A Thin-Skinned Thai Dictator Cracks Down on Satire

The ego-driven Thai junta, despite the dubious victory it rigged in the March 24 election, is proving to have a thin skin when it comes to social critics who dare to mock Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Yan Eric Marchal, a Bangkok-based French expatriate, got a taste of the regime’s wrath when he had to apologize for singing a parody mocking Prayuth. Nor is Marchal the only one who has risked harassment by Thai authorities by cocking a snook at the premier.

The government, through its Cyber Security Operation Center, has shut down hundreds of thousands of websites and has told internet service providers (ISPs) to block tens of thousands of URLs, many of them for carrying pornography, but a substantial minority for mocking the junta.

Prayuth has tried to project himself as an artist and humorist. He has written many Thai-language hip-hop songs, the first among them entitled “Return Happiness to The People” in which he pleaded the junta would “keep our promises. Just give us more time.” The song was released after the 2014 military coup he led in a bid to allay the people’s fear that he might hold onto power indefinitely.

The general’s song was given a satirical drubbing while he himself was ridiculed for his manifold shortcomings as prime minister. That impelled the general to lash out, saying “They can’t make fun of me.” He subsequently brought criminal charges against those who had used Facebook to belittle his musical talent, later making it illegal for anyone who shared or “liked” a parody of his song. Making a mockery of him and his music, he believed, was an all-out assault on the country itself.

After the March election, his song came back to haunt him as Marchal, who apparently has a penchant for uptown Thai music, posted online a parody song using the same melody and bouncy rhythm but with a lyrical twist, singing “We will break our promises. Give us a lot more time for an everlasting dictatorial system” in Thai.

The song went viral, with more than a million viewers on social media before he was “visited” by the police at his home.

The junta’s paranoid perception of political satire of Prayuth and his regime stems partly from its insecurity as well as its incapacity to comprehend notions of universal rights such as freedom of expression. Back in February 2015, the soldiers blocked a students’ parade from entering a university football stadium prior to the traditional inter-university soccer match and seized their banners.

The students were carrying political satire banners mocking the regime. One banner read “Down with Dictatorship, long live Democracy.” In justifying their action, the soldiers served up the regime’s dictum that the banners’ satirical political messages might “undermine reconciliation and the national reform effort.”

After five years of the regime’s grip on power, there has been not a hint of reconciliation or meaningful reform except a self-serving constitution and election laws rewritten to keep the junta in power.

Famously, shortly after the coup that ousted a popularly elected democratic government, officers dragged away a student for publicly reading a copy of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was built on the methods dictatorships use to pervert language to their purpose. The arrest was the first known case of anyone being detained for reading as a form of protest since the military seized power. That impelled handfuls of anti-coup protesters to stage silent readings of the book, saying its indictment of totalitarianism had become relevant after the army deposed the elected government.

Astonishingly, Prayuth compounded his troubles when in late May this year, he recommended reading the Thai-language version of Animal Farm, a satire on the Soviet dictatorship, saying it “offers a good insight into life.” Social media exploded with mirth.

Pro-democracy campaigner Nuttaa “Bow” Mahattana questioned whether Prayuth really understood the book’s meaning, writing “Maybe Gen. Prayuth didn’t actually read the book. The basic lesson from the book is that there is no perfect way of governance. We must gradually learn and develop our choices.”

In 2017, Prayuth went public, declaring he had a “democratic heart.” That was followed by the arrest of student activists who flashed a symbolic three-finger salute popularized in Hollywood’s “Hunger Games” sequel as a symbol of resistance to a fictional tyrannical regime.

The harassment of the French expatriate for his satirical musical clip harks back to heydays of the authoritarian regime when authorities coerced a famed Thai comedian to tell his fans to delete a video clip in which he mimicked Prayuth’s media interviews and mocked his rule.

The latest episode is the interference by the authorities during the Teacher’s Day ceremony in a school in northeastern Nong Khai Province, the political heartland of support for exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in an earlier coup in 2006. In the traditional Teacher’s Day ritual, the 12th graders paid respects to their teachers by presenting pedestal trays with satirical messages about the military dictatorship and its manipulation of the general election to prolong Prayuth’s prime ministerial tenure.

Although the teachers did not deem the messages as offensive, the authorities ordered the students to delete all images of the ceremony from their social media accounts, contending that it was inappropriate for the students to express political views. Perhaps the authorities would feel more secure if history and political science are removed from the school’s textbooks.

A slew of satires on Prayuth exposes his vulnerability as a quick-tempered leader who doesn’t understand democracy or universal norms but who is infected with self-delusion and self-styled grandeur. In 2018, he was depicted as Pinocchio, the fictional child whose nose grows every time he tells a lie, by pro-democracy activists who called him a liar for reneging on his many pledges to hold elections.

Moreover, Prayuth’s comical behavior and utterances had been used by television talk show hosts in far flung countries to entertain their audience.

The satires are not confined to Prayuth but also to the dictatorial system as a whole. As the high school students’ messages on pedestal trays or on the soccer stadium have shown, they all are graphic expressions of the country’s lack of democracy and the failure of the regime. The flood of political satires will continue unabated into the post-election phase. The March 24 election has done nothing to transform authoritarianism to a democracy. Instead, it has produced an authoritarian regime under a different guise under the same dictator.

With the junta-sponsored constitution, the junta-appointed Senate, the junta-written 20-year national strategy and the constitutionally safeguarded state apparatus subservient to the military, Prayuth is seemingly on course to stay in power in perpetuity. The future is bleak for the democratic forces which will have to fight an uphill battle.

More importantly, the aspiration of the Thai people for genuine democracy and better livelihood will only be a pipe dream. But Prayuth’s idiosyncrasies and his ignorance of democratic conventions are certain to invite continuing mockery and satire.

Pithaya Pookaman is a retired Thai ambassador. A regular contributor to Asia Sentinel, he lives in Bangkok.