*I wrote a three-part series in late November 2014, on the six months anniversary of living under Thailand’s latest junta and martial law. The series was first published on Siam Voices blog on Asian Correspondent between November 26-28, and I was too lazy to put the articles up here for my own archives (bad, bad). This long piece includes the original Parts 1 -3 with a small new addition at the beginning. (I have written the next piece after 15 months of life under the Thai junta, posted here on this site.)
A Coup or Not a Coup?
Thailand’s latest coup started with a declaration of martial law on May 20. A military coup had been speculated for some time prior and there was a debate whether or not a coup was actually taking place in the two days before it was officially announced on national TV on May 22, 2014.
It did not take long before the reality starts sinking in that Thailand was indeed becoming a ‘coup coup nest’.
Part 1: On Attitude and Happiness
In the days preceding the six-month anniversary of the coup the three-finger salute made a comeback in Thailand, coinciding with the premiere of ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1′. It was a case of life imitating art imitating life.
The images of young Thais showing the three-finger salute and getting hauled off by authorities made a world tour, thanks to coverage from big media acronyms like AP, BBC, CNN , mass popular sites like Buzzfeed, numerous major newspapers, and even high-brow magazines like The Atlantic.
Natchacha Kongudom, one of the students detained for making the offending salute, told reporters:
The three-finger sign is a sign to show that I am calling for my basic right to live my life.
That’s the perspective of a young university student. Maj Gen Sansern Kaewkumnerd, deputy spokesman of Prime Minister’s Office, gives the junta’s perspective:
Seeing a movie is a personal thing, and they all have a right to do that, but if, after seeing the movie, there are political activities involved, this is prohibited by martial law, which has been imposed since (last May’s) military intervention. (NYT)
In the six months following the May 22 coup, living a life and doing mundane things could no longer be taken for granted in Thailand. Actions that would otherwise have been considered normal like eating at McDonald’s or eating a sandwich, choosing a T-shirt to wear, posting pictures on Facebook, reading a book, and organizing a seminar took on new meanings and, if perceived to have been done in a politically suggestive manner, could get you an “invitation” to a police station or a military facility for “attitude adjustment.”
Unless, of course, you were unfortunately aligned with the ousted government and/or had already been marked for having a record of talking famously and provocatively to the public about divisive concepts like democracy, freedom and human rights even before the coup — which would likely have granted you the honor of having your name on an official summons and spoken on national television in the early days after the coup without any immediate politically provocative action required on your part.
For the less famous, making a three-finger salute, holding a piece of A-4 paper with a message or making a silent gesture resembling criticism of the junta or demand for rights and freedom could also most assuredly earn you an encounter with authorities. The following are activities that became problematic post-May 2014 coup.
In recent years, making sense of the chaotic and convoluted Thai politics has become a challenge even for seasoned political observers. Not only that there are many plots and subplots, visible and invisible players, much chaos, many subterfuges and machinations, we also need to navigate a new kind of language, especially the language of power.
Understanding the junta’s vocabulary has also become and essential part of life — if you want to really know what’s going on and stay “happy” in the new regime, that is. People have become adept at collecting mundane words with not so mundane meanings. Among the top favorites in the junta’s newspeak are:
- invitation = 1) ‘request’ to report oneself at a police station or military camp ‘for a talk’ or ‘discussion’ (i.e. questioning) about one’s activity deemed not conducive to peace and order and happiness of the country (example), not synonymous with ‘arrest’; 2) official summons to report at a military facility (announced almost nightly on national television during the first few weeks, later understood to be quietly delivered at private residences), failure to report oneself has resulted in actual arrest (example), going into exile (example), and living as a fugitive abroad (example).
- accommodation = provision of free food and lodging for up to 7 days at a time at a given military facility in the early months after the May 22, 2014 ‘military intervention’ (see below) without access to a phone or Internet and without being charged (as allowed by Thailand’s martial law circa 1914), or as happened more recently for a shorter period of time (hours or overnight) at a military camp or police station; not synonymous with ‘detention’
- attitude adjustment = a ‘talk’ or ‘discussion’ session with military or police personnel which results from the ‘invitation’ and/or ‘accommodation’ which has the primary aim to ‘adjust the thinking’ of the invited/accommodated person or persons to achieve an ‘understanding’ that their activity is harmful to national peace and order or creating conflict in Thai society and, if the invited/accommodated person desires to be released, he or she will sign a written agreement (usually a prepared form) not to engage in the same or similarly divisive or harmful activities or expressing political opinions in the future, or face an actual arrest*; as this term has become somewhat pejorative, another alternative term ‘to have a moment of pause’ has been suggested by the military but this has yet to catch on (*Note: This has relaxed during the past week with several ‘invited’ persons refusing the sign the agreement having been released.)
- being invited for a coffee = slang term, arising from an incident in which a previously ‘invited’ person was asked to meet with a military personnel to ‘have a coffee’ at a neighborhood café which turned out to be another ‘invitation’
- meditation = spending a ‘quiet time’ under the care of soldiers in a military camp ‘away from distractions of the outside world’ in an undisclosed location without distracting contact with family and friends, the effect of such a meditation can result in being ‘happier than words can say’ (example); not synonymous with ‘enforced disappearance’
- military intervention = sudden seizure of power by the military from a popularly elected government; preferred term to ‘military coup’
- request for cooperation = a ‘request’ by military or police personnel to stop engaging in one’s politically suggestive (perceived or real) activity, failure to cooperate results in an ‘invitation’
- large discrepancy in prices = large difference (double or triple) between market prices and prices quoted in the current (post-‘military intervention’, post-populist) government’s procurement of equipment, specifically state-of-the-art Bosch multimedia microphones and not-so-state-of-the-art Plasma TVs; considered ‘not quite corruption’.
(See more lofty terms in A Glossary of 2014 Newspeak by Bangkok Post’s Kong Rithdee.)
It must be stated that life under the Thai junta is not at all a hardship, if individual rights and freedom are not your top priorities. If your happiness is derived from certainty, familiar hierarchy, peace and order, or simply absence of elected politicians, in particular the square-faced fugitive and his cronies, you would have had few complaints.
If you dislike too many divergent opinions and continuing conflicts, you would have found the “restoration” of peace and order highly satisfactory like the overwhelming majority of Thais, thank you. A tireless stream of opinion polls have confirmed how appreciative over 70-80-90% of Thais are that soldiers have stepped in to ‘reset’ the country and bring back not only happiness and reconciliation, but also moral governance to Thailand.
Reforms quickly started with authorities under new leadership of the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO) “cleaning up” taxi mafias, extortion rackets, beach umbrellas, and whatnots. Undesirable people and things have been removed from beaches, Bangkok sidewalks, political offices, and tourist destinations. Bike lanes are being painted on roads and sidewalks in many cities. Even Bangkok governor has returned to work, painting bike lanes.
The hit Return Happiness to Thailand song penned by the NCPO leader and prime minister Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha himself has uplifted national spirit, with a melodic pleading for patience while the junta steers the country forward with much needed reforms. Our volunteer saviors will make Thailand good again. “Soon.”
To bring back love, how long will it take?
Please, will you wait? We will move beyond disputes
We will do what we promised. We are asking for a little more time.
And the beautiful land will return
We will do with sincerity
All we ask of you is to trust and have faith in us
The land will be good soon
(Enjoy the song with English subtitles.)
The beautiful song, all the non-populist free food, free haircuts, free World Cup broadcast, free movies, free Happiness festivities, owed money paid to the farmers in that disastrous rice pledging scheme by the last populist government, cut gas and petrol prices, lotto ticket price controls, salary raises for civil servants: all these “good” things should make anyone happy.
What’s more, the NCPO leader and PM just ordered a suspension of local elections covering over 1,000 local administrative positions nationwide, surely shutting the door in the faces of future corrupt elected politicians from the provinces. On the same day, the cabinet approved the planned Thai-China rail project, which paves the way for the building of 734kms of dual-track railways worth 400 billion baht (US$12.2 billion). That’s 400 billion taken away from the sticky hands of greedy elected politicians!
Really, what’s not to be happy about?
Part 2: The Perils of ‘Different Thoughts’
Life under the Thai junta in 2014 has not been and need not be a hardship, provided you have the right attitude. This second part discusses the dark side of different political thoughts in the happiness regime.
The Happy Sunday polls reported every week show that the upward 80-90% of Thais are “happy” and “satisfied” with the situation. We also hear directly from dear ‘Uncle P’ (affectionate nickname for our new dear leader Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, chairman of the National Council for Peace and Order and prime minister).
Every Friday night Uncle P explains to us in great detail how improvements are being made in various aspects of our country. He used to talk for much over an hour but, as much Happiness has been returned, his recent must-carry Return to Happiness program has shortened to just about half an hour — a sign of progress and a kind consideration to many citizens addicted to prime time TV soap operas.
Despite all this, some people are still determined to be un-Happy. They just can’t stop themselves expressing political thoughts and even discontent. In late August, then still also army chief, Uncle P noted in an almost two-hour Friday speech that resistance remained active with “ill-intentioned” people continuing to use social media, distributing leaflets, and circulating anonymous letters making “false accusations” to discredit the government.
I’ve always said that we want to create a reconciliation atmosphere so that the reform can be carried out quickly but many people still try to destabilize the situation by using the words ‘democracy’ and ‘election’. These people don’t see that an incomplete democracy is not safe and it does not create confidence in the global community. (Thai PBS)
It is true that many Thais are still too attached to the word “democracy”. I have seen that excessive use of the word can cause agitation and nausea among those finding the word synonymous with corruption and an anathema to morality and good governance.
Uncle P himself has asked the un-Happy people to refrain from using the words “democracy” and “election” for the benefit of the country and it does seem that the word “election” has been uttered much less often recently. At this stage we don’t know for certain the timing of the next, er, election, but “democracy” is a sticky word, along with a few others.
Activists, academics, students and even some politicians stubbornly insisted on organizing events discussing provocative topics like human rights and justice, ‘Fall of Foreign Dictator’, our plot – whose land?, land tax reform, rights and freedom of the people, and desirable parliament and hope for democracy. The last three were from last week alone. All were planned and banned— (or rather the organizers “cooperated” and cancelled the event).
At the aborted seminar on land tax (at a bookstore of all places), the organizers were told they had “no permission” and that any discussion about rights, even children’s or women’s rights, were “not allowed.” Indeed, seminar organizers were asked to request for approval in advance, which didn’t sit well with some professors. What these un-Happy people don’t sufficiently appreciate is the idea that Region 1 Police Commissioner Pol Maj Gen Amnuay Nimmano once expressed:
People with different thoughts will have the tendency to create violence.
Political thoughts in particular. But don’t start tossing about foreign slogans like “thought crime” just yet. Freedom of thought is still legal in Thailand, mind. Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwan confirmed only last week that Thais are still allowed to think, even quietly disagree with the government. In his own words:
The government is currently working to build reconciliation. We don’t want any disputes. If anyone disagrees with the NCPO, they have the right to think that way. But they cannot express that [disagreement], strictly. (Khaosod English)
So hold the dramatics. Thailand is not North Korea yet, although the two countries are tightening ties and considering an education cooperation program. Authorities have said on multiple occasions that people can express their views, but at appropriate places and times (and presumably with appropriate speakers too). Like the energy reform forum led by right-wing monk Buddha Issara two weeks ago.
Organizing a seminar on a questionable topic in a bookstore, university lecture hall, press club or cultural center without first asking for permission was not the right way to go. Expressing provocative thoughts on a mountaintop was not smart either, in the case of two women who, instead of enjoying beautiful scenery like everyone else, had to display illegal messages at the scenic tourist location and posted a picture of themselves on Facebook! No wonder they were “invited for a talk” when the soldiers caught up with them after driving around looking for them for two days. They were released, after having their “attitude adjusted”.
The two women were told freedom of expression would be allowed in September 2015, when the second phase of reform starts. So it will be a test for them and the rest of us Thais to keep political thoughts to ourselves until then. (Some of us may need to keep a private diary. Ten months is a long time.)
Media have also been asked to refrain from reporting provocative political thoughts to the public — political thoughts not in line with those of our leaders to be precise. Most mainstream Thai media are generally obliging to the military anyhow, so not much problem there. But new and politically active satellite TV stations playing an important part in national conflicts are wild cards, given they had been a little too intensely “colorful”— yellow, red and blue — and yet they agreed to end politicized reporting in late August. They even helpfully changed their station names to avoid stirring unhappy memories.
All these measures and some people still remain strongly attached to their thoughts and the need to express them, as if determined to be discontent. This is inexplicable to many of my fellow Thais, some of whom have asked angrily, “Would you die, if you couldn’t say what you think?” Well, my guess is that they wouldn’t die necessarily, but I’m not sure if “truth”, “dignity” or “freedom” as a one-word answer would satisfy.
Some people who are skeptical of notions like rights and freedom have wondered about the motive of the five Khon Kaen University students who flashed the Hunger Games salute clad in black t-shirts bearing a message “No coup d’état” in front of Uncle P last week. “Who was behind them?” “Were they paid?” These are typical questions posed about anyone determined to express unapproved ideas. (The students’ full statement explaining their motive can be read here.)
The protest by the five Khon Kaen law students marked the six months anniversary of the military coup and a resurgence of anti-NCPO protests in Thailand, despite police warningsince last June that anyone flashing the three-finger salute could face arrest and up to seven years’ jail, and political gatherings of more than five persons is illegal and subject to up to two years’ jail or up to 40,000 baht (US$1,220) or both.
“An eyesore… unconstructive… biased,” said the NCPO spokesman of the leaflets.
It is relatively easy for authorities to identify the protesting students and give them “attitude adjustment” because they advertise their activities on social media. But not all culprits are so helpful, so authorities had to sometimes rely on CCTV cameras to track down the offenders, like this well-to-do man who when finally caught confessed to littering the grounds around the Democracy Monument with his leaflets.
Part 3: Happy, C’est la vie, or Ud-ad?
Demands for rights and freedoms and the end of martial law are getting louder and wider in the rising wave of activities by students, academics, NGOs and local activists over the past two months (see a comprehensive timeline of activities with pictures by Prachatai).
There is a change.org campaign calling for the revocation of martial law and return of sovereign power to the people. So far over 3,000 people have risked a possibility of “attitude adjustment” by signing their names to the petition.
The feelings of ‘ud-ad’ (Thai expression for a range of feelings from mild physical and emotional discomfort to a sense of frustration and suffocation) are starting to appear in unlikely quarters. Earlier this month a Thai PBS program host was removed because of her “provocative question” addressed to Southerners in a discussion forum about their “ud-adness”.
Former (post-coup) PM Anand Panyarachun, earlier sympathetic to the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has also expressed ‘ud-ad’ feelings and uncertainty about whether the junta government is sincere in tackling corruption. Even the chairwoman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has emerged from political stupor to say that Thais “have a right” to show the three-finger salute and that the NHRC “disagrees” with the use of martial law. Renowned royalist Sulak Sivaraksa has also been seen showing his three fingers.
Martial law is regularly cited as a justification for banning political activities. In September junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha explained why it was still needed: there were still anti-government activities “which you may not see but we see,” he said. Gen Prayuth continued to insist that martial law was “necessary to stop conflicts and social disparity.” And with the recent resurgence of the three-finger salute, the justice minister Gen Paiboon Koomchaya has stated that martial law will remain in place “indefinitely” (BBC).
While the military and police have been busy clamping down on free expression of unapproved thoughts and the military courts are dealing with more cases (including lèse majesté, see here – note that military court verdicts are final and no appeals are possible), more groups of university students with the word “free” in their name are popping up in various corners of the country. The next few months is looking even busier for the junta.
From the junta’s perspective “the military have been very lenient” toward political activists, according to Maj Gen Sansern, PM Office Deputy Spokesman, who explained how the five students in Khon Kaen were dealt with last week.
“We’ll try to negotiate first, but if they still refuse to listen to us, we’d try to convince them through their parents… And lastly, we would invite them to have attitude adjustment,” he said.
The “leniency” is described by one of the five Khon Kaen students after their release without charges. More engaged in similar activities in recent days have also been released after a brief “attitude adjustment” session, even though some refused to sign the release form agreeing not to engage in further political activities.
Perhaps the junta is letting off some steam. The Isaan farmers who flashed the .lll. salute in support of the five Khon Kaen students have only been summoned, not rounded up and taken to a military camp or police station. But high-profile individuals displaying differing thoughts, like the Khon Kaen students, are monitored. Over 30 soldiers were seen watchinguniversity students eat in Chiang Mai in case they started throwing around flyers.
Latest the junta is considering setting a forum for students to “legitimately” air their views, only just “don’t scold NCPO” or “be difficult to please,” said Gen Prayuth. Meanwhile, current and former members of various university student associations have posted an open letter calling all universities to protect students.
The kid glove treatment is not in store for the police, however. Five Khon Kaen police officers have been transferred for failing to stop the five students causing the top leader embarrassment. And several police officers, some at a very high level, are being charged for graft, gambling and lèse majesté. But that’s a whole other story.
The junta spokesman told CNN that Gen Prayuth views the incident of students flashing the Hunger Games salute before him as “very minor” and that he thinks “they are still very young”. Gen Prayuth also seemed concerned that the three-finger salute “could jeopardize their futures”. (BBC)
Indeed these kids are young. A group of students that launched a campaign against Gen Prayuth’s 12 Values are even younger, only high school students. Education minister Admiral Narong Pipatanasai thought they could be “abnormal” kids because “from 1-12, these values are flawless,” and they should “try to recite” them first before going about opposing them.
Some authority figures have also suggested that Thai youths could do more constructive things other than getting involved in questionable activities like flashing three fingers imitating a movie. They’d better go planting trees, camping or watching the soon-to-be-released film depicting Uncle P’s “12 Core Values,” based on which the Ministry of Education is said to be adopting innovative behavioral tools for students to learn in schools and colleges nationwide. Here are what the 12 Values are compared to values promoted among youths in other ASEAN countries (source: Prachatai English).
Returning Happiness and instilling moral values in the new generation are part and parcel of national reconciliation and reform toward building a “correct democracy” (see Value No. 7). While Gen Prayuth has conceded that the current system “may not be 100 per cent democratic,” he has also said that he is certainly “not a dictator.” Referring to the three-finger-flashing students, “I don’t want to punish them, so they were merely reprimanded, released and told not to do it again,” he said. (The Nation)
So far there have been no reports of students thanking Uncle P yet. My guess is thanks are unlikely to be forthcoming, considering a passing of a new bill that requires segregation of students by sex in school and university dormitories until the age of 25.
In brief, there is a “correct” way of living in a “not 100%” democratic society that any Thai wishing to be “Happy” needs to keep in mind. While it is still legal to think, it is not legal or healthy for society to express, potentially divisive political thoughts. It has been said that there is “too much freedom” and that it leads to conflicts. While dear Gen Prayuth is “willing to listen to all opinions,” he also told us:
Don’t ask me for democracy. Don’t ask me for an election. I cannot give you that. (Khaosod English)
(At present, the election is said to be “six months behind schedule”, which means it will not happen in late 2015, but in 2016, if it’s not postponed again.)
As for media: know your limits. The secretary general of the NCPO committee on media Lt Gen Suchai Pongput said in early November:
Gen Prayuth Chan-o-cha … has never censored the media. We are open, but please stay within the limits. [We] don’t want any colour. [You media] must report news positively. Sometimes, headlines lead to discomfort. (Prachatai)
Gen Prayuth himself has defined the media duties:
The media has to assist me… The media has two duties. One is to explain the situation and create understanding with the people, with some critical reporting and criticism. But you also have the duty to support the missions of this government. If you keep saying, that thing is [protesting] this thing, we won’t get anywhere. All the good things that I have done would have been in vain. (Khaosod English)
And just like the media having to “stay within limits,” democracy also “must be within a boundary“.
Six months on, how Thailand’s situation is characterized depends on who you ask. Human Rights Watch put “fundamental freedoms and democracy” and “a bottomless pit” in the same sentence in its comments (see here). A Foreign Policy article described the May 22, 2014 “military intervention” as having been “heralded [as] the most extreme rollbacks of civil liberties of any military takeover in Thailand’s modern history” and “dramatically reversed the course of one of Southeast Asia’s most democratic governments”.
At home, reactions are a lot more varied and subdued. Citizens and residents living under the Thai junta could be roughly divided into three groups: 1) the Happy people; 2) the Let-it-be – C’est-la-vie people; and 3) the Ud-ad people. Those in the first group are generally upbeat and you can count on them to be the loudest. The second group is quiet and quite eclectic, including those too busy trying to make a living and living a life; those going along trying to avoid any conflicts with their truly Happy families and friends; and those who have taken refuge with Fate—in a very Thai Buddhist spirit. Those in the third group are the un-Happy ones.
The challenge for the NCPO and its chief is how to make sure that the Happy People are (or appear to be) the majority and the number of Ud-ad people is not increasing too much too quickly, or if it is, they be “persuaded” to keep their “different thoughts” to themselves and join the Let it be – C’est la vie people. This is going to be a bit harder, as more are becoming more forthright and less obliging.
Some have even dared suggest that people are now “bored” with Uncle P’s Friday speeches, to which he jokingly asked if he should start dancing or making the backdrop more captivating. Here are some suggestions for the latter.
The Teletubbies one is my favorite.
Seriously though, some of the ud-ad people should stop monkeying around and take note. Gen Prayuth had this to say about being in the minority:
Thailand is governed by a democratic system with the King as the Head of State. Therefore, the monarch is weak because he cannot protect himself and hence needs a law to protect him. Before there was no problem. Problems only came recently… The majority of Thais love the monarchy. The minority must accept that. If they think they feel ud-ad living in Thailand that there is a monarchy and a law to protect the monarchy, then go live somewhere else. (Matichon – my translation)
In response to this outburst, a respected academic and a self-professed “ud-ad man” Kasian Tejapira (who sometimes has too much sense of humor for an academic) has written this poem (originally in English, see the Thai translation in Matichon):
I am an ud-ad man.
He says I don′t own this land.
It′s alright if I agree with him.
Otherwise my future looks dim.
I am an ud-ad man.
He wishes to kick me out of this land.
Simply because I think otherwise.
And he says that isn′t right.
I am an ud-ad man.
Born and grown up in ud-ad Thailand.
It′s the land of the free
so long as you don′t talk , hear and see.
This is the ud-ad land.
Bear with it if you can.
Here love is compulsory.
And hatred is given freely.
Long live ud-ad-ness!
Think otherwise and you might be dead.
Ud-ad is uniquely Thai.
Freedom is a foreign vice.