The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
GUEST COLUMN
Burma in the Thai Press
By WANDEE SUNTIVUTIMETEE OCTOBER, 2003 - VOLUME 11 NO.8

The Thai-language press must be less emotional and more responsible and objective when covering Burma. The Thai-language mainstream press rarely publishes news about Burma. And when it does, rarely is the coverage constructive. That Thailand’s media should harbor such deep resentments against its next-door neighbor is peculiar, and its reasons are rather complex. About a dozen Thai-language and two major English-language daily newspapers dominate the market. Of course, many differences between the two should be expected, but when it comes to covering Burma, the Thai- and English-language papers are worlds apart. English papers dedicate more space to Burma news, in regional and op-ed pages, and employ enough journalists and columnists to cover Burma. But their readerships are limited largely to foreigners and highly educated or business-class Thais. Thus, Thais depend on vernacular dailies for the news about Burma. But neither the high-circulation papers nor the specialist dailies print much Burma news. When they do, however, it is usually negative, usually not supported by concrete evidence and frequently on the front page. This somewhat sensational front-page news of the Burmese is characterized by familiar negative themes and rhetoric, such as illegal migrant workers who ruthlessly snatch jobs from Thais and spread disease; refugees who burden Thai authorities and cut down the forest; and, armed ethnic groups which deal drugs and damage bilateral relations. Only occasionally do these stories include sufficient background information to understand a given event. For instance, few readers understand why refugees continue to flee into Thailand because the papers rarely cover human rights abuses, discrimination against ethic nationalities, or Burma’s economic problems. So it is easy to believe the unfavorable headlines that invariably blame Burmese workers for conflicts that arise with Thai employers, for example. But whether it is the Thai police or an unscrupulous labor agent, Thais are usually to blame for the disputes, says a stringer who covers migrant workers issues along the border for the Thai-language daily Thairath. The reasons for the negative representation of Burmese are numerous. First, Thais are taught at a young age to hate people from Burma. This prejudice is a critical component of Thai identity and gets passed through the generations by Thai journalists and media producers. Second, the high circulation Thai-language dailies, such as Thairath, Dailynews and Khaosod, have a responsibility to give their readership what it wants. "Because Thai people don’t like Burmese people, we have infrequent news on Burma," says a Dailynews reporter. "If we run more Burma news, the paper won’t sell as well." Also, only a few Thai journalists specialize on Burma issues, and even fewer have inside connections to get information directly from Burma. Cooperation between Thai and Burmese media groups is almost unheard of. Credibility of the news from Burmese sources is also a problem, so most Thais get news of their neighbor from Western news agencies, explains Chutima Soonchalern, a veteran reporter for Krungthep Thurakit (Bangkok Business) newspaper. "We are reluctant to use news from Burmese news groups because we don’t know who they are," she says. "We want to protect the paper from using biased news from anti-government groups and NGOs." Lastly, the Thai government deeply influences the media’s coverage of Burma affairs. As law enforcement authorities crackdown on Burmese dissidents and migrants in Thailand and pressure refugees and armed ethnic groups along the border to return home, some government officials conduct business with members of Burma’s military government. Newspapers that dare draw attention to such obvious incongruities have to answer to their advertisers. "Some newspapers that have criticized this government lost all their advertisements from the Prime Minister’s family businesses," charges a Thai reporter from a popular daily. "There is currently a lot of self-censorship going on at Thai newspapers. And now that our government wants stronger relations with Burma, we will get in even more trouble for publishing critical pieces." These days, Thai people are confused from the news they read about Burma. When opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested in May, the Thai-language press denounced the military government. A month later, Thai papers made an about-face when Bangkok abruptly changed its stance from pressuring the government to release Suu Kyi to pressuring anti-Rangoon groups on Thai soil. Thairath, the best-selling paper with over one million copies distributed daily, followed this policy immediately. Other papers followed suit, by criticizing exiled Burmese students in Thailand, refugees and armed ethnic groups along the Thai-Burma border, rarely questioning the government’s Burma policy. This kind of news confuses Thais, since they have trouble distinguishing Burma’s civilian pro-democracy groups from its military junta and associates. For the Thais, all people from Burma are the same. When the government harms Suu Kyi, Thais hate the government. But when the Thai Prime Minister says refugees, migrant workers, Burmese activists and ethnic groups are bad, Thais also agree. Consequently, the Thais’ hatred is for all those from Burma. It doesn’t need to be so. Instead of reinforcing the prevailing ignorance, hatred and prejudice, the Thai media must be vigilant in respecting the ethics of journalism and its responsibilities to the public. For one, the Thai press could help build better understanding of our neighbor to the West. And as we cannot erase the 2,100 km border that separates us, we have to realize that we will be neighbors forever. Whether we like it or not, Burma’s problems are our problems, too. Wandee Suntivutimetee is the Editor of Salween News Network and a freelance writer for various Thai mainstream publications.

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