Thailand’s media, harshly muzzled by the May 22, 2014 coup that ended representative democracy in Thailand, has turned away from any criticism of those in power. Instead, the press recently has fallen back on softer stories.
One of the softest is the Top Ten list of the most “able” women of Thailand., first published on the women’s section of an entertainment website called Sanook! but which then went viral in other publications. Not surprisingly, Naraporn Chan-ocha, the wife of junta leader Prayuth Chan-0cha, has been selected as the most able in the kingdom, a media sycophancy on the Thai power holders that the public has largely ridiculed.
Most Thais have no idea who Naraporn is. And they are used to a previously freewheeling press that nicknamed the Yingluck Shinawatra government “crippled crab” as crab, or pu in Thai, was Yingluck’s nickname. The Abhisit Vejjajiva government was called, among others, “swordless warrior.” No such nickname has been given to Prayuth’s government, given his exceptional power, nor are any journalists likely to come up with one, at least in print.
The 60-year-old Naraporn only became known after Prayuth appointed himself as prime minister. A former English teacher at Chulalongkorn University’s Language Institute, Naraporn also served as the president of the Army Wives Association. Her father is a policeman. She is a typical middle-class Thai who was fortunate to get through good local schools, attending the posh St Joseph Convent – an all-girl high school –and later enrolled at Faculty of Liberal Arts at Thammasat University. After finishing her Bachelor’s Degree, she went on to study for her Master’s Degree at the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Mahidol University.
Naraporn met her future husband when he took a short English course at Chulalongkorn. They wedded in 1984 in a ceremony under the auspices of Their Majesties. Together they produced female twins who enjoyed brief stardom as pop singers in a band called Badz.
After resigning from Chulalongkorn, Naraporn spent her spare time working for the Foundation for the Blind as well as taking up a guest lecturer position in the Satellite Education project sponsored by the Wang Kai Kang Won School. Kai Kang Won, translated as “Far From Worries”, is the name of a seaside royal palace at Hua Hin, a favorite retreat of the King.
Thus, Naraporn has herself forged intimate ties with the royal family. The media, in offering her the top spot of the most able woman in Thailand reasoned, that “In working in the Satellite Education project, not only did Naraporn contribute to the Thai education, she also expressed her loyalty to the monarchy.”
Meanwhile, her husband, Prayuth, rose to prominence in the army thanks to his association with the Burapha Payak, or the Queen’s Guard. In the past decade, Queen Sirikit had become more politically active, most evidently through her support of the right-wing yellow shirts. In 2010, she presided over a funeral of a yellow shirt who was killed in a clash with the police. Queen Sirikit described the death as a sacrifice to save the monarchy.
Undoubtedly both Prayuth and Naraporn become an important part of the network monarchy. It was reported that Naraporn was behind the translation of a script of a top opposition figure, Jakrapob Penkair, when he delivered a controversial speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) in 2009. Jakrapob was a former Minister of the Prime Ministerial Office in the pro-Thaksin Samak Sundaravej government.
The translation made by Naraporn was key evidence in a lese-majeste charge against Jakrapob, who only referred to the term “royal patronage” in his speech. Jakrapob later fled the country to avoid being prosecuted. Meanwhile, the entire board of the FCCT was also investigated for a possible lese-majeste charge, since it had provided the venue for Jakrapob to make his speech. BBC Correspondent Jonathan Head, who moderated the Jakrapob session, was also threatened with beheading by Thai hyper-royalists.
Today, Naraporn has the admiration of the Bangkok elites. “I often told my husband to jai yen or cool down when speaking to the media,” she told reporters. In the recent interview, she talked about the importance of “looking after” her husband. She was responsible, she said, for his clothes, makeup and haircut.
“I prefer English-style suits since they are of high class,” she said. “My husband is dressed in the English style. I have my husband’s shoes made with Church, a famous British brand. But his suits are usually tailored at Broadway.”
Meanwhile, Prayuth has played along with the happy-family façade to earn admiration from his supporters.
“I wanted to resign [from the premiership],” he said recently, “but I cannot bear to see Thais suffering. Nowadays, going to work is like going to a battlefield. When I return home, if I remain moody, I would have an argument with my wife. She asked why I did this but did not do that. I am under pressure. But I wanted to return happiness to the people. I am willing to suffer myself.”
That is what passes for aggressive reporting in Thailand today.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.