The bad grammar of repression

20 September 2010

"An access to such information has been temporarily ceased." The casual brutality inflicted on the English language by the grammatical errors in this sentence is rather striking. After all, this is not just a statement dropped in passing. It is a message to the world, read thousands of times a day on the Internet by anyone trying to read sites blocked by Thai authorities. It is proudly signed - with a couple more grammatical blunders - "due to the order of the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) under the authority of the emergency decree of 2005."

An access to such information has been temporarily ceased. Not long ago, visits to such sites were confronted by a babble of messages, some disguised to look like computer error messages, evoking first a wry smile and then a sigh at the effort invested in such limp subterfuge. But now we are more and more treated to this linguistic disaster. An access to such information has been temporarily ceased.

What does it tell us? How difficult is it to find someone to correct one English-language sentence of nine words? When this line first appeared, it was easy to assume this was a mistake committed in haste by an underling, and it would soon be corrected. But this message has been up for many weeks now. The correction would take a few seconds. But the bad grammar is still there in all its glory.

What is that meant to tell us? The people responsible don't care? They want to tell us they have more important things to do? Their job, after all, is not about clarity, but the very opposite. Obfuscation. Closing things down. Circulating diagrams of imagined conspiracies. Issuing denials that fly in the face of evidence, intuition and common sense. Even the body's name, the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation, is a self-contradiction. Were they to resolve the situation, they would commit institutional suicide.

But then there is a side to this that is almost comical. By all accounts, CRES is working hard to hunt down websites that can be blocked with this pasted message. By some accounts, the number has passed 50,000, but more reasonable accounts are closer to 10,000. In Orwellian fashion, the authorities have asked the public to help Big Brother in his work. The effort seems massive. But the block on these sites can be circumvented by several methods. There is a cottage industry of websites and publications detailing these methods. On most blocked sites, anyone nifty with the mouse can get round the blockage in a few seconds.

This situation recalls a scene in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Tom locks a door, bolts it three times, puts a chain on the handle, drives a nine-inch through the frame and pushes a chest, refrigerator and grand piano against the back. Jerry then casually saunters in through a gaping hole in the wall beside the door.

An access to such information has been temporarily ceased. Do the authorities really not know that everyday thousands of people saunter through the gaping holes alongside their clumsily labelled blockages? One striking trend has been the spurt of Internet access and usage in Thailand since the coup four years ago. According to the International Telecommunication Union, usage of the net has risen from 10 per cent in 2005 to 26 per cent this year. Partly this is a function of better technology and lower costs. But partly it reflects demand for information and opinion that mainstream media are failing to fulfil. The net in Thailand can no longer be waved aside as a niche catering to a negligible minority. So do the authorities not care that their obstruction is a joke on a level with Tom's door? Is this all part of a charade? They know the task is impossible but they have to be seen to be trying.

Or is there another explanation that is subtler and more insidious? Perhaps the construction of a sentence with such mangled grammar was absolutely deliberate. Perhaps the perpetrators did extensive research on noodle-shop menus, the signage of the State Railway of Thailand, the forms used by the Immigration Bureau and Thaksin's old speeches before coming up with this gem.

Why? Well, because there is some risk that we might conclude that this ham-fisted suppression of freedom of information comes from those nice Democrat Party leaders who like to talk about human rights and public liberty and who like to be seen as modern and progressive. But we know that they have the very best education that old money can buy. Their sentences are perfect. The clumsy grammar quietly and subtly breaks any association between them and the blockage notice. We assume this message must be the work of soldiers with big boots and less stellar education.

In the four years since the 2006 coup, the military has regained its role as a state within the state. The Internal Security Act, increased budget provisioning, revised rules on promotion, weakening of the legislative and executive branches and the quasi-permanent use of the Emergency Act have all contributed. Is the government running the CRES or the CRES running the government?

The prime minister has been constantly called on to issue denials about acts committed by the military. He began during his first week on the job when he had to field questions on his own rise to power and on the treatment of Rohingya refugees. He has used his well-bred tones and earnest manner to deflect many queries and allegations, especially over the military's role in events during Songkran 2009 and April-May 2010. Perhaps as quid pro quo, he can call on the thuggish voice of the barracks to front up actions that a party calling itself Democrat ought to shun.