Agam's Gecko
Monday, April 09, 2007

he dispute between the government of Thailand and the YouTube website seemed set for an early resolution this weekend, after an extremely offensive video was removed from the site, and the user who posted it had his account terminated.

However, within hours of this news, and as the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology monitored the disappearance of the last vestiges of the video (still images accessed via search function), a number of YouTube rudies posted more videos -- all carefully designed to outrage an entire nation. The blanket ban on access of YouTube within Thailand looks set to remain in place for the forseeable future.

Internet freedom is certainly an issue in the country right now, with the government closing down several websites in recent days, most prominently the pantip.com discussion board. The justifications offered for this action were claims that the site contained information that was damaging to national security. Other websites which focused on discussion of the southern provinces' terrorism problems have been closed based on similar claims. I have not been following these sites, nor the pro-Thaksin sites -- some of which have met the same fate -- so I can't judge the security claims at all. And the problem is, neither can anyone else.

But these restrictions should not be taken as evidence of broad draconian measures to quash criticism of the interim government. There is no shortage of criticism of this government in the Thai media, the English language papers, and on the Internet. Editorialists in the media, and citizens on the Internet have been expressing a full range of opinions on the country's problems. Since September, the government has lost a considerable amount of confidence by the people, and this is reflected in newspapers and on the web.

But the YouTube problem is something entirely different, and maddeningly frustrating. The original 44-second clip -- grossly insulting to His Majesty -- was an extremely juvenile affair, but done by someone who knew exactly how to deeply offend the entire population of this country. The King is held in a very special place within every Thai heart. In a very real way -- such a way that a person who hasn't directly observed it is not likely to fully appreciate -- he is the heart of the Thai nation.

The lese majeste law is not something that he demands in any way. He has said many times that he should be subject to criticism just like anyone else. But this is an example of the sense of protectiveness that his people feel toward him, and there is absolutely no sentiment among them (that I have ever found in my 16 years here) for any relaxation of that. They love him very deeply, genuinely feel themselves to be living under his protection, and will guard his honour at all cost.

As I said, the video was stupid and childish. Not even a video really, but a series of still photos with crude Paintshop-like finger paintings over them. If that had been it, I would have thought a four year old had done it. But the pictures of feet superimposed atop his head showed that this was someone who knew a bit about Thai culture, and who intended to cause the deepest possible offence to each and every Thai person who saw it. It seems quite possible to me that the person who made this wanted to retaliate for the stupid, drunk Swiss man who was sentenced to jail last week for his rampage of spray-paint defacement of public portraits of the King in Chiang Mai. That guy had lived here at least a decade, and knew exactly what he was doing (I don't care how drunk he was).

The video gained notoriety for having caused Thai web users to lose access to the popular site. As the dispute seemed near resolution, and the expected resumption of access was imminent, more offensive clips were posted there. An example, as old Trink (a longtime nightlife columnist in the Post) would say, of MANURE -- huMAN natURE. If one can do something disgusting without getting caught (all the more if you can disturb millions of people on the other side of the planet, and make headlines), then a certain number of yobs will just do it. It's the sort of folks who will take a job in a restaurant kitchen so they can hork a big greenie into the soup, and split their sides laughing about it behind the deep fryer.

YouTube and Google say they will not delete videos which deeply insult and offend an entire nation, and they will not assist in any censorship from any quarter. Well fine, except that they are not averse to deleting videos for their own unspecified reasons. Recently an enterprising atheist user -- who had no problems posting videos which criticised Christianity -- uploaded a clip which contained only textual quotations from the Koran. No commentary, no criticism, no argument, no defacement, no pictures of Mohammed tending sheep. Just quotes from a legitimate and accepted English translation. Banned immediately by YouTube. So it seems there might be just a little bit of hypocrisy here on Google / YouTube's part.

There may be a way for us to regain our access to the site, if talks between the MICT and YouTube continue. Site managers have apparently said they would work with Thai authorities to enable a selective blocking of offensive garbage. But make no mistake about it, many Thais will not be satisfied simply because the garbage can't be viewed inside the country. That His Majesty is being insulted on a worldwide stage, and for no other reason than to cause grievous offence, will be unacceptable. We are powerless to do anything about that, apart from demanding that Google / YouTube show a fraction of the cultural sensitivity they routinely offer to certain others.

I wish I could better convey the relationship Thai people have with their monarch, but words are just inadequate. It's a big part of what makes this country so absolutely unique, and has to be experienced to be appreciated. I've never particularly been strong on royalty (nor particularly anti-monarchist either), but I came to see it from a very different angle since living here. I feel very privileged to have been able to see and experience this vital aspect of Thai life, most awesomely displayed during last year's 60th coronation anniversary.

A Thai person will tell you that he was given to us by the heaven. His Majesty turns 80 this December 5.

When that which no one wants to think about eventually happens -- mark my words -- the world will witness something it will never see again. There is no other love like this one, and there will be no greater broken heart. Long live the King.


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