The US Ambassador, the social media party, the prisoner and the rapist
After the now notorious arrest in Thailand of US citizen and blogger Joe Gordon on lese majeste charges, US Ambassador Kristie Kenney and her Embassy staff have been on the receiving end of some rather pointed comments from the Thai social media community.
Bloggers and tweeters reflected on Kristie Kenneyâ€™s inability to issue any forceful statements on the arrest of Mr. Gordon and were also critical of the Ambassadorâ€™s ineffectiveness in the face of such oppressive acts by the Thai state.
The fact that Mr. Gordon allegedly committed his acts of lese majeste several years ago while living in the USA, that he entered Thailand on his US passport and that he is also very ill, add to what should be a growing scandal amongst Thailandâ€™s social media community.
Yet that community, like the Embassy, remain almost silent.
What Ambassador Kenney and her PR team hit upon was the masterstroke of inviting a hat-full of Bangkokâ€™s most apolitical bloggers and tweeters (apart from one or two notable exceptions) to a â€œpartyâ€ at the US Embassy, thereby â€œco-optingâ€ and neutralising any negative critique of their failure to act over Joe Gordon.
Several insiders have told me that the party was hosted at the Great American Rib Company, a small and decidedly average steak restaurant near the US Embassy and that Ambassador Kenney, while politely shaking hands with everyone, barely spoke to most attendees. Instead, the Ambassador focused most of her attentions on a few carefully chosen figures who included noted right wing royalists, vocal anti-Red Shirts, a couple of wannabe celebrities and one of Thailandâ€™s better travel bloggers. A well-known media activist did get some attention but it seems clear that Ambassador Kenney was certainly playing a strategic game designed not to find out more about the social media community but promote herself and her image.
After the event some of the attendees claimed they did ask questions about freedom of expression and the incarcerated Joe Gordon â€“ rather cleverly, Ambassador Kenney made a point of forgetting to invite the Embassy political officers who could deal with such questions and it seems all difficult discussion on such matters was avoided. Also conveniently forgotten were, with but one or two exceptions, any of the dozens of social media activists and bloggers who have been asking tougher questions of both the Thai regime and their US backers. It does seem that this was, purely and simply, a PR photo op for Ambassador Kristie Kenney (she also ignores any and all critical questions on Twitter preferring, instead, to discuss things like â€œchicken on a stickâ€).
For the record, I certainly donâ€™t expect every blogger or tweeter in Thailand to be engaging in hard-bitten political analysis. But Kenneyâ€™s party does appear to be nothing more than a cheap stunt that patently did not reflect the diversity of opinion in the Thai social media community. Furthermore, that the Ambassador could host such a vacuous party while a US citizen languishes sick and possibly dying in a Thai prison is, in my opinion, shameful.
Yet Ambassador Kenney does have plenty of previous form in helping to free US citizens. In 2006 her Embassy in the Philippines played an extraordinary role in pressuring the Filipino government to free the convicted rapist and US Marinesâ€™ Lance Corporal, Daniel Smith.
Smith had taken part in what can only be described as a gang rape of a lone, drunk Filipino female in the back of van in the Philippines town of Subric. Convicted in late 2006 Smith never served a day of his sentence and was whisked away to the US Embassy under what is known as the Visiting Forces Agreement â€“ something which places serving US military personnel under the jurisdiction of the US government in matters of criminal law unless the crime is of particular significance to the Philippines.
Whilst Smith was awaiting trial and during Kenneyâ€™s time as Ambassador to the Philippines, the US government threatened to cancel an important military exercise it was set to stage with the Filipino army unless the Philippines admitted US jurisdiction in this matter. What was also most definitely mentioned was the fact that the US is the Philippines largest trading partner, the biggest donor of aid and the closest ally to the Filipino military. Kenney was no doubt very closely involved in passing on to the Philippines their subservient position in the two nationâ€™s relationship. The gang rape by US Marines of Filipino woman was deemed as being of insufficient grounds to breach the VFA and Ambassador Kenney played a key role in helping a convicted rapist evade the justice of the Philippine courts. (It should be noted that in 2009 and in highly dubious circumstances, where witnesses were rumoured to be paid off and the rape victimâ€™s character was utterly demolished, Smith was acquitted by the Filipino Court of Appeal).
And what about poor Joe Gordon? He didnâ€™t rape or kill anyone. He isnâ€™t a US Marine or ashadowy private contractor to the CIA. He is a simple US citizen, a blogger and a man suffering from a painful illness. Thereâ€™s no Great American Rib Company steaks for Joe. No air kisses from the Ambassador and no claims to have attended an â€œEmbassy partyâ€ (an event, I hasten to add that wasnâ€™t actually staged at the Embassy and involved a middling to average steakhouse). For Joe, thereâ€™s just a dirty Thai prison cell.
PS I have contacted the US Embassy in Bangkok and offered them the right to respond. Any such response, if it is made, will be published, in full, without any embellishment or comment.