The message or the accent? Hillary and Yingluck’s first meeting

This article was first published on 19 November by SiamVoices, on Asian Correspondent. Haven’t got around to re-post it here (for my own record) until now.

Source: US Embassy Bangkok Facebook

It was a historic meeting. At least in the sense that the first Thai female prime minister had her first official meeting with the top female diplomat of the United States, Thailand’s most powerful ally. It also took place right after her meeting with the UN Secretary General Bun Ki Moon. These two meetings were a mega-warm up for Yingluck before her entrance onto the world stage at the 19th ASEAN Summit in Bali where she would meet President Obama and other ASEAN and East Asian leaders.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was said to have cut short her visit to the Philippines to make a 17-hour pit stop in Bangkok on 16 November 2011 as her visit to Thailand was not on the original itinerary.

According to AFP, Secretary Clinton was on a mission to “update” the US relationships with its five treaty-bound regional allies—Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand. “These five alliances are the fulcrum for our efforts in the Asia-Pacific,” she said at the East-West Center in Honolulu before she commenced the Asia-Pacific tour.

If many of us in Thailand had an impression that the US was neglecting its old friend before, despite the deepening political conflict and worsening rights violations, we have now been told that it’s not true. Ostensibly, US policymakers have been concerned over Thailand after an extended period of political chaos.

And it was Hillary’s job to deliver a message to Yingluck and Thailand that the US really cares. A State Department official was quoted as saying before Hillary made it here:

One of the messages that the secretary will bring directly to the Thai people and the government is that we believe it is in the national security and political interest of the United States to have this government succeed…. We will do what we can to support that going forward. There are substantial tensions in Thailand and those tensions will not be resolved after one or even a few elections.

One can debate on the finer meaning of “this government” as Bangkok Pundit has done here, but the general message is clear. The US has confirmed its long-term commitment to Thailand and its intention to work with the current power holders. Whoever the power holders might actually be, there’s no denying that the face is Yingluck.

Hillary couldn’t have done a better job at making clear the message she was tasked to deliver at their joint press conference in the evening of 16November. In her statement, after delivering the American sympathies for the Thai people in the ravaging floods and the promise of $10 million US aid, she delivered the message:

I want to emphasize that although, of course, we are all focused on the immediate needs, the United States will be with you for the long run. We are working to help Thailand improve its capacity to prevent, prepare for, and respond to disasters like these floods. And we will support Thailand’s economic recovery as a trade investment and development partner. I recognize that these floods pose an early and serious challenge to the new Thai Government and to the hard-won peace that the Thai people achieved after the political violence that you have endured in recent years.

The United States stands firmly behind the civilian government of Thailand and the work it is doing to consolidate strong democratic institutions, ensure good governance, guarantee the rule of law, and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. We encourage the government to move forward with a political reconciliation process, which is critical to Thailand’s long-term stability and security. As it does so, it can also count on support from the United States.

I suppose it is a bit difficult to debate on the finer meaning of “civilian.” But no matter, it wasn’t even mentioned by most of the mainstream Thai press, which either glossed over the key message highlighted above or simply ignored it. Instead, the big fuss made by key media personalities in the mainstream press and by netizens who echoed their noises was about Yingluck’s English proficiency.

A well-known media personality, Somkiat Onwimon, who has more than 70,000 followers on Twitter tweeted (in Thai) after the press conference:

Having listened to the statement by Prime Minister Yingluck in response to Secretary Hillary Clinton, I found that her formal English communication was as terrible as her Thai. (1)

In formal communication with foreign countries, Prime Minister Yingluck should use Thai because her English is unserviceable. It is incomprehensible. Mistakes can do damage to Thailand. (2)

This evening Secretary Hillary Clinton answered the questions about Thailand better than the Thai prime minister, so much so that it made Prime Minister Yingluck a prop rather than the star. (3)

Prime Minister Yingluck will be at the ASEAN Summit in Bali. It’s worrying. [She’d better] use an interpreter from the Foreign Ministry to communicate with other 9 ASEAN leaders and +8 national leaders. (4)

That was more or less all the veteran newsman had to say about the joint press conference. There was no commentary on the substance of the statement by either leader. Nonetheless, or perhaps precisely because of that, his tweets were selling like hot cakes. The number of RTs for each tweet reached 100+ (tweet popularity doesn’t get any higher than that). His tweets have also been reproduced on Facebook and newspapers and on blogs like this one.

Make no mistake, the $10 mil US flood aid part got in most news headlines, but forget about the renewed ties between the two old allies or the unmistakable support of the US for the fledgling and battered Yingluck government. The bigger part of the Thai mainstream media, along with its “educated” urban consumers deeply embedded in social media, has been chewing, regurgitating, extrapolating, or refining on these tweets.

Somkiat, who has trained many Thai news anchors, apparently believes the prime minister’s English is potentially disastrous for Thailand’s interests. This point was quickly grabbed by those too inclined to shine a spotlight on any blemish of Yingluck. So came a deluge of comments on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and news commentaries on her accent and incorrect grammar (as compared to their favorite Eton-Oxford-educated former prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva), and on using an interpreter.

Of course, not all think Yingluck’s English is that bad. Most believe it’s quite serviceable. Or not—depending on which side you are listening to. An indisputable fact is, however, that she has neither the Queen’s English nor the American Southern twang. Her accent is characteristically very Thai. And so?

Her supporters have been beating up on Somkiat and the ‘accent’ and grammar critics, arguing what’s wrong with having an accent. They point out that Somkiat and co. just couldn’t stop themselves picking on her. The defensive reaction is understandable given Somkiat has recently spent quite an inordinate amount of time analyzing Yingluck’s Thai language skills, criticizing her less than good pronunciation, how she doesn’t distinguish between the ‘r’ and the ‘l’, how her speech delivery is unpolished, etc, etc. In other words, he was criticizing her for not having the Thai equivalent of the Queen’s English.

On this point, I believe Yingluck supporters have it right: there is no one English accent. They also have support from a heavy weight academic and social critic like Chanvit Kasetsiri who simply said:

Thai elites have inferiority complex and lead themselves to believe that good English is the Queen’s English only… ‘Don’t worry, just speak, speak lah’…. And you’ll get better at it.

I’m certain Yingluck will get better at it; she has proven to be a quick study. But meanwhile, what about an interpreter? It seems the jury is still out on that score. The merit and necessity of using interpretation is still being debated at the moment—sincerely or snarkily.

It’s unfortunate that the person who raised the interpreter issue was Somkiat who is highly critical (some may say nitpicking) of PM Yingluck. I personally don’t think that her English is terrible or incomprehensible, but indeed not fluent. His point about using an interpreter is not without merit, if PM Yingluck’s answer to the press at the joint press conference in Bangkok was any indication. She can certainly benefit from a professional interpreter, especially during the Q & A session with the press.

Also unfortunate, that as the anti-Yingluck camp continues to mock her accent and grammar, Yingluck supporters are hesitant to see her use an interpreter. They say she will improve, and those who dislike her are going to criticize her no matter what.

What does Hillary think of Yingluck’s English? I’m willing to bet she’s a lot more forgiving than Somkiat and other Yingluck critics at home.

I also wonder if the two women have had any more chance to meet casually in Bali, when perhaps Yingluck could ask for Hillary’s advice on how to be a strong female politician and how to deal with the prickly issue of tears.

4 responses to “The message or the accent? Hillary and Yingluck’s first meeting

  1. @ThailandFriends Yingluck’s English deficiencies would be easily glossed over, if her last name weren’t Shinawatra and her brother weren’t Thaksin. (Her supporters don’t make a big fuss of her English.)

    @globalsquatter Thai “degenerated” pronunciation by Thais goes far beyond the R and the L. Double consonants aren’t often properly enunciated in Thai, and by extension in English. It grates one’s ears, but that’s how it is.

  2. Pingback: The Sorry State of Thai Education – Part 4: Dismal English-language education | Thai Woman Talks – Language, Politics & Love·

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