The impounded Thai aircraft and lessons from the Thai media

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 20, 2011

You may have heard by now that last week a Boeing 737 airplane of the Royal Thai Air Force was impounded by a German liqudator and is now in a hangar at Munich airport. And by now you might have also heard that this plane belongs to Thailand's Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn - or does it? The outgoing Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya is claiming and trying to prove to the German judiciary that this plane is not Thai government property, but the Crown Prince's personal aircraft. The German court is not convinced and sees this plane as of the Royal Thai Air Force plane and thus as a government vehicle.

This is where things stand at the moment before said German court will, after the examination of countless documents provided by the Thai side, decide on Wednesday if the plane remains impounded or not. For more on the background on why this plan was seized in the first place, read Bangkok Pundit's coverage here and here.

What's interesting to see was how the Thai media handled this story - or not at first, given the sensitivity of the subject. This story broke exclusively on Financial Times Deutschland (google for “Der Insolvenzverwalter des ehemaligen deutschen Baukonzerns Walter Bau streitet sich mit Thailand um Millionen”) last Tuesday, which quickly was reported in German and international media - only in Thailand the media was predictably silent.

This was until outgoing foreign minister Kasit Piromya called in for a press conference on last Wednesday evening shortly before he got on a plane to Germany (a regular Thai Airways flight, mind you!) to get this plane back, thus effectively making this issue a state affair. Still, despite explaining the legal reasons (the debt to be paid by the Thai government), many Thai media outlets were treading a fine line on what to mention and what not. Let's take this article from The Nation as an example:

Thailand will make all efforts to release a Thai national's Boeing 737 impounded in Germany due to a payment conflict between the government and a German construction firm, outgoing Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said yesterday.

"Germany made the great mistake of confiscating property that does not belong to the Thai government," Kasit told reporters yesterday. (...)

"I made it clear that this matter has nothing to do with the royal court," he said. "It is a huge mistake for Germany to do this and we will not allow this issue to jeopardise relations between the two countries."

"Thailand's making 'all efforts' to end aircraft spat: FM", The Nation, July 15, 2011

As you can see, no references to the Crown Prince were made here. But slowly over the course of the next day the newsrooms realize they couldn't tell the story without the owner of that plane. So bit by bit they started to mention the Crown Prince as the owner of this aircraft, for example Thai Rath, Bangkok Post and also the evening news on Thai TV (with ThaiPBS even leading in with this story on Friday).

Only The Nation was most likely the last media outlet to hold off mentioning the Crown Prince's name - even when they put articles together from foreign news agencies as they referred to it only as a "Thai national's personal plane". It took them until Sunday, two whole days after everyone else, when they have finally mentioned his name, albeit again only with agency material.

The only original content from The Nation on this whole plane saga was an opinion piece by a certain Alexander Mohr, who wrote:

(...) first of all, the seizure of a plane from a royal fleet is simply not the most straightforward approach. One cannot help thinking that the insolvency manager went for the most sensational approach. Seizing a plane from the Thai royal fleet guarantees media attention and exposure. (...)

But while the identity of the aircraft's owner may remain unclear, the action of seizing a vehicle used by a member of the Royal Family exceeds all bounds of a reasonable approach towards a solution. The damage is done.

The Thai side tried to solve the issue on a political level last week. Foreign Minister Kasit flew to Germany where he met with Cornelia Piper, an under secretary of the German foreign ministry. The German side does not want to intervene in the case and refers to the independence of the judiciary. (...)

It is very likely the dispute will be settled soon. However, the avoidable damage caused to bilateral relations between Germany and Thailand is done, with both the economic and also political ties suffering.

"Plane stupid: the damage is done", by Alexander Mohr, The Nation, July 19, 2011

First off, the author is billed as a "partner for International Relations at the government relations firm Alber & Geiger in Brussels", which is a "political lobbying powerhouse (...) known for representing foreign governments" - so pretty much this was most likely written for the Thai government who wants to get their message across. What this piece reveals as well is that the Thai side seems genuinely astonished that the German government cannot influence its judiciary whatsoever and that only the they see the bilateral damage, since they made it a state affair.

It was an interesting lesson in how the Thai media handles such sensitive stories - if at all. After the void of total silence at first was mostly filled by the international media and the internet, the floodgates opened as soon as this was made into an affair of upmost national importance by the foreign minister. Granted, due to the legal restraints no one is allowed to publicly say why the Crown Prince and that plane is in Germany in the first place...