TUESDAY night saw a fund-raising dinner for www.prachatai.com, a website which was started in 2004. With the politicisation of the mainstream media in 2006, it attracted thousands of readers after the coup in September that year - readers hungry for real, open news and opinion.
The theme of the evening was 'Thailand in Transition: A Historic Challenge, and What’s Next?'
The panel was top-notch: Author-professor Pasuk Phongpaichit, historian, author and professor Thongchai Winichakul, Governor of Bangkok M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra of the Democrat Party, and the enigmatic Pansak Vinyaratn, former journalist and top policy advisor to former prime ministers Chatichai Choonhavan and Thaksin Shinawatra.
It was former Senator Jon Ungpakorn, who founded Prachatai, who put the issue in a nutshell, speaking of the 'stifling of the media' under democratically elected and military governments alike.
'The media does not discuss many of the bad things that take place in strong institutions in Thailand,' he said. The military budget, for instance, is never questioned.
'Since the coup of 2006, Prachatai has been subjected to a lot of persecution by the police and establishment. Unfortunately the laws in Thailand and the way they are interpreted make it difficult for freedom of speech.'
Prachatai's director Jiranuch Premchaiporn, he noted, is under prosecution for alleged violation of the Computer Crimes Act – passed by an unelected military-appointed government. Ms Jiranuch was in the audience.
'Prachatai will always be controversial,' he said. 'If it stops being controversial, it's not worth the bandwidth it takes up.'
Prof Thongchai gave a rapid rewind of history, pointing out on the reign of King Chulalongkorn. 'The more superhuman the father was made to look like, the steeper the mountain the Crown Prince had to climb,' he said.
In fact, 'the royalists shot themselves in the foot' by setting up Crown Prince Vajiravudh to climb that mountain, he said. It was the royalists who created problems for the monarchy, eventually leading to the 1932 revolution which saw absolute monarchy replaced by a constitutional monarchy. In today’s Thailand, he warned, 'poor peasants are no longer subservient.'
'Money can’t buy rural people (like) modern elites think. The train has already left the station. It is the royalists who are the danger to the monarchy. The royalists are the ones who are undermining the future of the monarchy.'
Professor Pasuk outlined Thailand’s stunning income gap between the richest and the poorest – which ranks on par with African and Latin American countries. 'The political cost of inequity is getting more obvious,' she noted.
I also chatted with the notoriously maverick and profane Mr Pansak before dinner and asked him whether we could expect fireworks from him. He grinned and said, 'I will try to be gentle.'
At the event, he was, but managed to live up to his reputation by getting in the F-word once. He showed the famous opening sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey – of the apes waking up to the strange black monolith, and finally learning how to use tools. 'I have a macabre sense of humour,' he admitted, drawing a howl of laughter from the audience.
The blunt-speaking Mr Pansak, who styled himself as a visionary under Thaksin, then put up a slide saying, 'Thailand in Transition: The House is burning, but the soi (lane) is flooded. The fire trucks cannot get in.'
Skirting immediate political issues to talk of the big picture, he said Thailand should be more than a crossroads for the regional and global ambitions of China and Japan. Thailand was not making the best of its potential, he argued.
M. R. Sukhumbhand spoke after him, and drew another laugh when he recalled working with Mr Pansak under the late premier Chatichai Choonhavan. 'Mr Pansak would produce one pearl of wisdom a day as an advisor, and each pearl took us three days to understand,' he said, as the bow-tied Mr Pansak grinned and the audience hooted.
M.R Sukhumbhand outlined a wide range of threats – in the process criticising his own party for overreacting to Cambodian premier Hun Sen’s provocations, and for being rudderless in trouble-torn southern Thailand.
He spoke only briefly about the political crisis, but what he said was sober and succinct. The next general election – most probably next year – would not answer the question of legitimacy, he warned.
'We are wasting time quarrelling, allowing political polarisation, economic inequality, and social problems to exist. I am very pessimistic about the next couple of years. Political and economic uncertainties will persist for around two more years, reducing our capacity to deal with challenges.'