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ASEAN ANALYSIS  21 July 2010

Censorship in Asean

By David Swartzentruber
AseanAffairs   21 July 2010

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The 10-member Asean group encompasses a wide range of political cultures based on a wide range of religions from Buddhism, Muslim, Catholicism and other Christian beliefs plus a good deal of animism and superstitious belief thrown in the pot.

Then, along comes the Internet, cell phones with cameras and ipods. The modern technology has shaken the cultures of the world and perhaps more so than in the western world, where freedom of expression is written into the legal codes of several countries.

In the predominantly Muslim countries in Asean, Indonesia and Malaysia, censorship and behavioral codes are enforced.

The recent scandal of Indonesian entertainment personalities allegedly engaging in sexual acts that were largely viewed by cell phone transmission is a case in point. The episode stole the headlines for days and it is still not concluded.

However, the issue that seems to be drawing the greatest international attention is Internet censorship in Thailand.

A predominately Buddhist country (94 percent) with a strong “mai pen rai” (it doesn’t matter) attitude toward a lot of issues in life, such as depositing trash in the proper receptacles , Thailand has a particular fixation or bent on censorship.

Perhaps the clue is seen from the way the upper class in Thailand constructs its homes or compounds.

I was walking by a residence or compound occupied by a very prominent Thai citizen and noticed a Thai massage parlor that advertised they would “go out” to render their massage service.

However, the prominent citizen never has to see that as there is a rather massive stone wall encircling the property.

The message is one guesses: “If you don’t see the problem, you won’t think about it and perhaps it will go away.”

In the movies or television in Thailand, a strong push has been effective in censoring the scenes of people drinking alcohol or smoking. When these acts occur, the offending smoke or whiskey bottle is smudged out with what appears to be Vaseline. This form of censorship has been going on for years with little effect. The percentage of smokers is about 25 percent and its per capita consumption of alcohol is higher than Ireland or France, for example. The favored drink here is whiskey that carries a very small tax as all Thai administrations seem unwilling to tax alcohol by the amount of alcohol it contains. This flies in the face of world practice, but apparently the politicians are firmly in the camp of the Thai whiskey barons.

So, it would seem that based on these failed social experiments, the Thai politicians of any party would see how futile censorship is.

However, today’s news carries the story that Global Voices Advocacy, described as an anti-censorship network, claims that Thailand has blocked 113,000 web sites.

The stated purpose is to protect the national institution of the monarchy and punishment under the country’s lese majeste laws can follow.

However, the Thais are missing the point. Censorship, particularly of the Internet and social networking sites, simple doesn’t work. By pursuing this censorial role, the Thai government appears to the rest of the world as an enemy of free speech. In other words, the government gets a “black eye” from this failed endeavor.

The answer is simply to bring down the walls and accept that even if you build a wall, it won’t remove the massage parlor from the street in front of a beautiful home. However, raising the rent, probably would work.

In other words, choose an effective method rather than ineffective censorship.

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