OCCASIONAL songbird Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha recently released another tune, “Fight for the Nation”, aiming to encourage citizens to strive for a better tomorrow and promising he would “stand strong and never leave you alone”.
In the song issued a few days before Songkran, the junta chief who enjoys penning lyrics pledges to work hard for the country no matter how hard his critics gnash at him.
“Every day I’m tired,” sings the soldier who was recruited to handle the vocals, “but I keep it all inside, because my heart tells me to work for the nation.”
This is the sixth of Prayut’s compositions since he led the military coup in May 2014. “Fight for the Nation” seeks to capitalise on the massive success of the TV soap opera “Buppesanivas” (“Love Destiny”), whose theme song it resembles, and in fact composer Wichien Tantipimonpan arranged both.
There are also similarities to Prayut’s previous releases, “Returning Happiness to the People”, “Because You’re Thailand”, “Hope and Faith”, “Bridge” and “Diamond Heart”, in that all share a theme of fostering national unity. The general is fond of portraying himself as a “superhero” who’s ready to resolve the nation’s conflicts.
The music critics have not been kind.
The video version of the last tune, “Diamond Heart”, was first shown on Army-run Channel 5 on February 9. As of its updating last week, 6,752 of the 425,000-plus viewers had clicked on the upward-pointing thumb, but nearly 45,900 didn’t care for it. The rest were presumably too scared to vote, or too wise. “Fight for the Nation” appeared on April 9 and, by the time it was updated on April 20, it had drawn 31,334 views, along with 224 likes and 1,256 dislikes.
Assistant Professor Pandit Chanrochanakit, deputy dean of political science at Chulalongkorn University, said it’s normal for national leaders to seek out popular ways of communicating with the public, citing US President Donald Trump’s preference for Twitter.
But Prayut’s songs are “state propaganda”, Dr Pandit told The Sunday Nation.
“Each song has had a specific message to communicate at a particular time. The government-run TV pool airs the messages daily, forcing the audience to hear his propaganda, and that diminishes our freedom. People with more liberal attitudes just turn it off and turn to alternative channels or the social media, where there are young activists performing anti-junta songs.”
Dr Thanom Chapakdee, a lecturer with Srinakharinwirot University’s Art and Culture Faculty, said Prayut uses culture as a form of “soft power” to promote nationalism in conservative ways, like dressing Thai or singing pop songs.
Overt political activity is just now resuming after being banned since the 2014 coup, but arts-related socio-political activism has steadily spread both online and off. Art happenings, posters and music concerts have given voice to campaigners pressing for a return to democracy.
In some cases the authorities have reacted, arresting demonstrators outside the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Anti-junta artists began adopting “guerrilla” tactics to get their messages out.
Faiyen, a Thai pro-red shirt band living in exile, have released several controversial songs on YouTube and the Thairev Channel online, while the rapper known as Liberate P finds his own ways of promoting democratic ideals.
Bangkok exteriors bear the graffiti of an artist named Headache Stencil that mocks Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan about his collection of |luxury wristwatches.
Headache Stencil earns harassment headaches from the junta and his creations are scrubbed away, while others have been detained for speaking out. Faiyen have fled to a neighbouring country for safety’s sake. At Bangkok’s Ver Gallery last year, soldiers carried off the artwork of Harit Srikhao, which contrasted images of the bloody 2010 crackdown on protesters with pictures of everyday life. “My art reflects the truth – corruption, the loss of freedom under the junta,” Headache Stencil told The Sunday Nation. “It’s the artist’s most important role to mirror society’s illnesses and tell the world what Thailand is now facing.”
Another outspoken artist-activist, Vasan Sithiket, scoffs at Prayut’s musical wooing of the public. “Singing songs can’t solve the country’s problem,” he said. “While the junta leader sings his propaganda, we voice the suffering of the people through our art. And the voices will grow louder because there are more and more artists echoing criticism about what the junta has done.”
The military has seized power 12 times since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat staged a coup in 1957 and was prime minister until his death in 1963. General Prayut has been in |power almost four years, the second-longest term of any coup leader.
Prayut’s first song as PM, “Returning Happiness to the People”, was designed to promote better relations between the military and the people after the coup. It becomes ironic in retrospect, with the election continuously postponed in the interim and now scheduled for February.
“A song is only a tool for communicating with the people – it doesn’t resolve the country’s conflict,” commented Associate Professor Pandit, “An election is the key to that problem.”