Airwaves Across Borders

The boom in large-scale interconnectivity of transport, power and market systems in the Greater Mekong Sub-region shrouds another kind of interconnectivity that is less visible, but whose impacts are no less profound: a rise in the exchanges of television and radio airwaves, leading to greater exchanges of information and ideas across borders.


By Lia Sciortino*

BANGKOK (IPS Asia-Pacific) - One of the most visible signs of regional integration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) is the emergence of a network of transnational routes that increase interconnectivity of transport, power and market systems, facilitating interaction among Mekong countries and positioning them as gateways between China, India and other South-east Asian countries.

But this boom in large-scale construction projects shrouds another kind of interconnectivity that is less visible, but whose impacts are no less profound: a rise in the exchanges of television and radio airwaves, leading to greater exchanges of information and ideas across borders. Transnational broadcasting is affecting the mind-set of people in the region, transforming their values and lifestyles, and thus challenging ways in which information is controlled and national identities defined.

In the GMS countries, the government, military and leading political parties dominate the broadcasting sector. Governments own media frequencies, decide on licensing and granting concessions to the private sector, and enforce strict censorship rules for sensitive subjects. In Thailand, the Thaksin administration disapproved of criticism of its performance, while the Council for Democratic Reform that replaced it now monitors reporting on the former Prime Minister himself. In Myanmar, no reporting of democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi is allowed and in Vietnam, media organisations can be closed if disrespectful of prominent Communist Party figures.

Broadcasters are expected to be the guardians of national culture, and contribute to the formation of good citizens by promoting patriotism and nationalistic ideologies. Religious and ethnic issues are to be presented in non-confrontational terms and without touching on sensitive issues. Moral discourses define good and bad in society and set the limits for sexual mores. In China, Laos and Vietnam, media inform the people about state policies and help the government fight social evils� -- all forms of deviant�
behaviour from prostitution and gambling to drug abuse.

It is in this context that regional integration and technological progress come into play.


Even those Mekong countries that in the 1980s barely had access to television broadcasting began in Laos in 1983 and re-emerged in Cambodia in 1979 can today view myriad international programmes, thanks to foreign investments in local stations and the adoption of satellite dishes. A few years ago, audiences had to content themselves with Western stations broadcasting in English and French, but they can now tune in to neighbouring countries programmes as well.

Cambodia is a case in point. Thai-sourced television content forms a sizable share of its programming, and TV5, one of its most popular television stations, is partly Thai-operated. Regional satellite networks such as Star TV (Hong Kong) and UBC (Thailand) provide Asian-language, in addition to English-language, services to at least 10 percent of Phnom Penh households. Viewers can also watch
Vietnam Television programmes and will soon be able to follow Chinese TV programmes, following an agreement between China, Guangxi TV and Cambodian Cable TV.

Radio is somewhat behind, but is also becoming more diversified. Voice of the New Life broadcasts in Vietnamese, Cambodian Radio provides two 15-minute programmes daily in Thai, Lao and Vietnamese,
and China Radio International (CRI) will start on-line broadcasting in Cambodian and Mandarin. Residents of border areas have even greater access to TV and radio from neighbouring countries because they fall within the range of their transmitters -- and are familiar with the languages of these programmes.


This collaboration in telecommunications, especially when done at the inter-state level, as it is often the case in the GMS, has been hailed for fostering harmonious relations in the region. In November 2006, Chinese Premier Hu Jintao opened in Vientiane CRI first FM station in Asia, calling this joint endeavour with Lao State Radio an expression of bilateral friendship.

Worries, however, remain about possible threats to national security stemming from the propagation of other countries� views. On one hand, governments fear that actors from outside the GMS may use one
of the Mekong countries as a base to attack its neighbours. The Cambodia Daily newspaper, in its Feb. 13 issue, reported that Cambodian Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith reminded local stations not to transfer licences to foreign partners. It could be problematic if an anti-Hanoi organisation was able to broadcast in Cambodia, the newspaper reported, quoting Kanharith as saying it would make the country a media battlefield�. On the other hand, against the backdrop of the regional divisive history, others fear
that transnational broadcasts may become yet another tool of penetration by more powerful neighbouring countries, which already dominate the region through trade and investments.

The penetration of decadent moral values has been singled out as one of the most harmful impacts of more open communication.


Thailand is often viewed as the main culprit here given the success of its broadcast industry, its more liberalised culture, and its different political ideology vis-a-vis socialist-oriented neighbours. Audiences in the GMS enjoy Thai entertainment programmes and news. In Cambodia as in Laos, Thai soap operas and Thai movie stars and singers influence the way people speak, act and dress. In rural and urban areas, young people are drawn by Thailand's portrayal on TV screens and aspire for the affluent, easy and trendy lifestyles that lie just across the border. Some actually try this, although their migration stories lead to endings quite different from that seen in television and radio scripts.

This enthusiasm about things Thai worries government officials who dread a "Thaisation" of their culture. In Laos, some worry that the Lao language, already quite similar to Thai, is becoming contaminated with Thai slang and words, and may eventually lose it distinctness. What is more, much of the Thai content is not considered culturally appropriate. Thai programmes are said to contain an exaggerated amount of sex and violence by local standards. Explicit sexual behaviour is considered un-Laotian, and so too are the portrayed Thai youth predilection for wildly coloured hair and short skirts.

To contain cultural domination by their neighbour, Laos and Cambodia have regularly issued temporary bans on the airing of Thai programmes. But governments are also trying to control information at the source -- before it spills over into their country through diplomatic pressure tied to Thailand's trade and security interests.

In February, the Lao Ministry of Information and Culture protested the screening of the movie Love Song on the Banks of the Mekong on Thai Channel 7. The characterisation of the Laotian prima donna as an illegitimate child, too prone to falling in love with a Thai boy, caused much distress because it was seen as typical of Thailand, but not of Laos.

A more fair handling by the Thai entertainment industry of its neighbouring countries history and culture would undoubtedly serve Thailand -- and the region -- well, limiting unnecessary tensions and resentment. The realisation of an integrated Mekong community is dependent on member countries learning to respect one another, and media plays a key role in this.


Still, how can be it ensured that increased cooperation in telecommunications and the resolution of cultural clashes do not prejudice the development of a more open media climate for the GMS?

It could be counterproductive if the dominant regime of information control is reinforced by one-sided dominance of the airwaves and transnational compliance in the name of cultural sensitivity. Countering stereotypes and misconceptions and the building of common trust may actually require an open debate on those same sensitivities. Improving the quality of national broadcasting may actually be a more effective strategy to win viewers and listeners and foster more equitable relations with foreign broadcasters, rather than trying to stem the transnational flow of information and entertainment.

It would be ironic indeed if the fear of the other prevails at a time when geo-political borders are supposed to be more relaxed, and airwaves are barred from flowing across the region in the same way
the Mekong River does.

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*Lia Sciortino, a cultural anthropologist and development sociologist by training, is Associate Professor at the Institute for Population and Social Research, Mahidol University, Thailand. Before that, she was the regional director of the Rockefeller Foundation in Thailand, overseeing grant-making activities in South-east Asia with a special focus on regional integration in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. She has also worked with the Ford Foundation in Indonesia and the Philippines, and has published widely on
development issues. A native of Italy, she has lived in Asia for nearly two decades.

Published: 19 Mar 2007


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