This week The Nation reported alleged intimidation and harassment of the parents of one of The Fourteen Students of the New Democracy Movement who have publicly protested the military dictatorship. Intimidation of the students themselves is par for the course, with the students reporting to the European Union ongoing harassment by the security apparatus since their release on July 8. The full weight of the security apparatus is being thrown behind this harassment of university students and their families, including soldiers, presumably from Internal Security Operations Command; provincial officials; and Ministry of the Interior Officials.
The latest attempt appears to have been an initiative by the appointed governor of Roi Et, Somsak Chantrakul, in cooperation with military and state officials, to separate Apiwat Soontararak from The Fourteen, who have been charged under Article 116 (sedition) by suggesting he take up a position as a defence corps volunteer to work on illegal logging and so drop out of Khon Kaen University. Apiwat’s father, Mr. Chalermsak Soontararak, a teacher, has been visited by over 40 officials, including at home and his workplace, visits which have terrorized the students he teaches as well as his neighbors.
The intimidation of families of activists is unfortunately being normalized in Thailand. The family of Chonticha Chaengrew, another of the NDM students, has also been terrorized, with her mother being asked in a family visit, “How did you raise your daughter into a person with attitudes like this?” This line of intimidation of critically-thinking students and their families is apparently becoming part of the standard operating procedure of the security apparatus and was also used in the case of Apiwat.
It should perhaps be pointed out just how pathetic this line of reasoning is considering Thailand’s performance in most global indicators of governance. For example, Thailand’s position in the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators is itself pathetic, with Thailand scoring the lowest for ASEAN (9%) for Political Stability, way below the ASEAN average of 44%. As for the other indicators, it is outstripped by Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia in terms of Voice and Accountability and is a poor fourth for Government Effectiveness, Regulatory Equality, Rule of Law and Control of Corruption behind Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.
The lack of ability to critically analyse in Thai ‘society’ is regularly pointed out in newspaper columns and academic studies and is traced back to the education system. How it has real effects on Thailand is perhaps only beginning to be appreciated by the Thai military. Five major issues illustrate this: Thailand’s continuing demotion to Tier 3 of the Trafficking in Persons Report, Thailand’s inability to regulate its own airline industry, Thailand’s yellow card for Illegal, Unreported, and Unrestricted Fishing, Thailand’s weakening economy, and Thailand’s never-ending cycle of coups. In other words, Thailand has many of the characteristics of a failed post-colonial African state, with only the size of its international trade (including tourism) keeping it at a reasonably high rate of human development.
The intimidation of tangentially related family members has also been used against those seeking the truth regarding the 2010 killings in Bangkok, and in December 2014 the mother and brother of a nurse slain while treating injured people in Bangkok were arrested for a symbolic protest against General Prayut’s August position that no military were involved in the May massacre, despite multiple Criminal Court verdicts to the country. Blatant denial of the truth even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary appears to be another tactic of the Thai military, whose main response to the education question appears to be the reinforcement of unblinking discipline via the manipulation of history and total lack of awareness of how the rest of the world is developing.
The lack of ability to make rational decisions, i.e., in a way that addresses and solves socio-economic problems in a timely manner, is occasionally criticised in the national media. Yet, for an understanding of what drives the Thai military to promote blind obedience, one has to return the 1932 revolution and subsequent development, especially via the 12 Cultural Mandates of 1939-1942, of what has been termed a form of ‘weak fascism’ or cultural imperialism.
The Thai military’s audacious overthrow of the Thai absolute monarchy on 24 June, 1932, is perhaps the crowning triumph of Thai military thought. King Rama VI’s abdication in March 1935 created a complete power vacuum the Thai military had to fill in order to address five major problems: balancing British imperialism against French colonialism in order to develop economically; managing the problem of the Thai Muslims in the four Deep South provinces, including a history of rebellions; integrating the Chinese in the face of rising Chinese nationalism and communism; assimilating the Lao of the Northeast and the Khon Mueang of the North; and dealing with an electorate with an average literacy rate of 5%.
The military’s answer to how to regulate itself was to adopt many of the outwards trappings of the West in terms of uniforms and appearance, but the main ideology promoted by the military as early as 1933 via its chief propagandist Luang Wichit Wathakan, who embraced the Goebbels school of propaganda, was the Japanese bushido ‘way of the warrior’ concept.
This martial code goes much beyond the normal Western code of military honour not to lie, cheat, and steal. While it has often been described as an ‘unwritten code’, it has of course been studied by academics. Approximately seven main virtues have been ascribed to this code – righteousness, courage, benevolence, respect, sincerity, honour, and loyalty, together with three associated virtues, namely filial piety, wisdom, and fraternal respect.
When the historical influence of the bushido code combined with the development of Thai paternalism and neo-absolutism during the Bhumibol Period, the overall effect has been an extremely strong social bonding of the military within the Establishment, with an emphasis on loyalty. This common code underpins the framework described by scholars of a Thai ‘un-state’ or ‘network monarchy’.
Sincerity to, and honour within, this internal code also over-rules concepts of how sincerity and honour apply to wider society, as was witnessed in the horrific treatment of Western prisoners during the construction of the infamous Death Railway. The Thai internal code of the Year/Class system and superiors/juniors explains why the immediate response of the Thai military to the arrest of the most senior Thai military figure implicated in human trafficking, Lt. Gen. Manas Kongpan, was to rally round with immediate expressions of support, thereby subverting the work of the judicial system.
The intimidation of student activists’ families as well as those of the slain and fallen is apparently seen as perfectly honourable by the military, as this bringing of the private sphere into the public through terrorising and harassment is in accordance with some of the tenets of psychological warfare. Yet, the military needs to carefully question whether this involvement of innocents is justifiable. The bushido concept is a dated one, unsuitable for protecting a country’s sovereignty in the 21st century.
Nowhere in the Thai military’s 12 Core Values, an update to the 12 Cultural Mandates, does it say that bullying, intimidation, and harassment of innocents is justifiable. Furthermore, the development of a ‘national security’ learning culture implied by the 12 Core Values and currently being implemented by the Ministry of Education is incompatible with a true learning culture, the development of critical thinking, and the education of people who know how to think well rather than ‘good people’ who can follow orders but cannot think for themselves.
That the Thai military appears to be unaware that an advanced level of acquisition of morality must be acquired within a modern education system by a nuanced and critical approach to moral ambiguity casts serious doubt on their own understanding of honour. It also begs the question of what would happen if more people were to blur the line between the private and public spheres, for example by focusing on General Prayut’s wife, Naraporn, or two daughters, Thanya and Tittha, both one-time members of a punk rock band, or on the alternative lifestyle choices of the children of His Majesty King Bhumibol. Some things are simply not done, and the Thai military must realize this or risk taking a route which will lead to them being seen as dishonourable thugs. Worse, they could be accused of failing their own 12 Core Values morality test, specifically nos. 2 – “Be honest, be willing to sacrifice for others, be tolerant, and adhere to principled ideas, all for the common good” and 6 – “Be moral, be truthful, wish others well, be generous, and share with others.”