is far more mature but also limited.)

In Thailand, there are main morphological influence features that are still easy to discern.  Various powerful influence groups exist within Thailand and the latest Bangkok confrontation brought certain actors onto the stage: most visible were the Red Shirts and the government.  Less visible but crucially important were outside actors, which includes ex Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and agitators under his employ or influence.

The agitators definitely existed.  I saw and photographed some of them.

Luckily, there is zero tribal influence and religion is more spectator than participant here, and in any case is ointment not fuel.

Many observers—including many journalists—seemed to view this simplistically as a “Red Shirt” uprising where the peaceful poor were fighting for justice and equality, yet in reality this is a platypus.  If there be a symbol that best describes the insurgencies I have seen, that symbol might be the Platypus, or a Mr. Potato Head.  The Platypus, Mr. Potato Head, and insurgencies worldwide seem to be made out of spare parts.

The Men in Black seemed to have snapped themselves onto Red Shirts.  Here some agitators are setting tires ablaze just before bullets start flying.

Overlooking Red camp near Lumpini Park, Bangkok.

Inside Red shirtless camp.

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