Like so many other foreigners in Thailand, we came here as teachers. We did it because we didn’t know what else to do after graduation, because the American economy had tanked, because we studied Classics. We told our mothers’ sisters’ next-door neighbors that we wanted to learn another language, see the world, and if we were feeling self-conscious, we said we wanted to air-quote “find ourselves.”
For most of you, our readers, you know what this first year is all about – temples and beaches and ill-advised motorbike trips. Late nights spent giggling about mispronunciations and student precociousness. It was the standard fare.
But when the buildings burned down and the protesters were shot dead in May of 2010, our introspective stupors were interrupted and we started asking questions. Less than a year later, in February of 2011, without a bit of journalism experience and not a dime to our names, we started the Isaan Record. And fortunately, many of you have stayed with us since our clumsy beginnings.
With some luck we picked up a modest grant and our readership grew. But now, 15 months later, we’ve decided to close up shop – at least temporarily. Our funds have dwindled and it’s been a struggle to replenish them. So we’re back home in the US of A, talking to some potential replacements and searching for funding, and we wanted to share with you, loyal readers, a few of our thoughts. It’s time, we figure, to lift this long-standing veil of anonymity and speak to our experience as a pair of resident, foreign journalists far outside the Bangkok expressways in the heart of Isaan. And though there is a lot on our minds, we’ve tried our best to pare things down to what we think will be most interesting. Broadly speaking, we want to describe the difficulties with our journalistic style, the easy access we had to our subjects, the equal parts skepticism and openness with which we were greeted in the field, and, of course, our relationship to the lèse-majesté law. We hope you enjoy.
When we first started writing the Isaan Record, we made a few rules about style. We would not sensationalize, write first-person blog posts, or editorialize. We would deliver good, old-fashioned, hard news reporting. It was a two-pronged decision; we recognized a void of neutral, local news reporting in the region, and we also wanted a shield of professionalism and formality to hide our inexperience. We did not expect that our decision would be so loaded.
For one, our subjects were more accustomed to participating in the Thai media landscape – one in which reporters’ political leanings are often very clear. So, when we would write articles about Red Shirts without explicitly advocating for their political goals, we’d read angry Facebook posts in Red Shirt forums. After writing about a meeting on constitutional reform at Khon Kaen University, one Red Shirt posted, “I’ve read the whole article over again and again and it’s totally neutral…. Do you want more blood to be spilled? Are you the same as the media on October 6, 1976?,” he wrote in reference to the infamous military crackdown on left-wing students on Thammasat’s campus.
Our political leanings were abundantly clear. We weren’t pro-military royalists. We wrote about grassroots social and political movements – people trying to challenge the system. We were progressives.
But since we tried to maintain a neutral voice, our very subjects often accused us of cowardice, or even abetting the “enemy.” We had two goals: to spread information about the kinds of social and political movements in the region and to do so without employing a style that isolated readers with different political beliefs from our own. Sometimes, though, our style isolated even people whose political goals we admired.
Even Thai journalists didn’t quite know what to make of us. At a forum on local journalism, a regional reporter from Prachatai, the nation’s leading alternative news source, read our name off a list and remarked, “Oh, I know them – the neutral ones.” The reputation stuck and, frankly, we felt pretty good about it.
When we started going out into the field in the winter of 2011, we had very little external support and a tiny network. We figured we would start slow and try our best to get people to take us seriously. We never expected that within our first week of reporting, we would be shaking hands with former Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat and asking for his thoughts on the burgeoning Red Shirt movement in the region. What we learned very quickly remained true our entire stay in Thailand: Top-level politicians and other high-powered figures would not be an obstacle in this adventure. People in Isaan were ready to talk and foreign reporters promised wider readership. It didn’t matter that we were young and didn’t have press passes. Authorities in Isaan just weren’t being hounded by journalists as they were in Bangkok. In the Northeast, politicians still seemed to think that talking to reporters was a good way to discuss the issues that mattered to them, not a burden or a trap.
Civilians, too, were jumping at the opportunity to share their stories. When we called to schedule interviews in relevant communities, we never had any problem. In fact, the only problem we did encounter was that too many people wanted to take part. “We’d like to talk to a few rice farmers in your village about their views on Yingluck’s rice mortgage policy,” we once said over the phone to a village representative. When we arrived in Yan Yong village, we were greeted outside the leader’s home, thirty some-odd plastic chairs facing a dais. The brief interviews we had planned from our office had quickly turned into a three-hour forum of opposing views.
At first, these forums seemed like a complicated alternative to the more private, in-depth, one-on-one conversations that we had imagined. But as we grew accustomed to these large crowds of interviewees, we grew grateful for the chance to hear from a wide spectrum of voices. The attendees were eager to debate, and we got to listen. Irrespective of the story, one thing remained true for nearly all the civilians we interviewed. Whether we were talking to villagers trying to protect their land deeds, laborers fighting to gain access to basic utilities, or Red Shirts spreading their movement’s causes and goals, the local people in Isaan would all ultimately close with the same line: Thank you for coming to hear from us.
For most of them, speaking to a reporter of any nationality was a novelty. They were unconcerned with our inexperience and relative anonymity. And many were just as naïve and idealistic as we were – hoping that better news coverage would bring greater domestic and international attention to their causes.
Just as more and more story ideas began to pile up in our inboxes and on our voicemails, our readership slowly grew as well. Among the 22 million people of Isaan, we had few competitors.
This great access to our subjects, however, was not uncomplicated. Behind the endless invitations often lay a lingering question: What were two American kids doing poking around the cities and villages of the Thai Northeast?
No matter where we ventured, we almost always raised eyebrows. We were the only foreigners with notepads and the only reporters conducting interviews with a translator. Sometimes people would tell us we weren’t “real reporters.” Most of the time people would ask where we were posted as exchange students, notwithstanding the clear indicators – notepads, microphones, cameras – of our jobs. Some Thais would tell us outright that we couldn’t possibly ever understand Thailand. Others would warn us that we needed to be especially careful: English reporting could make more waves than Thai reporting so we had better be measured and accurate.
The most extreme suspicions we faced were in a remote village in Loei province. In August, we started pursuing a story in a community that claimed to be suffering effects of chemical runoff from a nearby gold mine. Our translator reported to us that prior to agreeing to an interview, community leaders subjected us to a most surprising kind of scrutiny. Were we part of the CIA, they wanted to know. Some of the last Americans to traipse through the village had been CIA men gathering information about the growing communist presence a generation earlier. As Americans, we often have an elementary school student’s attitude towards forgiveness vis-à-vis our tawdry history of military interventions in foreign countries (illicit and otherwise). Forgive and forget, right? Northeastern Thailand’s collective memory, it seems, runs deep. And when Isaan people feared we were from the CIA, we had to work a lot harder to prove ourselves trustworthy, for good reason.
Thankfully, for most of the people we were working with, the intrigue (and even promise) of our foreignness outweighed the skepticism. Overall, it seemed as if people in Isaan respected our dedication to hearing their stories, even if they thought we could never quite understand the ins and outs of their country. When we got lucky, they would even press us to compare Thai and American politics. Because we stood out, people let us in. We ran around backstage at Red Shirt rallies interviewing speakers, slept on the floors of farmers’ far-flung, wooden houses, and took tours of industrial complexes – all with warm invitations and undue generosity. The skepticism, though sometimes discomforting, didn’t prevent us from contributing to the Thai media landscape.
The lèse-majesté law changed our work in significant ways: we didn’t write what we heard and people didn’t tell us what they thought. It doesn’t take 15 months in the field to know that that’s what a law like this does. What did come to surprise us, though, was just how differently our interviewees would adhere to, interpret, sidestep, or just outright ignore their half of the bargain. Many chose to place the onus of censorship squarely on our shoulders, which is, of course, a most regrettable duty. Villagers were often surprisingly candid about exactly who and what they didn’t like about Thailand’s political elite – they could be refreshingly critical. Others would clam up the very moment we said the words “lèse-majesté” (which was, incidentally, the longest and most esoteric word in our Thai vocabulary). In response to a question we posed to a particularly influential Red Shirt leader about lèse-majesté reform, the woman said, “This is something that is simply not in the Red Shirts’ interests at this time and that is all I would like to say about that.” That was as far as she would go.
Still others found a comfortable compromise between these two extremes. A very well-known Isaan Red Shirt leader and Pheu Thai Member of Parliament (MP) had taken a liking to the Isaan Record and always found time to talk to us at a rally or demonstration, for which we were always grateful. Most likely the man relished the opportunity to practice his English, and he never failed to entertain us with his innuendos regarding institutional reform. He’d gesture to the sky, wink, give a knowing laugh or pat one of us on the shoulder when he talked about the power of “The Invisible Hand.”
Nevertheless, almost none of these interactions ever made it into our stories. Though we wrote a couple of articles about the Campaign Committee for the Amendment of Article 112 (CCAA 112 – a movement, in part, to reform the lèse-majesté law) in Khon Kaen, we only ever wrote one story that addressed lèse-majesté directly and it only stayed up on the site for a couple of months before we reconsidered the possible consequences of our decision.
Early on, when our readership was still small and our work was not yet translated into Thai, we ran a story about a Northeastern MP who had been accused of lèse-majesté for the comments he had made at a Red Shirt rally the week before. It was hastily written and was based solely on a thirty-minute phone interview with the accused, and really, at this point, is more a testament to our idealism than it was a gutsy exposé. Nevertheless, we agonized over what we could and could not publish. We consulted with an expert in the field and concluded that if the remarks had been published elsewhere, we could cite that publication and we’d be in the clear. But of course, it wasn’t that simple.
The MP had caught the public’s attention the month prior when during a nationally broadcast parliamentary debate he shouted down a particularly despised government politician with an idiomatic (and quite commonplace) vulgarism: “Shut the hell up!” Literally translated, it works out to “Holler for your father.” In the weeks that followed, the MP’s outburst on the House floor had grown into something of a rallying cry. Not long after the televised debate, on the stage of a Red Shirt rally the MP repeated his catchphrase at the audience’s insistence. Then he said it again with a slight alteration: “You don’t just have to holler for your father,” he said, “you can holler for your mother, too.” Two days later he was summoned to a Bangkok police station and charged with lèse-majesté.
Though to a Western audience the MP’s remarks may appear entirely innocuous (even if indecorous), Thailand’s hierarchical and familial system of pronouns allows this to be read as an affront to the king and queen, the “father” and “mother” of the country at large.
So, what could we publish? The catchphrase’s origins were on YouTube for goodness’ sake. He was simply repeating a rude colloquialism. Did that mean we could link to the video and we’d be safe? Or was writing about its repetition at the Red rally tantamount to slander? What about the reference to “your mother”? Was that crossing the line?
Most Westerners are blessed with legal systems in which innuendo and sentence constructions cannot constitute felonies.
We ran the story, but with one glaring omission. The remark about “your mother” was excised. In retrospect, it seems like an overly cautious decision, but with a long history of arbitrary enforcement comes an unhealthy dose of journalistic paranoia. Charges can be brought, dismissed, put on hold and reanimated without any rhyme or reason. Just last Thursday, the Bangkok Post reported that the charges brought against this MP and others around the same time are likely to be dismissed – 13 months later.
There are few silver linings to be found in discussing lèse-majesté. “Uncle SMS”’s tragic passing while behind bars is yet another reminder of just how devastating the law can be. What we can say, however, is that we are amazed how in the last year alone, lèse-majesté reform came out of obscurity and started regularly making front page headlines. Finally, the conversation has begun.
Both of us have been back in the United States since early April, and while we’ve been looking to find new funds and potential successors, we took our time in writing this final piece. Before we sit back, though, we would like to thank all the people who made the Isaan Record possible. Without our translators, mentors, contributors, sources, and many close friends, we could never have produced the kind of reporting that we did.
And thanks especially to you, our readers, for sticking by us over the last year or so. This site was something of a laboratory for young journalists, and, as a result, you were our guinea pigs. Our hesitancy to editorialize was a tactic, a trick. We wanted you to take us seriously and we have been honored to find that you did. The site has seen well over 30,000 hits and our work has been featured in numerous print and web publications from around Southeast Asia. So if there is one legacy that we would like to leave, it is this: The work that we have done over the past year is vital, lacking, and, most importantly, doable. We weren’t the first and we certainly hope that we won’t be the last to bring you regular news from the Northeast.
And please – don’t de-friend us or un-follow us. We’re in talks to make this more of a hiatus than a shut-down. Stay tuned.
Glenn Brown and Lizzie Presser
The Isaan Record