Weeks of rumour and speculation were partly confirmed this week with an announcement by the Foundation for Community Educational Media, the organization which produces Prachatai, which acknowledges the resignation of Harrison George from his position as columnist. All titles and honours attached to this position have also been withdrawn, such as ‘Advisor on Satire’, ‘Sarcastic Sod’ and ‘Perpetrator of Impenetrable Muddled Prose’ (the much sought-after PIMP decoration.)
While it had been known for some time that George and the staff of Prachatai had been estranged, appearing together only at formal online occasions, the announcement seems to be the first step towards a formal separation. The statement however failed to clarify the position of the ‘Alien Thoughts’ column, which now risks being abandoned as an orphan.
The first signs of trouble at the online newspaper came with a slew of charges laid against persons thought to be related to George, including abuse of syntax, illegally soliciting online ‘likes’ and mis-spelling. Most importantly, the charge of plagiarism was included, meaning that the cases would automatically be heard before a military court.
It was the notorious plagiarism law that prevented any public discussion of the case within Thailand, leading to the ironic situation where readers outside the country were better informed than those in Thailand, who had to rely on gossip, hearsay and innuendo.
It was claimed that there was substantial evidence to back up the charges. Sentences full of dangling participles, gerundives and conditional clauses with a value running into millions of baht were reportedly found in half-written columns. But very little of this evidence has been put on public display other than a number of archaic structures whose value is not obvious.
These charges were followed by an order by editor Chuwat Rerksirisuk to cancel the George pen name. Chuwat, whose past behaviour some have described as erratic, seems to have lost interest recently in George’s work.
‘Chuwat probably only just started to understand what George was writing about,’ said one Prachatai staffer on condition of anonymity. ‘It took him years to get this far, but as soon as he started reading the column, even if he had to follow the lines with his finger and look up every other word in the dictionary, it was only a matter of time before George was on the way out.’
Persistent rumours say that Chuwat has a new columnist ready to be published who has already produced a successor to the ‘Alien Thoughts’ column. The name of the new column has not been made public.
Since the Foundation’s letter, a widespread purge of George associates and acolytes has been underway, with promises of more arrests to come. In most cases, formal accusations of plagiarism were included on the charge sheet.
In one case, someone with the same pen name as George was accused of furnishing a letter to excuse a relative from the need to declare his assets on the grounds that he was not a political writer. This was in fact not true and attracted a charge of plagiarism on the grounds that it is the same excuse already used by the National Reform Council.
In another case, the wife of a George associate was accused of selling overpriced vocabulary to Prachatai reporters by using plagiarized threatening letters to scare off competing suppliers. Some observers question how Prachatai staff could have been fooled into buying adjectives at more than twice the market price and common nouns at 90 baht a kilo.
Rumours that George had been given a ‘golden handshake’ from Foundation funds were widely discredited by anti-plagiarism commentators. They pointed out that the Foundation did not receive grants for this purpose and, while its structure and operations may be shrouded in secrecy, its assets can be used only for educating the community on media issues, not paying off superannuated hacks.
A statement by the Foundation Managing Director later confirmed that a copy of a leaked bank transfer slip showing a substantial two-digit payment to George was in fact authentic. Although the exact amount was not disclosed, it is thought that the sum will be sufficient to keep George in the poverty to which he has become accustomed since he started to write for Prachatai.
The affair has had wide repercussions in Thai society and is even thought to have affected the stock market, with share prices plunging over the past week on rumours that this could presage major changes in the country. NCPO leader and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha was even asked to make a decisive and well-informed comment.
‘What rumour?’ he is reported to have said. ‘I don’t know what it’s about.’
About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).