Opinion: Free Speech vs Hate Speech in Thailand and Why it is Important

By Smithi Skunnawat

In French the word ‘déception’ does not mean the English word ‘deception’ — ‘déception’ means disappointment. This is called a false cognate — words that look alike in two languages but do not mean the same thing.

Similarly, ‘the free speech versus hate speech debate’ in Thailand is a false cognate to the recognizable-elsewhere phrase ‘the free speech versus hate speech debate’.

In many jurisdictions, hate speech isn’t clearly, legally defined. The United Nations released a document detailing their strategy on how to tackle the rise in hate speech, which contains a definition appropriate for their purposes. Their definition may surprise those whose ideological framework is rooted in Thailand. The UN defines hate speech as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.” 

Put simply, ‘hate speech’ describes bigotry.

However, in Thailand, ‘hate speech’ has a de facto legal definition. ‘Hate speech’ has become a dog-whistle label for violations of section 326 of the criminal code — what’s commonly known as the anti-defamation law. ‘Hate speech’ can sometimes be interpreted as violations of sections 112 through 118 of the criminal code — sedition, misinformation, and lèse-majesté.

Citing section 326, the government arrested Anon Nampa for defaming conservative institutions in the Harry Potter themed protest. His act of defamation? Questioning their expansion of power.

Human Rights Watch has already asked the Thai government to stop using ‘hate speech’ prevention laws to stomp down on critics, but clearly the government is undeterred.

In the international community, especially in the west, ‘the free speech versus hate speech debate’ has been, to put it mildly, tense, and not at all the same as the one in Thailand and other Asian countries. In the west, speakers asserting differences among races or sexes are talked down by activists attempting to eradicate hate speech.

Even if rare, there are reports of injuries inflicted onto those engaged in what gets labelled as ‘hate speech’. Perpetrators of that violence can use the argument that curtailing hate speech and allowing free speech are not mutually exclusive. This idea descends from what Malcolm X once said: “I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.” Others argue that hate speech is allowed under free speech — including bigotry. 

This is where it all gets inverted in recent Thai politics. Under a strict authoritarian power, defending free speech is not defending bigotry. In Thailand, ‘hate speech’ was a term the government used to label critics, in order to coat the crackdown on their dissent with a sheen of good intentions. Critics of the current military-backed government responded by citing their right to ‘free speech’. This framework for understanding free speech and hate speech in Thailand isn’t unheard of in other parts of Asia.

But the confused word choice is common. This Bangkok-based Think Tank report on hate speech in Asia adopts the more international, primarily western, framework for understanding hate speech. Hate speech is understood to mean bigotry on that report.

One could see why it’s easy to misunderstand what exactly these terms refer to in Thailand. Foreigners abroad and expatriates in the Kingdom could easily misunderstand what exactly we’re referring to when we say ‘free speech’ or ‘hate speech’.

Thais could be confused about why many liberal-seeming opinions abroad seem to be championing the curtailing of ‘hate speech’, just as the current military-backed government does in Thailand.

It’s important to be cognizant of the true meanings of these words when engaging in activism.

Why? Why must we ensure we do not miscommunicate the meaning of the phrase ‘the free speech versus hate speech debate’? Why should we care if we each have our own meaning for the words? Why not just label it a false cognate and move on?

Because the safety of the protesters depends on the watchful eye of the international community. Under international watch, we can prevent another October 6 event — the infamous 1976 massacre of student protesters, the events leading up to which have been compared to what’s been going on recently. If anybody, government or those who disagree with pro-democracy protesters, starts shooting their guns, citizens in the Kingdom will shoot videos. And publish them on the internet. And then the real big guns will swoop in — sanctions and tariffs from international powers.

This essentially means the protesters’ safety depends on the international community’s support. We’ve already seen some international involvement in Thailand’s politics. Facebook intends to sue the Thai government for compelling the social media platform to aid in silencing critics (as a side note: we should see if Facebook follows through).

But the international community won’t support ‘free speech’ over ‘hate speech’ if they think ‘hate speech’ is bigotry and ‘free speech’ is a dog-whistle cudgel to quell marginalized groups. Because in Thailand, that’s not what it refers to.

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