SPECIAL REPORT: How the junta misused culture to boost ‘Thai-ism’
Academics say all the flagwaving songs, films and period costumes are mere state propaganda
Since seizing power in 2014, the military junta led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha has largely abandoned its promises of sweeping reforms in favour of “soft power” campaigns like Thai Niyom (Thai-ism) – an effort to promote the ethereal and largely subjective concept of “Thainess”.
But scholars contacted for comment by The Sunday Nation believe the junta is presenting history and patriotism in such a way that freedom of expression is threatened.
On becoming Prime Minister, Prayut announced his ambition to bridge the decade-old political rift and reunite the country – to “return happiness to the Kingdom”. And to that end, he has taken to song, film, apparel and a textbook, touting a renewed nationalism and restored morality.
His critics say he’s actually serving up little more than propaganda.
Four years on, and despite hints from some on either side of the political conflict of a willingness to reconcile, the country remains unreformed, deeply divided and, given an economy that lags far behind the rest of Southeast Asia, not particularly happy.
In a Nida Poll conducted this month, the majority of respondents described their level of happiness as the same or lower than it was four years ago, before the coup. They cited the struggling economy, lax law enforcement, and restrictions on rights and freedoms.
One month after the coup, the general penned his first pop song, sure enough titled “Returning Happiness to the People”, which got a lot of airplay on TV and radio. In the years since, we’ve had five more tunes, with some of his lyrics portraying him as a “superhero” rushing to the country’s rescue.
Assistant Professor Pandit Chanrochanakit, deputy dean of political science at Chulalongkorn University, likens Prayut’s forays into pop culture to US President Donald Trump’s devotion to Twitter.
Prayut’s songs, he said flatly, are “state propaganda”, each one expressing a specific message at a particular time as he deems necessary.
“The government-run TV pool airs his messages daily, forcing the audience to hear his propaganda, and that diminishes our freedom,” Pandit said. “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.”
Soon after the first song was released, Prayut followed up with “12 Core Values of Thailand” for primary-school pupils to recite either during their daily flag-raising ceremony or in class. It was intended as a moral guide.
“The persisting problems in Thailand that need to be solved urgently require inclusive cooperation from people of all levels, gender and age,” the premier said. “I suggest that we first define clear core values so we can build a strong nation. The people must first be strong.”
The 12 values include upholding the three pillars of nation, religion and monarchy, respecting elders and teachers, pursuing education in every form, preserving traditions, and understanding democratic ideals under the auspices of His Majesty the King.
The Office of the Prime Minister next recruited 12 movie directors to make a series of short “Thai Niyom” films, a cinematic variation of his efforts to foster a national identity. They echoed the 12 values, as did specially printed stickers for the phone app Line.
The Education Ministry set out to coach students in civic duty, discipline, morality and patriotism.
A book issued by the junta in October 2015, “History of the Thai Nation”, stirred criticism with its claim that the military had succeeded where elected governments had failed – by establishing “true democracy” in Thailand. Respected historians objected, describing the claim as “state ideology” rather than history.
“Bureaucrats writing history doesn’t work,” said one of them, Sunait Chutintaranond, of the civil service-produced text. “It leads to further conflict. Writing history takes time and requires an exchange of ideas among both history academics and independent experts.”
Chulalongkorn political science Assistant Professor Dr Pitch Pongsawat said the book at least served as “historical evidence” – recording that the junta leader, Prayut, used the Culture Ministry to issue propaganda.
“By entering this into the historical record, they shame themselves in public.”
The junta, however, had little trouble convincing citizens to dress more often in traditional clothing and visit heritage sites. It was aided enormously in this campaign by the popular television period drama “BuppeSanNivas” (“Love Destiny”).
“It’s been an interesting phenomenon – it’s got the younger generation watching TV soaps again,” noted Assistant Professor Yukti Mukdawijitra, a lecturer in sociology and anthropology at Thammasat University. “It reflects nostalgia, a yearning for the past, especially for ‘the good old days’. But the belief that the past was better than the present has been linked to biases in memory.
“It shows the mental illness of our society,” Yukti said. “Today we’re living in conflict, especially on the political front. Watching comical shows and fantasy soaps can temporarily heal people’s hearts. In reality we remain divided, and the fantasy is that we are united.”