Every Friday night, in Thailand, carefully positioned between the evening news and the first of the evening’s popular soap operas, there has been a prime-time broadcast that every citizen is expected to sit still and watch.
It has been running for three years, ever since the military rolled their tanks up the Government House driveway during the May 22, 2014 coup.
Called ‘Sustainable Development from a Royal Philosophy’ it stars junta leader and former army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha providing his opinion on a wide range of subjects from the clothes women should wear to the price taxi drivers must charge their passengers.
The broadcast is fed through ALL Thai channels and subtitles reveal it to be pure North Korean style propaganda. Friday’s message, for example, proudly announced that ‘government agricultural policy will help solve over-population and improve all society.’
He also pointed out that his measures may seem ‘tough’ but that is because ‘civilian governments only think a few years at a time.’ He, on the other hand, has Thai people’s ‘best interests at heart for life.’ The speech writer may well be George Orwell.
Does any of this sound worrying yet? However, the vast majority of Thais switch off and do something else. Nobody, it seems, is watching or listening.
The military has always played a prominent role in Thai life. But Prayuth’s show is just one of many examples of how embedded the junta has become in Thai society.
Thailand‘s military government has acknowledged it wants to weaken political parties and maintain permanent influence over future elected governments, partly through a new constitution approved by Thailand‘s king last month.
But data compiled by Reuters shows the military is not just trying to influence Thailand‘s political life. It is leaving an imprint on nearly every institution of Thai society, with brass hats far more entrenched in senior positions than under previous military governments.
Entwined with monarchy
The military now controls 143 out of 250 parliamentary seats. Under the previous junta after the 2006 coup, the military held 67 out of 242 seats.
The cabinet is stacked with soldiers. Out of the 36 cabinet members, 12 have a military background. In 2006, only four military officers were among the 37 cabinet members.
The military is also entwined with the powerful monarchy – the name of Prayuth’s show is derived from the philosophy of the late king Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died last October after seven decades on the throne.
More than half of the 13 members of the Privy Council, the body that advises new King Maha Vajiralongkorn – himself a former soldier – are military men. It was just under half in the previous Council.
Cinema and television stations are increasingly showing pro-military themes and the school curriculum features military slogans.
“The military coup of 2014 offered the armed forces the chance to put in place a wider footprint and they are doing so,” Paul Chambers, a professor at Naresuan University and an expert on the Thai military, told Reuters in an e-mail.
“A younger generation of retired military officers are, since the end of 2016, sitting on the Privy Council,” he noted.
The junta claim the public are happy. They insist military recruitment numbers doubled in 2017 from the previous year and attribute that to public approval of their hard-line tactics in breaking a political impasse that had persisted for years.
Polls arranged by the military government show Thais are content with military rule, although no such polls have been published in recent months.
Peace and order
Perhaps more revealing than a military government stacked full of military men is the number of orders issued by the junta: 358 in total since 2014.
The orders aimed to impose discipline on every aspect of Thai public life. They ranged from making seatbelts mandatory for passengers in the backseats of cars to holding parents accountable for student fights.
The junta has also launched disciplinary initiatives such as a hotline to deal with misbehaving Buddhist monks and so-called “attitude adjustment” programmes for drunk drivers.
The campaign has covered everything from a crackdown on taxi gangs at airports to a clean-up of street food stalls, the latter with mostly mixed results.
Army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said those efforts by the junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), have improved Thailand.
“Overall, people are satisfied with concrete changes in the society,” Winthai told Reuters. He did not specifically address the militarisation of Thai society.
Thais, on the other hand, completely ignore any new rules because they are usually unaware of any. Largely because they weren’t listening to the junta propaganda broadcasts in the first place.
Young, intelligent and educated Thais don’t know what to do. Staying silent is their best option as they see friends and activists accidentally killed or, at best, disappear completely. It happens often.
Thailand has been bitterly divided since a 2006 coup against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire businessman turned politician who gained the adoration of rural voters through populist schemes but made many enemies among the military-royalist elite.
After the restoration of democracy, the military again intervened in 2014 to topple a civilian government led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Thailand‘s military has staged 12 coups since the end of direct rule by kings in 1932. The 2014 coup was partly the military’s way of trying to make right what it viewed as the mistakes of the 2006 coup, including a failure to get rid of Thaksin’s allies and subdue his supporters, political analysts say.
Prayuth, then a major-general, was part of the junta that seized control of the government in 2006. He led the 2014 putsch as army chief, saying the military needed to restore order following a cycle of mass protests and violence.
The junta has been under pressure from some Western countries to return to democracy after repeated delays to the general election, now scheduled for some time next year.
The signs from within, however, seem to suggest otherwise. Most Thais are expecting another delay, another excuse, another year or more.
It doesn’t help that political gatherings of more than five people are now banned by a new law with long prison terms awaiting those who don’t know about it.
How many years will it be before there is simply no opposition left at all?
–Winston Smith, Political Correspondent