With government and constitutions alternating with regularity, Thailand’s press tradition has been anything but traditional.
To start with, the kingdom’s first Thai-language newspaper was written and published not by a Thai citizen, but by American Dan Beach Bradley, a Christian missionary who spent 35 years in Siam. The two-column Bangkok Recorder, which also appeared in an English edition, was published monthly, and later biweekly, from 1841 to 1845 and 1865 to 1867.
Although Siam was an absolute monarchy at the time, there were apparently no organic laws controlling the budding newspaperman.
It wasn’t until nearly 80 years later that a second newspaper appeared in Bangkok, again at the hands of an American, Alexander MacDonald. The first issue of the Bangkok Post hit the streets on 1 August 1946 as a daily English-language broadsheet numbering four pages and costing one baht. Now in its 68th year, the Post is Thailand’s oldest existing newspaper in any language.
A solely Thai-language newspaper, Thai Rath, was founded in 1950 but didn’t begin publishing until 1962. The following year the Press Association of Thailand began operations, and as Matichon, Siam Rath and other competing Thai newspapers came along, its member roster swelled.
I’d always wondered about the Thai Press Museum, at the Press Association of Thailand’s Dusit headquarters, and I finally paid a visit a few weeks ago.
Both museum and press association are housed in the Chatri Soponpanich Building, which is directly opposite the main gates of Rajabhat University Suan Dusit. In addition to displaying historical exhibits and artefacts, the museum also maintains an archive of research papers and other documents pertaining to the Thai press and related careers.
Although I arrived during posted opening hours, the museum door was locked shut. I had to go downstairs to the Press Association office to ask staff to unlock the door and let me in, a testament to how few visitors the museum sees.
An alcove off the foyer contains a collection of historical photos, documents and royal biographies extolling the contributions to the field of Thai journalism from each Thai king since Rama IV, with the most space given to King Bhumibol, who as an avid documentary photographer in his younger days, was once a considerable inspiration for aspiring photojournalists in Thailand.
Further on in the main museum hall, a reproduction of an early Thai editorial office features life-size wax figures of editors, reporters and typesetters standing and sitting at various antiquated machines, engaged in the predigital production process.
Framed and hung in a prominent spot on the opposite wall is an 1893 copy of L’Illustration, a French newspaper which purportedly served as an early inspiration for Thai journalism after it reported on King Chulalongkorn’s official visit to Europe.
In the centre of the room are several glass cases containing copies of 19th- and 20th-century Thai newspapers, including original copies of the Bangkok Recorder and Siam Rath. A vintage all-black, all-metal manual Thai typewriter stands on a low table, and in a nearby corner is a manual typesetting machine of similar age.
Walls at the back of the exhibition hall support large posters detailing, in Thai (all museum labels are in Thai), the seminal achievements of Thailand’s pioneer newspaper personalities, including Dr Bradley, Tor Wor Sor, Wannako, Kulaab Saipradit, Prince Pruttiyalarbpruttiyakorn, Prince Narathippongprapan and M R Kukrit Pramoj.
No displays refer to the heavy censorship Thai journalism suffered during Thailand’s military dictatorships of the 1950s and 1960s. After the success of the democratic movement of October 1973, the new Sanya Dharmasakti government brought in a new constitution guaranteeing press freedom and abolishing censorship. Hundreds of home-grown newspapers flourished practically overnight, yet none are seen here.
In 1975 Dharmasakti was succeeded by Kukrit Pramoj, one of Thailand’s foremost intellectuals and founder of the Thai-language newspaper Siam Rath, renowned for its strong opinions. As prime minister, Kukrit introduced the kingdom’s first press controls, establishing a 17- to 21-member committee to oversee the media based on ethical considerations. Thailand’s libel and defamation laws today are heir to this experiment.
Also missing from the museum’s displays is any mention of the bloody 1976 military coup, after which strict censorship of the media became the norm for 21 years. It wasn’t until 1997 that a new Thai constitution guaranteed freedom of the press. Thai press freedom, however, suffered another serious blow during the administration of Lt Pol Col Thaksin Shinawatra when he made a habit of suing journalists who were critical of the government. Subsequent military coups and intermittent democratic regimes since 2006 have done little to support a free press in Thailand.
In a rotunda-like wing attached to the Press Association and museum is a wonderful old restaurant called Rom Sai, which serves classic Thai, Chinese and Isan cuisine. It doubles as a karaoke bar, and even in the mid afternoon you will find it full of Thai journalists and their friends sharing a bottle and singing a few tunes.
Press Association of Thailand Museum
Rajsrima Road, Dusit, Bangkok 10300 | 0 2243 5876
thaipressasso.org/museum.php | Mon-Fri, 10am-3pm