Maybe it was prolific American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift's curse - "there's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women" - that made CNN's Christiane Amanpour decide to interview caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck two days ago.
Journalists, especially those who cover Washington, know that every once in a while they will be asked by government officials to “plant” questions at a press conference. The idea behind the “planting” has nothing to do with gardening, but with the desire of the government to make statements on issues which it wants to make, but cannot without being prompted. The “planting” is considered a “favour” that the officials return by providing those journalists with exclusive access to information that would otherwise be unavailable to them.
But as a journalist who, in her own words, “has made my living bearing witness to some of the most horrific events of the end of our [20th] century,” and has also said she believes that good journalism can make the world a better place, Amanpour is too major-league to agree to such a deal. So, it was mystifying to see one of our finest investigative journalists let the caretaker prime minister of Thailand get away with prepared statements that contained more holes than Swiss cheese, without asking tough follow-up questions.
It was a cop-out to open the interview with the issue at the centre of the world’s attention – the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. At best it was a waste of time to ask what the government of Thailand was doing, when the answer has already been widely reported. Then Amanpour lobbed in a question about the failed rice subsidy programme, apparently to maintain the appearance of hard-hitting journalism. Once again, the caretaker premier gave a prepared answer: it was a policy to aid the poor farmers. Amanpour did not ask her if the policy and its implementation had really helped the poor farmers, or whether it was merely a corrupt scheme that put more money in the pockets of government cronies than those of the farmers. At least she could have asked why, with the enormous sum of taxpayers’ money the scheme had swallowed, a large number of farmers had still not been paid for their rice by the government. Neither did she ask whether the farmers under the scheme were now better or worse off.
The Thai premier continued with one pre-cooked statement after another. Perhaps the most preposterous one was when Amanpour asked about the influence of the former premier Thaksin Shinawatra – Yingluck’s brother – over her decisions as Thailand’s leader. Of course, Yingluck’s answer was to deny any such influence. Then she went further, asserting that if she were under the influence of her brother, she would not have been so successful in managing the catastrophic flooding that Thais faced from July 2011 to January 2012 that caused at least Bt24 billion in damage. Whoa! She called that a success?
Again, not a single word from Amanpour to inquire of the caretaker premier what she meant by “success”, and what the influence of her brother, or lack thereof, had anything to do with her self-proclaimed success with flood management.
Throughout the “interview” (which offended the sensibilities of any viewer who believed in the journalistic integrity of Amanpour), Yingluck portrayed Thailand under her leadership as a shining example of democracy, with her as its ultimate defender, willing to die on the democratic “battlefield”. If Thailand is such, we have no choice but to give in to the delusion that we are living in one big happy Potemkin Village.
Back in 1787, Grigory Potemkin, the favourite lover of Russian Queen Catherine the Great, assembled a few mobile villages along the banks of the river Dnieper, to impress the queen, and more so the foreign ambassadors travelling with her. In the fake villages, Potemkin’s men would dress up as happy peasants. Fireworks would light up the sky over the villages at night, signifying renewed prosperity after the area was devastated by wars. When Catherine’s barge passed, the fake village would be disassembled and re-erected downstream where she made her next stop.
During World War II, a Nazi German concentration camp that served as a way-station to Auschwitz was given the name “Paradise Ghetto”. It was another Potemkin village, deceptive and deadly.
Most recently, Sochi, the venue of the 2014 Winter Olympic in Russia, was termed Putin’s Potemkin. With almost US$50 billion plunged by Putin into this gloomy city on the Black Sea, Sochi appeared splendid, but people soon discovered that the shining façade hid a grimmer reality.
Likewise our caretaker premier painted a picture of herself as the smiling champion of the poor. She blamed the protesters for wrecking Thai tourism and the economy. She talked about equality in our society. She asked for understanding for the red shirts who talked about dividing up the country along colour-coded lines.
Glaringly absent from her remarks was the other side of the coin, which prompted millions of people to take to the streets. Absent was an admission that it was her government’s declaration of a state of emergency that had raised the level of caution among foreign visitors. The inability of her government to track down the culprits behind the almost daily bombing and shooting of unarmed protesters raises a legitimate question about her ability to continue governing. A country cannot be truly democratic when its leader accepts only the judicial rulings she likes, and rejects those she doesn’t. The double standards, and the multiple standards that she and her government promote to protect her and their interests, deal a black eye to the democracy of which she proudly presents herself the ultimate guardian. The Cabinet meetings that show the world a deceptively glittering room, with her at the head of the table, hide the fact that these meetings have to move from place to place, never being held at Government House where they should be. The magnificent bouquets of red roses presented to her at every stop give a false sense she enjoys security and admiration, all of which she gladly embraces.
Yingluck has made her home a Potemkin village. She offered Amanpour the golden key to enter her village. And, for whatever reasons, in this superb journalist went.