Since the absolute monarchy was abolished in Thailand in 1932, over a dozen successful military coups have taken place in our country. For eight decades, military rule has defined our political history.
The latest coup, on May 22, 2014, was staged by the military with the familiar excuse of stepping in to settle “political chaos.” The coup leader, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, leader of the self-styled ‘National Council for Peace and Order’ (NCPO), eventually selected himself to become the current prime minister of Thailand.
I am a journalist, and on May 23, 2014, the day after the coup, I was busy being interviewed about the coup on international news networks like BBC, Al Jazeera, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and more. I reminded the international audience that before the coup General Prayut repeatedly told the public that there would be no military takeover, then there was a coup – thus he either lied or had a change of heart.
The next day the newly installed junta issued its order Number 6 which was broadcasted on all television and radio stations at around a quarter past 9pm. The order, which mentioned my name alone, was to have me report to the junta—the National Council for Peace and Order—at 10am the following day.
I was subsequently detained without charge for seven days at a military camp just outside Bangkok as part of the junta’s ‘attitude adjustment’ programme, but not before I taped my mouth and shut my ears as a gesture against the violation of my rights in front of other journalists including the BBC correspondent. I had to sign an agreement under duress before being released that included a promise that I would not assist, participate or lead an anti-junta movement, otherwise I would have my bank account frozen and be prosecuted. What’s more, I had to also ‘agree’ to seek permission from the military junta if I ever wished to travel abroad as long as they are still in power - which included seeking their permission in order to be here in Oslo today.
Maintaining the right to decide whether to allow you to travel abroad is one way the junta exerts its control over your right to mobility. At the departure immigration-checkpoint, police ask me if I have any written proof of permission and I always have to say no, as they only tell you by phone. They force you to trust them and feel a measure of ‘debt of gratitude’ for their permission, despite the fact that it was them who restricted your right in the first place.
The day after I was released, an Army colonel called me and asked if I could stop tweeting, knowing that this is one of the mediums I use to engage with the public. I politely refused but said I would try to tweet less frequently and less ferociously – and there we struck a ‘compromise’.
I believe the Thai junta tries to maintain its dictatorial rule by exercising both hard and soft powers.
The hard part must be familiar to many living in authoritarian society. For example in Thailand political gatherings of five or more people are banned. Freedom of expression and press freedom are restricted. Article 44 of the junta’s provisional charter gives their leader Prayut power over the legislative, executive and judicial branches of Thai government.
Exercising his power under Article 44 means Prayut can order just about anyone to be executed without having to go through the court of justice – he himself has become the law. Prayut also appointed Orwellian-sounding officers, called ‘law-and-order maintaining officers,’ to ensure that his rule is unchallenged.
The irony is if more than five or even more people assembled to offer political support to Prayut, somehow it is not considered a political gathering.
On the other hand, the junta tries to maximize soft power to win the hearts and minds of the public - or at least to create an illusion of a happy Thailand. Extra public holidays are added every now and then so the people can enjoy longer holidays, on top of occasional free open-air concerts.
This reminded me of how the first public park was created in France in order to distract the public from the matter of politics.
These practices are in line with one of the key programmes under military rule: The promise “to return happiness to the Thai people”. If this “happiness” notion isn’t vague enough, there’s at least a song, supposedly written by Prayut himself, reminding the public that he staged the coup to stop infighting and to return happiness to the Thai people.
The song is played on most radio and television stations many times a day, every day, for nearly a year now.
Then there’s Prayut’s Friday-evening monologue appearance on TV, and more recently a tabloid published by the regime featuring Prayut again.
The military government even held a six-month progress report, mimicking elected administrations, as if they will actually seek a future mandate from the public in the next election. They also promised to make Thailand more democratic - never mind the irony in making such promise.
Those defying and resisting the military regime have by now given up on the idea that there could be any popular revolt to oust Prayut and the junta anytime soon, if ever.
It takes courage and sacrifice to resist military rule because the price to be paid includes detention, facing military courts, having your bank account frozen, or having to flee into exile.
Make no mistake, I hold no personal hatred towards Prayut or his men. They are all human, and when I was detained, I also told the officers that I do not hate them or have any personal grudges against them – but it’s just that I love freedom and democracy as a matter of principle.
The presence of military rule in Thailand is just the tip of the iceberg of our struggle.
Beneath the tip are millions of Thais who support military rule - who beg, or even demand a military takeover. And who now want the Junta to stay longer than their promised roadmap to return power to the people next year. Thus, our struggle is not just to overcome military dictatorship, but to win back the hearts and minds of the millions who repeatedly support authoritarianism over democracy.
The millions of these authoritarian-minded citizens, the junta-supporters, who wanted to be ruled in a climate of ersatz peace, who have mistaken the rule by law for rule of law. They in effect forfeit their citizenship to be subjects of the military ruler – and this is not the first, second, third, or even fourth time in the history of Thailand that they have done this.
On May 22, Poomrat Raengsiwit, one of the students who protested against the first year under military rule in front of the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre, was arrested. He later wrote on prachatai.com online newspaper that one pro-junta bystander shouted to police: “Officers! You have guns. Why don’t you use it to shoot them?”
Long after Prayut is gone, these Thai people will continue to demand dictatorship over democratic government because they have little tolerance, perseverance and have lost faith in democratic process, and hold little regard for the majority of the people whom they regard as less educated and less moral than they are.
The path to true democracy in Thailand lies not in trying to eradicate authoritarian-minded people, but by engaging them in debate and dialogue in hopes that they become more open-minded and democratic as a result.
Meanwhile, those who support democracy must not be arrogant or adhere to the narrow belief that the majority can do whatever it likes without listening to the voices of the minority.
With such a predicament in mind, it is clear that we must not have a sprint to oust a military dictator but a long-term struggle to convert millions from being fodder for future military interventions as well as those who subscribe to a very narrow interpretation of what constitutes democracy.
This requires perseverance, tolerance and a deep-well of optimism that people will be able to recognize that supporting authoritarianism, no matter how well-intended, is not in the best long-term interest of society.
We hope that Thais can eventually become masters of their own destiny, freed from the bondage they chose to impose upon themselves and others.
There is a limit to what heroic acts can do. Democracy cannot be sustained by a few brave individuals while majority of the populace choose to demote themselves into becoming mere political spectators or cannon fodder for military rule. There is a time and place for heroic acts of defiance, but Thai society itself cannot keep democracy afloat without the true participation, tolerance and contribution from the majority of its people. And that is what we must strive towards. Thank you.
This article is part of the speech given by Pravit Rojanaphruk at the Oslo Freedom Forum on May 26, in Oslo, Norway. Pravit was the first Thai speaker at the forum