It’s very fortunate for me, I suppose, that I do not get my news via television here in Thailand. As
an internet addict someone who is on the computer a lot, I tend to get my news online. Earlier this week there was a massive earthquake (and a massive aftershock) in Sumatra and there were fears of a large tsunami that were fortunately not realized . That said, this morning I became aware that there was another side to this story that is unfortunately emblematic of some serious problems in Thailand.
For those who were busy watching television in Thailand on the day of the Sumatra earthquake on April 12th, there was a funeral ceremony for an obscure princess who happened to be the daughter of Rama VI and a longtime exile because of her family’s opposition to the constitutional monarchy forced on Thailand’s rulers in 1932. Interestingly enough, this was the same princess whose death I noticed in the flags at half-staff on my first trip to the border, a death that had not been particularly well announced for the English speaking sojourners here in Thailand .
The funeral itself has attracted a fair bit of scrutiny from international press, for various reasons. For one, the Thai taxpayers have spent a great deal of money, tens of millions of dollars, on the funeral for an obscure royal who most Thais did not even know about because she spent most of her life abroad because of hostility to the institution of constitutional monarchy . But even given all of this, there is yet another way in which this princess shows some areas of notable weakness in Thailand’s culture that could have proven extremely costly but thankfully did not in this particular occasion.
While people around the world were attempting to save lives from a possible tsunami, the viewers of nearly all of Thailand’s televisions channels were blissfully unaware of any potential threats for a tsunami, as they were all showing the same feed for the funeral ceremony of Princess Bejaratana Rajasuda , and at most had a little crawler (in Thai only, not English also, which would have been helpful given the many Westerners who go to the coastal area of Thailand as tourists) on the bottom of the page showing the evacuations of coastal areas because of the threat of a tsunami from time to time.
It was two hours before any of the channels cut away from the lengthy funeral ceremony of the obscure royal (ThaiPBS was the first, followed by the rest about fifteen minutes later) to show any news reports about the earthquake and its resulting threats. Thankfully, since there was no tsunami, there was no harm or massive loss of life as a result of the oversight, but clearly there were many people placed in harm’s way because they did not know there was a threat of tsuanmi while they were blissfully watching a taxpayer-funded ceremony for a Thai royal.
When television stations whose duty and job and purpose is to inform people about what is going on in the world (and most importantly what is directly relevant to their own survival) choose to show the funeral of an obscure member of a royal family rather than inform and warn the people of a direct and imminent threat of tsunami for two hours there is a massive problem. The lives of citizens of tourists is far more valuable than the spectacle of a dearly departed member of the royal family being buried in a lengthy Hindu-inspired royal cultic ceremony. This should be obvious to everyone, from the king to the directors of the various Thai television channels, to the ordinary person on the street.
And yet there is such a great deal of deference to the royal family here in Thailand, especially among the media and cultural elite, that even here in a case where the life and health of tens of thousands of people was at stake, the channels in lockstep (without any official order, since apparently there are no agreed upon procedures for handling emergencies) continued to show a royal funeral rather than cut to urgent news (bilingual if at all possible) so that tourists and citizens in threatened areas could be warned and take appropriate action to preserve their own lives. To allow such an important matter to be determined by the luck of having these particular earthquakes not be tsunamigenic is unconscionable. As someone who has worked in providing information about tusnamis to the general public and media, I cannot imagine that pomp and ceremony for anyone, even a royal, is worth endangering the lives of anyone (much less the people of six whole coastal provinces). Clearly, I have different priorities than a lot of people here in Thailand. And that is a massive problem. Thailand dodged a bullet this time, but such luck will not hold out forever. There must be a change in priorities among those whose duty it is to inform the public of imminent threats to their own life and well-being. The status quo is unacceptable.