When dictators dictate what’s right

opinion October 18, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

Sudarat Keyuraphan’s loud marigold campaign might well have been inappropriate, but the generals shouldn’t be the ones saying so

In lashing out this week at Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, the second-most powerful man in the ruling junta succeeded only in further undermining the military-led government’s credibility and lending further credence to the suspicion that the generals want to be the sole arbiters of appropriateness in the post-coup era.

Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters on Monday that Sudarat had no business travelling around the streets of Bangkok the day earlier urging citizens to grow marigolds in tribute to His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He was reacting to photos and reports of Sudarat riding in the back of a loudspeaker truck that bore a large sign with her name on it. She was encouraging people in Lat Phrao, her former constituency when she was an active politician, to grow the yellow flowers whose colour is associated with Mondays, the day the late monarch was born.

Prawit was evidently annoyed to see a political figure, and especially one from the party founded by Thaksin Shinawatra, making such a high-profile appearance in public. Three years after staging its coup, the junta still refuses to tolerate overt political activities of any sort. And now here was a Pheu Thai Party mainstay on the back of a campaign-style truck, rousing the good people of Bangkok.

Prawit was certainly not alone in condemning Sudarat’s mobile flower festival. Despite the premise of encouraging shows of affection for the late King, her prominence as a political figure – one often mentioned as a possible future prime minister – made Sunday’s event a political one. As well, she should have known that bellowing about royal fealty through loudspeakers would be interpreted not just as self-serving but also wholly inappropriate in a time of sombre mourning, with His Majesty’s funeral less than two weeks away. 

There is also a risk, as some of Sudarat’s critics have warned, that the junta might use her actions as an excuse to extend the ban on political activities. She was asked to comment on this. “I wouldn’t know how they think,” she replied, with more than a hint of cynicism. 

What bothers us most in this doubly sordid affair is hearing anyone from the junta making public statements about what is appropriate and what is not. It was vexing enough to see the generals, who had upended democracy by ousting an elected government, issue a set of “core values” by which we should live. In terms of touting marigolds as a royal tribute, there was no objection from the junta about provincial governors and municipal officials across the country conducting campaigns similar to Sudarat’s that would surely have improved their own political prospects. There was a whiff of hypocrisy in Prawit’s stern warning to Sudarat to exercise better judgement. 

That’s what the junta should do. It has no right to rule, let alone dictate how individuals choose to pay tribute to the late King. It has no monopoly on what is appropriate in such matters. If Prawit feels Sudarat was attempting to make political capital on the back of a national tragedy, he should consider the junta’s failure to achieve any lasting popularity, largely due to its intolerance of political discourse.