Thailand’s Thaksin apes Singapore

Marwaan Macan-Markar
23 June 2004

Supinya Klangnarong was able to summon a smile hours after a court decided that she will have to face the wrath of the business empire owned by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s family — Shin Corporation.

The 31-year-old activist’s spirit for championing the right to free expression and a need for public accountability to avoid conflicts of interest between business and politics were unbowed either.

”I have to go on with my struggle, because what I have done is in the public interest,” said Supinya, secretary-general of Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR), a non-governmental group lobbying for a broad, democratic media culture in Thailand.

‘We should be able to criticise big business publicly, specially when they have links with the government, politics,” she explained to IPS, after her court case Tuesday. ”I have no other hidden agenda.”

Yet the shock of this week’s announcement in a criminal court in the Thai capital that lawyers from the country’s most powerful company could proceed with its libel lawsuit against her — was hard to conceal.

”It is sad and I am worried,” said the slender activist who grew up in Thailand’s southern province of Surat Thani.

”I will have to be careful. It will be a tough time for free expression,” she added.

Last October, the Shinawatras’ telecommunications empire filed libel charges against Supinya following comments she had made in an article published in a Thai language newspaper, the ‘Thai Post.’

She was quoted as having said that Shin Corp’s profits had increased manifold after the company’s founder, Thaksin, a billionaire, had become the prime minister in 2001.

The telecommunication giant demanded an estimated 222,000 U.S. dollars from Supinya for the implications of her comment — that Shin Corp had gained riches due to a conflict of interest arising from the blood lines between the company’s former head and the government’s current chief executive officer.

But Supinya has not been the only Thai to make such an allegation against the business empire that Thaksin built. Parliamentarians from the opposition Democrat Party used a debate in May, where eight ministers in Thaksin’s cabinet faced no confidence motions, to shed light on the conflict of interest issue.

Opposition parliamentarian Satiti Wongnongtoei told the legislative body that in 2000, the Shin group of companies had ”posted total revenues of 42 billion baht (1.02 billion dollars) with a profit of 8 billion baht (195.2 million dollars).”

But following the thumping electoral triumph of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai) party in 2001, ”those amounts jumped to 94 billion baht (2.29 billion dollars) and 26 billion baht (634.4 million dollars) respectively,” he added.

Shin Corp has under its wing Thailand’s biggest mobile phone company, Advance Information Services (AIS).

AIS is the country’s only satellite communications provider and its CS Internet Limited is ”the country’s biggest Internet provider in terms of market shares.”

In addition, this South-east Asian country’s only independent and privately owned television station has been gobbled up by Shin Corp. In early 2003, this station’s headquarters was housed in the glistening Shinawatra Tower in Bangkok.

Set against such financial and political muscle is what Supinya, the media rights activist, earns a month — 15,000 baht (375 U.S. dollars) from her salary, articles to newspapers and presentations made at seminars.

Little wonder why the Shin Corp’s decision to crush her voice has already given rise to more than just a David versus Goliath comparison.

The case against Supinya is being viewed by a growing section of Thais and human rights groups in Asia as a dangerous moment in the country’s political culture.

”This is a warning shot, a harbinger for other activists about making direct references to Shin Corp and the government at a time when the lines are blurred between the biggest business group and the prime minister,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told IPS.

It is a method that has been tried and proved successful in Singapore, he added. ”They are not going to tolerate criticism from activists and academics.” (emphasis added)

According to Sunai Phasuk, Thai representative of the New York- based rights lobby Human Rights Watch (HRW), this case will create a climate of fear among those who want to monitor and expose conflict-of-interest issues that focus on government politicians and Thai businesses.

”A lot of people are saying that what happened to Supinya can happen to them if they stick their neck out and make public concerns about conflict of- nterest issues,” he added.

On the eve of the court’s decision to proceed with the case, the Hong Kong based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) also issued a grim warning.

”If Shin Corp is given leave to proceed with the suit, it will legitimate the use of the judicial system in Thailand as a means to silence public dissent and further intimidate Thailand’s civil sector,” an AHRC statement declared.

Since Supinya’s remarks ”were made out of concern for public interest issues of media ownership and freedom of speech in Thailand,” it added.

The case against Supinya, however, is in keeping with a hostile atmosphere towards critical and independent thinking that journalists in the Thai press have endured since Thaksin’s party swept to power in January, 2001.

While such attempts at controlling the press had been practised by Thaksin’s predecessors, what varied was the means through which Thai journalists felt their rights were being whittled away.

The Thaksin government, they charged, had traded the violent jackboot form of intimidation for subtle measures such as applying financial pressure through the selective placing of advertisements and buying shares in media groups.

Such an approach, they pointed out, was hardly surprising given the former Thai business heavyweights in Thaksin’s government.

They include a minister who was a founder of a telecommunications firm and a deputy minister whose family owns the country’s biggest multimedia company.

Under Thailand’s current constitution, business tycoons who seek political office have to sever links with their financial empires before being elected to avoid questions over their conflicts of interest.

Supinya’s case, according to her lawyer, Nakhon Chomphuchat, will be unique for another reason too.

”This is the first time that Shin Corp has decided to sue an individual for libel (due to the charge of conflict-of-interest),” he told IPS.

But she is innocent, he asserted. ”She did not defame anybody, but expressed her opinion to benefit the interest of the people. We have that right under our constitution.”