Western nations, media must not distort the facts
Published: 11 Jun 2014 at 06.04
Writer: William E Heinecke
In the wake of recent political developments in Thailand, I feel compelled to address what I believe to be gross misinterpretations of the current situation in the country by certain Western nations and elements of the international media.
As a naturalised Thai citizen born in America, I feel that I have a unique perspective on recent events. I have lived in Thailand for more than 51 years but have not forgotten my Western roots. I feel obliged to say something about the reaction in the West towards these recent events.
I am distressed by the interpretation of a number of Western governments and the international media of both the coup that recently took place and the situation that led to the coup. Put succinctly, many of you have got it wrong.
From where we sit in Thailand today, it was not an issue of which political party was in the right. All Thais will pull together to work within a system that is acceptable to the majority of Thais and is sustainable. Vilifying one party or politician will not lead to constructive reconciliation moving forward.
A coup d’etat is not a positive event by any means. I do not believe the Thai military considered it to be positive, but rather a necessary step that was taken reluctantly.
I cannot think of one Western country that has in recent memory experienced the social and political gridlock that Thailand suffered for the past six months, resulting in government and political paralysis against a background of increasing violence and needless loss of life.
As the situation in Thailand escalated, it became painfully clear that there would be no resolution as neither side of the political divide offered any reasonable compromise or demonstrated any inclination to compromise. The military showed great restraint as it stood by watching the situation deteriorate, allowing ample time and opportunity for the politicians to resolve the crisis.
The price for that period was paid for by the Thai people, in blood, stress and economic sacrifice and only when it was clear that there was no other reasonable solution did the Thai military step in.
It is easy for people far away to have characterised events in Thailand as a clash between “pro” and “anti” democracy protesters. This is not correct.
There are very few people on either side of the political debate who oppose the idea of a functional democratic system for Thailand.
I believe the Thai military, the majority of political parties in Thailand and the Thai people all want democracy. But I believe what they want is a stable and functioning democracy that represents the will of the majority of Thais.
I believe that the current environment provides a platform for an effective “reboot” of Thai democracy that will meet the needs and aspirations of the Thai people.
Thailand is a relatively young democracy, and as every Western democracy has gone through periods of great change and reform, this is precisely what Thailand is experiencing as part of the maturation of of its political system.
Recent developments are an important step towards establishing a strong and stable political structure which will underpin Thailand’s success. However, Thailand is not only facing political challenges,but also the compounding effects of exaggerated media reports which paint a distorted and unrealistic picture of the situation in the kingdom.
While such reporting may sell newspapers and draw TV audiences, it is fear-mongering which promotes a misunderstanding of the situation — this in turn influences government travel warnings worldwide and has a disastrous effect on tourism.
There are no concerns whatsoever for personal safety within Bangkok’s large expatriate community or the millions of tourists still enjoying their holidays in Thailand, yet this is not mentioned in the international media reports or travel warnings. Life goes on very much as usual in Thailand, but this is far from the impression that one gets when watching the international news channels.
The hospitality industry has a huge impact on the Thai economy, generating millions of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue for a country that is known throughout the world for its charm, safety and entertainment. However, 62 countries have issued travel advisories for Thailand, 18 of which asked their citizens to reconsider non-essential travel to Thailand, according to the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
These travel warnings are baffling to those of us who understand Thailand and fly in the face of the fact that Thailand continues to peacefully welcome millions of travellers from all over the world.
It is the responsibility of all parties, and the media in particular, to present the situation accurately and in proper context to promote understanding, rather than misunderstanding, of the situation. All parties involved need to think hard about the detrimental effect that their words and actions are having on the people of Thailand.
Today’s travellers are more savvy than they have ever been, and with many countries around the world facing economic challenges, political difficulties and natural disasters, our globe-trotting community understands how to take these factors into account when making their travel plans.
Increasingly, travellers are relying on first-hand advice from people at ground zero who understand that this is simply part of the international travel landscape.
If the media continues to promote sensationalistic and simplistic viewpoints of the situation in Thailand, they not only do a disservice to the viewing public but also run a very real risk of making themselves irrelevant.
Thailand remains a peaceful and welcoming country, with unique natural and cultural attractions for travellers to experience and is very much open for business — this is the reality, and this is the message that is not being sent by most major international media outlets and embassies.
Despite my deep concerns regarding the media’s portrayal of the current situation in Thailand, I have great respect and appreciation for the positive role that the media can play in promoting understanding of countries and cultures.
I am hopeful that all parties concerned, the media and foreign missions to Thailand included, can pull together for the greater good of the Thailand that we know and love. I urge the media to exercise its persuasive power with principle and integrity, to promote an honest and clear understanding of the current situation. I urge foreign governments to reassess the severity of their travel warnings and to revise and update prior statements to reflect the reality that Thailand is completely safe for travel.
I applaud those nations and media outlets already portraying news of the coup and the security situation in Thailand in a balanced manner — your integrity is appreciated.
We all agree that the tourism industry is critical to the Thai economy and the growth of Thailand, and it should not become a casualty of misunderstanding, misrepresentation and hyperbole. Thailand very much remains as safe, friendly and welcoming a destination for tourists as it has always been.
I know that my letter is only one voice, but without voices there can be no conversation. I hope that at a minimum my thoughts will cause some reflection, and generate informed dialogue, on the realities of Thailand today.
William E Heinecke is chairman & chief executive officer of hotel and restaurant group Minor International.
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