February 18, 2005

Making Radio Waves in Thailand

DJs, Thai politics, and intrigue.

David Goldenberg

In the Klong Toey slums of Bangkok, trouble is brewing over the elections that took place in early February. Sita Divari, of the ruling Thai Rak Thai party, won the election to represent the district after his opponent Thanom Onketphol, a Democrat, was accused of printing stickers that distorted comments made by the king and queen, which is illegal in Thailand (Bangkok Post via Google cache). Among the fraud accusations, name-calling, countersuits (some involving the prime minister, says Kazinform), and mystery audiotapes, is a struggle that runs much deeper than stickers.

Sita and Thanom have a tangled history. Sita is a government spokesman, and Thanom works as a DJ for a popular radio show that has frequently butted heads with the government. When Thanom decided to run for office, he knew he would have to rely on the popularity of his program (Bangkok Post on his campaign strategy). Sita used his status as an extension of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to gain sway with voters.

The radio is a powerful tool in Thailand, as many people there have no access to news beyond what is said on the airwaves. During the run-up to this election, Thai academics blasted the prime minister for not discontinuing his radio show, which featured intimidating statements to opposing party officials and promises to Thai Rak Thai voters (see Bangkok Post articles here and here). In response to criticism, and sounding a lot like President Bush, Thaksin said, "I will cut down interviews with the press. I prefer to have the people hear what I really say directly from my mouth, or my messages could be distorted."

One reason Thanom decided to run is that his radio program Ruam Duay Chuay Kan (approximately, “Let’s get together and help each other”) serves as the voice of the urban poor. The show runs throughout the day, with DJs, including Thanom, taking calls from the public about everything from traffic conditions to jokes to emergency situations. The core group of listeners is the city’s 200,000 taxi drivers, who call in from their mobile offices to update listeners on developing news stories they witness.

The DJs for the radio program serve as ambassadors and facilitators. They bring the specific problems of people to the airwaves and connect those who are suffering to those who can afford to help. Recognizing that many of its listeners do not have access to phones, Ruam Duay Chuay Kan has set up call centers at the main bus terminal and railway station. The program has broadcast live phone calls, with DJs acting as psychiatrists for callers who are in accidents, distressed, or even suicidal (Bangkok's Nation newspaper).

Though Ruam Duay Chuay Kan has the support of its listeners, its DJs occasionally have been duped by callers, including the taxi driver who was inundated with cash from well-wishing listeners after he called in claiming he returned a large amount of money that was left in his cab by mistake. The man was lying, and the program’s reputation took a hit. Because the station has also acted as a go-between for robbers and police, it also has been accused of theft by both sides, though there is no evidence that any of those claims are true.

By far the program’s biggest claim to fame is the role it played in two hostage negotiations. The first took place soon after Ruam Duay Chuay Kan took to the airwaves in 1997. Young Burmese dissidents took over the embassy in Bangkok, holding both Burmese officials and Thai citizens hostage. Program DJs, including Thanom, managed to get through to the hostage-takers and convinced them to release their prisoners in exchange for a safe return to their home country.

The second negotiation led to a considerably less sanguine outcome. This time, Thanom was alone in the booth when the news arrived that prisoners had taken seven hostages, including the prison governor, at a jail in the Samut Sakhon province. The DJ quickly called the cell phone of one of the hostages, and was put on the phone with the ringleader of the prison break, Win San, an infamous Burmese bandit. Over the course of a harrowing several hours, Thanom served as the chief negotiator in the situation—and managed to convince the hostage-takers to release four of their prisoners (Nation: look for “The Negotiator”). As the day wore on, though, and the hostage-takers and their prisoners hurtled towards Myanmar in a stolen pickup truck, Thanom started to worry that a peaceful solution was not in order. Even after he had Win’s sister sing him songs (on air) and had him speak with a psychiatrist (off air), Thanom fretted that there was no workable solution. At one point, his nerves were so frazzled that he put the microphone and the telephone down and put on music for a half an hour. By the time he picked the phone up again, the Thai military had already decided to take out the pickup truck. Thanom hung up with Win just before the truck was riddled with bullets, killing all of the hostage-takers and critically injuring the prison governor.

After the incident, Thanom took some of the blame for the tragedy, saying that he wished he could have convinced Win to speak with a real negotiator. Government officials—who had praised Thanom for his role in negotiating the embassy siege—called him “naïve.” Several Thai policemen who had recently returned from the U.S., where they had graduated from an FBI-led course in hostage negotiation, were upset they weren’t given a chance to use their skills. The government began to grow increasingly agitated with the vigilante station.

Though Ruam Duay Chuay Kan is operated by the private Independent News Network, it is dependent on the approval of the Thai army, which technically owns all of the airwaves and forces stations to re-lease them every year. Though the new constitution in 1997 was supposed to prevent censorship, the army has not changed its strong-handed practices. After the prison tragedy, the station was warned by the army to be more careful.

In early 2003, the program broadcast an interview with Deputy Premier Purachai Piumsombun in which he was critical of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra for removing him from his previous position of justice minister. Immediately, one of the station managers received a phone call from an aide to the prime minister. Later that year, as DJs were taking calls from listeners critical of the Army, the station was abruptly taken off the air (Nation). Initially, the army spokesman said the station was shut down due to a technical malfunction; later, army officials admitted that the station was deactivated for “putting nonsense on the air.” The army decided not to renew the program’s contract. Sita Divari, the government spokesman, insisted that the prime minister had nothing to do with the shutdown.

But Sita made headlines again, just a few months later, when his personal secretary, Sirichai Chaokasem, burst into the Government House press center and threatened reporters after an article claimed Sita was shirking his official duties to attend parties. Asked to explain himself, Chaokasem said, “I am just a dog that is loyal to its master” (Bangkok Post). Sita denied any government role in media censorship. "As far as I know the media does not have less freedom,” he said. “No radio programmes critical of the government that I know of have ever been taken off the air” (Nation).

Ruam Duay Chuay Kan’s listeners knew differently, though, and taxi drivers and other supporters, many from the Klong Toey slums, began congregating on the steps of the Royal Plaza and the radio station, waving banners. By mid-April, the army relented to the pressure and granted the program another lease. Assuming the current election results hold up and he is not jailed for libel, Thanom will go back to work at the radio station and Sita will take his seat in parliament.

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Article by David Goldenberg

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