General Prayuth Chan-ocha is determined to make Thailand a happy place. He’s doing this by throttling civil liberties. Abigail Haworth charts the surreal rise of his despotic regime
angkok’s Lumpini Park is walking distance from the Italian bistro where Dream works as the head waitress. This afternoon, a cool Saturday in mid- January, the 32-year-old Thai has taken a couple of hours off to attend a festival in the park. The grass has only just grown back. It was scrubby and nicotine-hued for months last year after thousands of occupying protesters erected tents, noodle stalls and pop-up hair salons during efforts to topple the elected government. A military coup last May granted the protesters’ wishes. Now the junta is using the park to stage a five-day extravaganza, Discover Thainess 2015, to showcase how united and happy the country is under martial law.
The area has been transformed into a mini-Thailand. Different sections represent the five main regions, each crammed with colourful stalls selling local food and crafts. There are stages for cultural performances, and backdrops of idyllic beaches and lush rice paddies for photo sessions. (One stall sells nothing but selfie sticks.) In Dream’s home region, the North, people who are dressed as cheery peasants pose beside plastic water buffaloes. In the Central region, home to the capital, dancers in glittering costumes perform a graceful routine from the royal court.
Dream moved to Bangkok seven years ago from Nan province, close to the border with Laos. She earned her English nickname because she was always so aspirational. “My parents grew rice and vegetables for a living. There was too much poverty, too little food,” she says. “I did well at school and found work in hotels when I was 18. I wanted a better life.” Dressed for the festival in a smart black skirt and a high-necked blouse adorned with a cameo necklace, she is enjoying the lavish spectacle. She is also bemused. “It’s like 20 or 30 years ago. It’s not like Thailand today.”
Harking back to an idealised past, when irksome democracy was containable and everyone knew their place, is one of the festival’s aims. The event is ostensibly to promote tourism, but it’s also thudding domestic propaganda. The theme is based on the “12 core values of the Thai people” that coup leader and now prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha compiled after seizing power. The values include: “Love for the nation, religion and the monarchy”; “Preserving Thai customs and traditions” and “Discipline and respect for elders and the rule of law”. All Thai school-children are required to recite the 12 sayings daily and, to prove that feudal values can also be fun, the junta has issued downloadable stickers for Thai messaging apps.
Eyes right: General Prayuth Chan-ocha at a military ceremony. Disagreeing with his path, he has declared, is incompatible with the very nature of ‘Thainess’. Photograph: Rungroj Yongrit/EPA
There’s no greater way of showing contempt for the rule of law than by removing an elected government, however flawed, at gunpoint. But such inconsistencies don’t trouble Prayuth. The general justified the coup – Thailand’s 12th since absolute monarchy ended in 1932 – by claiming it was necessary to quash instability resulting from the country’s deep political divide. Thailand has been in a state of almost perpetual tumult for a decade. On one side are those who believe in civil society and democratic principles, including the devoted supporters of exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra and his populist party machine. On the other side are those loyal to the old ruling elite, an embedded alliance of the Thai monarchy, military and upper classes whose traditional power is being usurped.
After the coup, Prayuth suspended the constitution and restricted all basic rights. He vowed to “return happiness to the people” and create a system of “Thai-style democracy” through political reforms of the junta’s own design.
Earlier in the week, during his speech to launch the festival, Prayuth made it clear how high the stakes were for every citizen. Disagreeing with his path, he declared, was incompatible with the very nature of “Thainess”. “Whoever causes chaos to Thailand or disrupts peace and order, they should not be recognised as Thais, because Thais do not destroy each other,” the general told an audience of dignitaries gathered outside a shopping mall. “The charm of the Thai people is that they look lovely even when they do nothing, because they have smiles,” he added, without bothering to demonstrate his point.
Prayuth insists his only goal is national reconciliation. But Dream says his regime will make many Thais feel more excluded. As a transgender woman, she is a case in point. “Of course I am worried in case the army clamps down on people like me,” she tells me later in the evening, back at the homely Italian restaurant where she works. “I don’t fit into their ideal.” What upsets her most is that the junta’s pronouncements render her opinions worthless. “I’m proud of myself. I’ve worked hard to improve my life and I believe in equality and freedom for poor people. But now we are being told that if we don’t accept the army’s decisions, we are criminals.”
When General Prayuth does smile, which is not very often, he looks like a man suffering from heartburn. He probably is. The 61-year-old junta boss has repeatedly complained that he didn’t ask for the job of reforming democracy and that he is selflessly doing it for the nation. “My whole family cried tears when I told them I was going to do this task,” he told the Thai media, shortly before his hand-picked interim parliament appointed him as prime minister. A career soldier known as a hardline royalist, Prayuth had been due to retire last year and spend his salad days playing golf.
Still, his belief that his methods are the only righteous solution to Thailand’s problems is not in doubt. Neither is his faith in his own authority. As the number of coups indicates, the Thai army’s sanctioned role as political troubleshooter is long-standing. Prayuth looks painfully exasperated when Thai reporters gently query his reform plans. He told one journalist to “visit the ear doctor” and threw a banana skin at the head of a cameraman. Earlier this month he warned a press gathering that he could do much worse. “I was asked by a reporter: ‘What are the results of the government’s work?’ I almost punched the person who questioned me in the face.”
The warning was redundant. Since taking over, the junta, whose official name is the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has made full use of martial law to prosecute opponents, ban political activity and censor the media. More than 1,000 people, including academics, political bloggers, activists and politicians, have been detained or sent for “attitude adjustment” at military installations. There have been some allegations of torture. Prosecutions under the country’s strict lèse majesté laws, which protect the monarchy from insult, have also risen sharply. In its annual report in January, Human Rights Watch said military rule had sent human rights in Thailand into “a freefall”.
During the previous coup in 2006, the mood was comparatively less repressive. The move ousted Thaksin Shinawatra from office while he was on an overseas trip. The army rallied peacefully to return life to normal. Thaksin, a former telecoms tycoon who came to power in 2001, built a huge support base among mostly rural voters by being the first Thai leader to introduce policies that genuinely improved their lives, such as universal health care and microcredit loans. But he also grew increasingly despotic and corrupt as his power expanded, turning the urban elite’s distaste for him into outright loathing. Thaksin and his allies became synonymous with bad government. Tolerance for democracy was the main casualty.
A family affai: Winyu ‘John’ Wongsurawat co-hosts Shallow News in Depth, Thailand’s most popular political satire TV show with his brother-in-law Nattapong Tiendee while his sister Janya ‘Rosie’ Wongsurawat is the lead writer. Photograph: Chang Li-mei/Observer
This coup felt different from the start. In the years since 2006, grassroots supporters of Thaksin and his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who became prime minister in his absence in 2011, had become much more organised. Seeing their gains under threat, they clashed with the army and pro-establishment demonstrators numerous times to safeguard their votes. Thaksin-backed parties have won every election for the past 14 years. By last year, with Thailand’s long-ruling 87-year-old monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej in fragile health, and no viable opposition in parliament, the Bangkok powers were running out of time. They needed to crush support for the Shinawatra clan once and for all, and rig the constitution to keep elected leaders in check in future.
The generals’ failure to grasp that the Shinawatras are only a symbol of much wider demands for social change and equality is the central flaw in their plan. Anti-coup demonstrators were quick to latch on to dystopian symbolism in protest. Some people took part in “reading protests” by standing in public reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games films became a mark of resistance. The army was equally quick to crack down, hauling offenders off for “attitude adjustment” or worse. Life began to outdo art. After martial law outlawed political gatherings of more than five people, students at one university organised “sandwich parties” – sit-ins in the guise of innocently eating lunch. The idea spread. The army detained a number of people for “eating sandwiches with political intent” and warned the public this was now a criminal act. Recently, the junta arrested a man for staging a solo “walking protest” in Bangkok.
If such state-sponsored farce in one of southeast Asia’s most modern capitals suggests there is panic beneath the junta’s brute power, its desperate need for its actions to be seen in a positive light confirms it. It has toned down its “Happiness” campaign from the early days, when it held street parties to promote reconciliation, offering free haircuts, dancing by women in sexy camouflage gear and hot meals. Prayuth even penned a ballad, “Return Happiness to Thailand”, that was broadcast so often it became a tyranny of its own. (Musical ability seems to run in the family. Prayuth’s 20-something twin daughters enjoyed brief success a few years ago as a punk-lite pop duo called BADZ – a biographical detail now hard to find.)
But still, the doublethink pronouncements are relentless. “If people want to do [opinion] polls, they are free to do so,” said Prayuth at Government House last month. “But if the polls oppose the NCPO, that is not allowed,” he added. A few days later an “independent” poll was published giving the regime a public approval rating of more than 80%. Earlier the junta had outlined its position on media censorship in a similar fashion. After summoning editors from Thailand’s mainstream media to a meeting, the appointee in charge of media monitoring, Lt Gen Suchai Pongput, explained: “We do not limit media freedom, but freedom must be within limits.”
Sign of the times: an anti-government protester holds up a placard depicting former self-exhiled Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra during a march through Bangkok. Photograph: Rufus Cox/Getty Images
Cherry, a 27-year-old reporter and talk-show panellist at one of Bangkok’s independent TV stations, has discovered firsthand what this means in practical terms. I meet her at her office off a sprawling ringroad, but she has little work to do there, as she has been suspended by her bosses. “I posted a status update on my Facebook page, a kind of inspirational message for women, saying that we should speak out for what we believe even if we have to pay a high price,” says Cherry, who, to protect her TV company, can’t give her full Thai name. “Underneath I posted a photo of myself at a big anti-coup demonstration.” Her bosses saw the update and said they were taking her off air, at least for a while. “They told me they couldn’t trust me any more. They were worried I might criticise the military on live TV.”
The Thai media has never been entirely free; self-censorship about the monarchy and the Buddhist monkhood is practised across the board. But in those cases the parameters of what’s allowable are clearly defined (that is, nothing negative at all, although criticism of religion has begun to creep in). Cherry says the junta’s “request” that media outlets determine their own limits when reporting on the military government is more damaging. “When they don’t draw the line for you, when you have to draw it yourself, it results in paranoia and over-caution. It’s the worst kind of silencing.”
It’s also the most insidiously effective because it forces colleagues to police each other. The army closed down Cherry’s TV station for a month after the coup for “inappropriate reporting” and later gave it a yellow card, referee-style, to warn that it would be closed down again if it went too far. “Everyone at work is a nervous wreck.”
Cherry is the only daughter of upper middle-class parents who live in Bangkok’s suburbs and run a successful bakery business. Her parents are liberal, she says, but most of her relatives are firmly on the side of the coup. Cherry was studying global politics at the London School of Economics in 2006 when mass demonstrations first started up in her homeland. “That’s when I became really engaged. I believe passionately in democracy and civil society.” It’s a tragedy for Thailand, she says, that the nation is being excluded from debate about its future. “I talk politics with some of my friends, and they have very bright minds that are being wasted.”
So, of course, is her own. Two weeks after I meet her, her wrap-on-the-knuckles suspension is lifted. She’s allowed to return to her talk show as a panellist on the strict condition that she doesn’t say anything that the junta would regard as “un-Thai”.
An anti-coup activist fights off being restrained during a demonstration in central Bangkok on Valentines Day after handing out roses and copies of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. Photograph: Chang Li-mei/Observer
Children’s Day in Thailand, in January, is the only day of the year that Government House opens to the public. Balloons are strung up around the lawns and youngsters can have guided tours of the seat of power. This year that turned out to be literal: it was all about the chair. Prayuth had recently received a new Baroque-style chair for his office. A leaflet was handed out about the making of the chair by master craftsmen. As the highlight of the day, children were allowed to sit in it to have their photos taken beside a cardboard cutout of its proud owner. He even wore a painless smile. Despite Prayuth’s protestations to the contrary, it seemed like he plans to sit in his new chair for quite a long time.
The general keeps changing his mind about the timetable for elections, saying that they could be any time between next year and three years away. One sharp-eyed Thai blogger noted that the ID cards of members of the National Legislative Assembly, the interim parliament appointed by Prayuth, are valid until 2020. Two recent small explosions of grenades and pipe bombs in Bangkok’s city centre, blamed on agitators, prompted Prayuth to confirm this month that martial law would stay in place until there was “total stability”. Meanwhile the troubled Thai economy is stagnating further and the country’s image abroad is looking shakier by the day.
Prayuth’s chair is not his only eccentricity. Apparently unschooled in public relations or political spin, he makes off-the-cuff remarks that provide endless light relief for Thailand’s political bloggers and tweeters. During one economic forum, he suggested that rubber farmers should “sell their product on Mars” to reduce their stockpile of rubber. He also told the poor to alleviate household debt “by stopping shopping”. In one of his weekly televised addresses, he said all residents of Bangkok should solve the problem of overgrowing water hyacinths in the river “by picking 10 or 20 plants each until they go extinct”. He signed off another broadcast with the words: “Love me just a little, but love me for a long time…” from a famous Thai song. Responding to suggestions by pro-coup pundits that he should be more statesman-like, he was adamant: “I won’t change my personality, because I am a person with multiple personalities.”
As with other interesting despots, none of this affects his ability to wield absolute power. But it does pose a problem for those who are in the business of poking fun at him to make serious political points. As Janya “Rosie” Wongsurawat says, it’s hard to produce satire when your targets are already beyond it in real life. Janya, 38, is the chief writer and director of Shallow News in Depth, an online TV show hosted by her younger brother Winyu “John” Wongsurawat and her husband, Nattapong Tiendee. The family trio founded the humorous news show six years ago to try to get more young people engaged in the country’s problems. Their audience has risen dramatically since the start of military rule. Around 250,000 viewers now watch each episode of their cleverly subversive take on post-coup antics.
The team covers complex political issues, wrapping them up in enough slapstick comedy, funny graphics and sarcasm to keep it all light on the surface. “In Thailand people don’t take clowns seriously, so we haven’t had any visits from the army yet,” says Janya, sitting in the studio they’ve recently created in the lobby of a disused Bangkok office building.
“Sarcasm is a useful weapon because it’s not common in Thai humour. People are not sure how to take it.” In the show Winyu, 29, is a cartoonish James Bond figure, while Nattapong, 39, is a shaman in a white robe and beads. Against the neon-hued set, the two sit at a desk and use props like fly swatters and rubber ducks to ham it up while they deliver serious verbal blows to Prayuth’s regime.
“This week our nation remains in a runaway state of absurdity and shows no sign of slowing down,” announces Winyu in one recent episode. The pair then name and shame many of the 220 members of the junta-appointed interim parliament who have no experience or qualifications for their posts except their ties to the army. “They are volunteering their incompetence in the service of our nation. Now, let’s move on to our absurd news…”
In another show they expose how the legislature is making surreptitious changes to the Minerals Act. Newly added clauses remove state liability for accidents and do away with environmental impact assessments. “So if a mine explodes, it’s the fault of the miners. Of course it is.” They also discuss how martial law is being used to quash environmental protests by local people about certain government projects and rush the projects through. “During the rule of phony governments like this, it’s a prime time for pushing crazy, unjust laws that would probably be much harder to pass during a legitimate government,” says Nattapong, brandishing his plastic fly swatter.
Winyu says it’s nerve-wracking every time they upload a new episode. “Some coup supporters are outraged. They tweet the link directly to the army with comments like: ‘You’re really letting them get away with this?’” But he says doing the show is also a form of therapy – for him, and hopefully for the viewers as well: “It’s a release, an outlet for the frustration of what’s happening.” Janya and Winyu are the offspring of a Thai politics professor, and their American mother is also an academic.
“We do have serious discussions about politics with the family, but we also have to joke about it as well,” says Janya, “otherwise it’s very lonely to be in this situation. The propaganda just keeps coming and coming. It’s really bad for your psyche.”
A month to THE DAY after the Discover Thainess festival in Lumpini Park, another event takes place not far across town. It’s Valentine’s Day, a muggy Saturday afternoon, and a group calling itself Resistant Citizen is staging a rare anti-coup protest in the middle of the Siam Square shopping district. Advertising the event in advance, the group of activists, students, academics and lawyers made no attempt to hide its illegal plans. The aim of coming out in public was to “break the atmosphere of fear created by military rule,” they announced.
Thirty protesters arrive in tuk-tuks bearing homemade ballot boxes, bunches of red roses and copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four. They plan to stage a mock election to mark the one-year anniversary of the general election in February 2014 called by the then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which was invalidated after the conservative opposition sabotaged the polls and in some cases attacked voters. “My beloved, stolen election” reads one sign. “One heart, one election” reads another. An air of inevitability hangs over the proceedings. Around 150 police officers have already put up barricades and formed a cordon around the plaza.
“This is a day of love for all Thais,” says one activist wearing a T-shirt with the slogan NO COUP and clutching a red rose. “We’ve come here to let it be known that we want freedom and social justice for everyone in our country.”
Standing back surveying the unfolding protest, police colonel Jarut Sarutthayaporn, the policeman in charge, says that holding demonstrations like this is counterproductive. The protesters are “interrupting the programme” and delaying democracy because elections will not be held until all dissent is eradicated.
Nevertheless, everyone lets the peaceful event play out. The activists put up the ballot boxes; the police dismantle them. People try to give speeches; the police stop those, too. Scuffles break out and four protesters are arrested, bundled off to the station in the same tuk-tuks they arrived in. (The four were later charged with holding an illegal political gathering and are currently being tried in a military court.)
When the event is over and everyone has gone home, shoppers continue to stream along the concrete pedestrian walkways that snake above the plaza. Beneath them at street level, the ground is strewn with trampled red roses.