Last week Thailand Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs General Tanasak Patimapragorn failed to join his counterparts from Indonesia and Malaysia at the conclusion of a mini summit in Kuala Lumpur to discuss the plight of thousands of Rohingya and Bengalis believed to be afloat on the Indian Ocean.
This is the most serious foreign relations faux pas seen in the region for sometime, exceeding even the failure of the 13th Asean Foreign Ministers’ Plus three Meeting in Phnom Penh in 2012 which for the first time in its 45 year history saw Asean fail to issue a joint communiqué.
At best it serves to highlight the strict hierarchal, top-down management style of Thailand coup leader and Prime Minister, General Prayut Chan-o-cha. At worst it highlights a more serious problem.
After seizing the international spotlight on May 12 with its call for a Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean (SMIMIO) in Bangkok with the claim “the situation demands an immediate response”, Thailand failed to accurately read the mood of its neighbours. There was also a lack of synergy on what “immediate response” meant, even though both Indonesia and Malaysia had initially joined the Thai initiated “pushback club”.
It was unrealistic to assume that the two nations in the region with Muslim majority populations would resolutely stand firm in rejecting fellow Muslims in distress, providing fodder for home-grown criticism for too long. This is especially so in the wake of the Philippines announcing last Tuesday that she would provide sanctuary and assistance to Rohingya and Bengali refugees, despite having also initially joined the ”push-back club”.
Thailand’s insistence on waiting until its planned May 29 gabfest failed to take into account the extensive global and regional media coverage the pushbacks were generating; let alone the sentiment of communities most affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, regular poundings by tropical typhoons, or the gratitude of a nation which received wide-spread international assistance and sympathy last year searching for two missing aircraft.
The resolve of Indonesia and Malaysia’s foreign ministers Retno Marsudi and Anifah Aman to treat the words “immediate response” literally and announce immediate action, along with the vacant lectern with the drooping flag of Thailand behind it following General Patimapragorn’s rapid departure from Kuala Lumpur, caught the public relations folks at Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) on the hop too.
It was not until 7.00pm that a press release was issued on the the meeting in Kuala Lumpur earlier in the day.
MoFA foreign media group on Line
That the MoFA “presser” did little except restate previous “motherhood” claims about being committed to a regional solution; strengthening cooperation; and solving the problem of irregular migration in the region at the forthcoming May 29 gathering only highlights the shortage of material the MoFA public relations team had to work with.
That is not meant to criticise MoFAs public relations team. There has been a dramatic improvement by MoFA of late in attempting to engage with foreign correspondents in Thailand. The most recent innovation being the creation of a MoFA Foreign Media group on the Line social media platform where foreign media can post questions and receive replies in English language.
Staff maintaining the Line account have so far been diligent in responding to queries and posting information and answers – when they have them.
In addition to proving to be a useful resource, the Line group has also highlighted the lack of coordination of past Thailand government communications efforts.
When a new bureau chief for a major Japanese news network joined the group a few weeks ago and was asked to confirm his email address, the group was flooded with a stream of “here’s mine too” requests.
Since seizing power one year ago government relations (most personified by military strongman General Chan-o-cha) with the media have been somewhat dysfunctional. Thai media are forced to crouch on the ground before the prime minister, squatting on their haunches and sweating in temperatures that soar over 50C in the sun, while he addresses them from shaded, often elevated locations.
The frustrations of General Chan-o-cha with the Thai media for either not understanding government policy and directions or failure to write with what he terms “accuracy” about it has on more than one occasion made international headlines.
While the Prime Minister’s response to being aggressively questioned by one Thai journalist was to respond with a reminder that he still had power to order firing squads before walking away was widely interrupted as a serious press freedom threat, others say it merely reflected the General’s barracks humour.
However patting a journalist’s head, rubbing his ear and throwing a banana peel at a cameraman is harder to read as an act of paternal affection as claimed by some.
If individual government department communications with the foreign media were poor prior to the coup, in the wake of it they got even worse.
Chairman Of The Board
Reliable, informative and talkative sources that were previously happy to promote what they were doing before the coup, were suddenly transferred, retired, or otherwise not willing to discuss anything more than what they had consumed for lunch without the written authorisation of “the Chairman of the board”.
While some organisations such as the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and the Thailand Board of Investment (BoT), amongst a few others, still managed to churn out good quality English language media material, these were the exceptions.
Even as General Chan-o-cha jet about to regional and international meetings outlining his plans for the future (according to local media reports), some ministry and departmental communications departments went from responding slowly to foreign media requests, to just not responding – and some still are.
5,000 Foreign Media
According to the Thailand Government Public Relations Department (PRD) which issues government press cards there are more than 5,000 foreign journalists in Thailand. These are the official accredited journalists, photographers, bloggers and videographers who have presented valid accreditation applications, been verified and found to work for legitimate media; the front line for the government to communicate it’s direction to for wider consumption.
According to some calculations the 2014 Thailand coup and the street protests by the Peoples Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) stripped between US$ 8.520 and US$ 12.781 billion from the 2014 Thailand GDP.
To minimise fallout and protect the economy a good communications team able to explain the master plan in detail and an executive able to implement it are necessary. In the commercial world it’s referred to as crisis and issues management.
Seizing control of an entire country and its entire nation at gunpoint is not indifferent to a hostile corporate raider. Both are not are generally not welcome and both need outstanding (expensive) communications to minimise the negative ramifications amongst their various audiences – staff, consumers, stock holders, suppliers, subcontractors, etc. A time when the propaganda mill spins like a windmill with positive-spin “news” stories “beneficial to your readers”.
Returning Happiness to the the People
General Chan-o-cha’s weekly Returning Happiness to the the People programme broadcast nationwide on television each Friday has been much lampooned.
However, it has given the government an uninterrupted, uncensored communication channel to detail its policies, plans and ambitions, straight from the “Chairman’s” mouth.
With English-language subtitles (as well as on-the-fly Modern Standard Thai Sign Language (MSTSL) translation), the weekly broadcast has become compelling viewing for some – media, foreign investors, expatriates, and diplomatic staff in particular, not the least reason being the speed with which the Prime Minister bounces from topic to topic.
It matters little that scant details are provided. That’s what an army of government communications staff and departmental communications officers are for, right?
And if minimising damage is the goal as outlined above, engaging with the widest range of influencers as possible using a wide range of communications channels is also the name of the game, right? Bravo Thailand’s MoFA!
However, something was lost in translation when the prime minister addressed the nation with the achievements of his “government” in 11 areas in the six months since the hand-picked National Legislative Assembly (NLA) commenced work.
This was a major event. Yet There were no English-language subtitles, nor MSTSL despite the the “Chairman” being followed by his A-list of Cabinet members.
Particularly absent was any English-language document saying: Here, foreign media, this is what we’ve done in the past six months (It hasn’t all been crackdowns on dissent, censorship, and increasing reduction in personal freedoms that you guys think). We’ve done this, this and this. For those attending the event real-time audio translation was provided though.
No doubt though the army vehicles with external speakers that slowly crawled around some Bangkok and provincial locations broadcasting the “Chairman’s” appraisal were judged to be an outstanding success.
The government has done a lot. Don’t they see it?
To address what it termed “negative press” and “poor coverage” of it’s polices – and after General Chan-o-cha said that he had almost punched a journalist who asked him what progress had been made since the Thai military had seized power – it was announced the government would publish its own newspaper listing its achievements.
“The government has done a lot so far. Don’t they see it?”, he rhetorically asked attendees at a seminar in Bangkok he was speaking at.
However, with a print run of 60,000 copies for a population of about 66 million, the pass-on readership rate will need to be awfully high if this is going to be any more effective than past efforts.
Less than a week later it was publicly announced Premier not happy with govt PR teams.
According to reports the prime minister believed that many people in the provinces, and even in Bangkok had not heard about the government’s achievements.
A “brainstorming” session by Thailand government PR people concluded that the poor PR results were largely due to funds for advertising on billboards being slashed.
Given the speed at which most Thais travel along expressways the message would need to be very large and very short to be even noticed.
Why the illegally installed LCD screens atop many police boxes can’t be commandeered (let the police who sublet the space and pocketed the money explain it) and promote the government’s work to Bangkokians stuck in worsening traffic gridlock is a mystery.
Less than a month later government spokesman Yongyuth Mayalarp resigned due to ill health.
In much the same way as someone saying they have a dog, but they bark at intruders while the animal naps, the prime minister told local media there had been a problem explaining the government’s achievements. “There’s no problem. I can clarify everything. I have been doing this on behalf [of spokespersons] every day anyhow.”
This is no exaggeration in more ways than one. Since seizing power one year ago the 61-year-old has maintained a hectic schedule of public appearances. He often speaks at four, five or more events in one day, as well as attends more than a few meetings and briefings daily.
For drive, determination, and dedication it would be difficult to award less than an 8/10 score. This is similar to scores contained in two recent polls in the run-up to the one year anniversary of the abrogation of democracy.
One by the National Institute of Development and Administration (NIDA) of 1,250 people found that about 49 per cent of respondents said their lives were happier since the formation of the NCPO – though the economic slowdown, higher cost of living and the lack of concrete achievements were concerns.
A second, by Rajabhat Suan Dusit University’s Suan Dusit Poll, found 50.97 per cent of those surveyed “rather satisfied” and another 33.06 per cent “very satisfied”.
For clearly communicating its policy or achievements globally a 4/10 score would be generous. Why those responsible for filling in the detail cannot keep up with the retired General in communicating his policies is a mystery.
With just seven months before the Asean Economic Community (AEC), which has English as the official working and business language, Thailand’s inability to provide good English language material to keep journalists informed so that they in turn can keep the rest of Asean and the world informed is a sad indictment of AEC preparedness.
After-all, one of the first things General Prayut’s 2014 military intervention did was order all foreign and Thai journalists in Bangkok to report to The Army Club in Phaya Thai and provide their contact details and pose for a photo taken by a soldier.
Surely all any Thai government department wanting to promote their work and policies needs do is phone their local junta representative and ask for the list.
Alternatively they could obtain the same information from the MoFA who accredits foreign media, or the government PRD who issues the government’s media cards.
If not to ensure that the plans and successes of the junta and the NLA that eventuated were adequately communicated both nationally and internationally what was the the purpose of the call-up.
Rather than threatening the media with a firing squad for asking seemingly ill informed questions, the “Chairman of the board” should ask why they aren’t informed.
That any military commander would stand-by watching firebase after firebase obliterated on a battlefield map in the same way that policy after policy has failed to fly without asking whether the commanders were being briefed and receiving their orders on their role defies belief.
The alternative is more worrying though. Could it simply be that Thailand government PR departments have gone mute because the policy and details are still in development? Is the “emperor” really naked? Such would explain General Patimapragorn’s rapid departure from Kuala Lumpur last week.
No doubt the country’s position on SMIMIO will be defined before the May 29 conference begins. Though from the way the government is communicating at the moment whoever is presented with it will likely need to be careful he or she doesn’t smudge the ink on the way to the meeting.
©2015 John Le Fevre
Latest posts by John Le Fevre (see all)
- Does Thailand’s failure to communicate mask a bigger problem? – May 25, 2015
- Camera Drones: a necessary tool of 21st century photo-journalism – November 17, 2014
- Bangkok – Assault on Democracy – Photo Special – December 21, 2013
- Thailand Labour Day 2013 – Photo Special – May 2, 2013