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“Bike for Dad” a triumphant tour de force for palace-military alliance?

The December 11 Bike for Dad’ cycling event was personally sponsored and led by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. The event attracted 99,999 people (registered) in Bangkok as well as thousands in 77 provinces (498,105 registered) and approximately 9,800 Thais in 66 cities in 52 countries worldwide, coordinated by a sophisticated operation and website. In total, 703,792 Thais registered for the event. His Royal Highness the Crown Prince was accompanied along the route by his daughter, HRH Princess Bajrakitiyabha, daughter of Her Royal Highness Princess Soamsawali, together with HRH Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, daughter of Sujarinee Vivacharawongse.

The event was organized to build on the success of the ‘Bike for Mom’ event in order to promote cycling and to show His Royal Highness’ love for his father, His Royal Highness Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was 88 on December 5 (my first son’s birthday!), and it also demonstrates the firm mutually supportive stance of the palace and the military government, which was well represented and led by General Prayut Chan-ocha himself. This alliance, together with respect for religions, and more recently ‘the people’, is the first of the state-mandated ‘12 Core Values of Thai People’ and has been at the heart of the Thai nation state since its inception.

Bike for Dad – His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn’s personal dedication to his father, His Majesty King Bhumibol

The event was a lavish affair, with tens of thousands of royal souvenir pins and t-shirts being displayed. Unfortunately, a lèse-majesté case was filed by one person against Nakhon Sawan provincial authorities over the belief he had received a fake t-shirt.

During the event, which started at the Royal Plaza and followed a 29-kilometer route, there were multiple rest stops to meet the people and to view an exhibition Throughout, HRH the Crown Prince and his children looked relaxed and waved repeatedly to an appreciative crowd. As remarked upon in a previous column on the Bike for Mom event, the Buddhist Singalakasutta specifically calls upon children to look after their parents, help them in their business and work, continue the family line, conduct oneself as is proper for an heir, etc., and the event was highly successful in portraying His Royal Highness as fulfilling this role, the second of such a public nature. Moreover, it successfully depicted His Royal Highness as a family man himself, with his daughters leading waves of riders and clearly enjoying the event.

General Prayut emphasized the event was to promote unity behind the monarchy in Friday’s regularly televised address, which was moved to Saturday: “The special cycling event, Bike for Dad, has just concluded with great success, in correspondence with the aspirations of His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.” It was highly successful in the aim of showing solidarity, important to Thailand as “This bodes well for Thailand as we look forward to facing increasingly complex global challenges and as we are on the verge of the Asean Economic Community”. There were no protests whatsoever against the monarchy at the event either in Bangkok or in the provinces, despite an ongoing investigation into nine people related to the ‘Khon Kaen Model’ group, which had supposedly been plotting to attack the ‘Bike for Dad’ event, though this line of investigation has been challenged and the alleged insurgents were apparently not targeting the monarchy but General Prayut and Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon.

As with the Bike for Mom event, it is difficult to judge people’s actual attitudes towards the Thai monarchy. Given the sensitivity of the issue and the country’s uniquely strict lèse-majesté laws, major Thai publications usually do not permit comments on stories involving royalty. For example, the Bangkok Post often uses the following statement: “The discussion board on this article has been turned off, because commenting on the above issue may cause legal dispute. More information in our terms of use”, though this was not applied to many of the stories covering the ‘Bike for Dad’ event.

One possible clue as regards actual sentiment comes from the Bangkok Post’s like/dislike feature on articles, from which a ratio can be obtained on stories. ‘Dislikes’ seem to suggest not unhappiness with the style of writing so much as disagreement with the content. The following stories are therefore relevant, with the ratio accurate at the time of writing:

No.

Date

Story title

Likes/Dislikes

L/D Ratio

1

13/1/2/2015

Crown Prince says thanks to cyclists

4/1

80:20

2*

12/12/2015

Prayut declares biking event 'a great success'

16/163

10:90

3

12/12/2015

Hundreds of thousands honour King

1/5

17:83

4

12/12/2015

Diplomats join 'Bike for Dad' [Learning Post]

4/3

57:43

5

12/12/2015

Diplomats ride along at 'Bike for Dad'

11/26

30:70

6*

11/12/2015

"Bike for Dad," a national success (Updated Saturday) [Learning Post]

12/12

50:50

7*

11/12/2015

Across country, around world, Thais 'Bike for Dad'

63/177

26:74

8*

9/12/2015

Bangkok closes 103 schools Friday for 'Bike for Dad'

2/40

5:95

9*

9/12/2015

Chinese ambassador presents 99 bicycles

7/32

18:82

10*

7/12/2015

Govt wants Friday as unofficial paid holiday [Learning Post]

1/7

13:87

11

6/12/2015

30,000 security forces gather for Bike for Dad rehearsal

3/62

5:95

12*

6/12/2015

Extra leave day sought for Dec 11

14/105

12:88

13

5/12/2015

Thailand celebrates the King's birthday [Learning Post]

19/10

66:34

14*

3/12/2015

Tolls lifted on 2 expressways for 'Bike for Dad'

1/19

5:95

15

3/12/2015

85 road routes in Bangkok to be closed for 'Bike for Dad'

1/5

17:83

16*

29/11/2015

'Bike for Dad' riders get into gear

3/66

4:96

17*

21/11/2015

Big 'Bike for Dad' rehearsal Sunday

3/51

6:94

* Includes comments

 

With the Bike for Mom event, the Like/Dislike ratio tended towards more ‘likes’ over time, suggesting that the event was a success in terms of promoting the popularity of His Royal Highness the Crown Prince. However, with the present set of stories, there is no obvious trend, and it is not at all clear why people have been disliking stories. Considering only stories with over 50 Likes and Dislikes, with Story 17, there were three comments commenting on the route, while with Story 16, the main concern seems to have been CCTV cameras. With Story 12, there were 14 comments, mainly critical of the large number of holidays in Thailand and the effect on the economy. For Story 11, there were no comments, thus it is very difficult to understand why 62 people disliked the content regarding security preparations. Turning to Story 7, there were two comments, about wearing helmets. However, there is no obvious content in the story which might explain the large number of dislikes. Finally, turning to Story 2, there were nine comments, some of which regarded the bicycling casualties mentioned in the article. However, one specifically criticized the event as an example of a group mentality which would not assist Thailand in innovating its way past the middle income trap, while another criticized the event’s effects on travelers. Nonetheless, again the large number of dislikes is difficult to explain.

This investigation of the Likes/Dislikes on Bangkok Post columns for the Bike for Dad event has become all the more relevant following the Thai military’s decision within the last week to make clicking ‘Like’ on Facebook pictures or posts deemed offensive a crime, whether it be sedition or lèse-majesté, a decision which may lead to hundreds more being charged with lèse-majesté. However, as the above attempted analysis seeks to illustrate, it is not simple to understand why people may dislike or like articles – nor is Facebook the only platform with such a system. In taking the decision to investigate how Thai people like (and presumably dislike) on the Internet, the Thai military has moved one step closer to implementing George Orwell’s concept of thoughtcrime – ‘crimethink’ – as detected by the Thought Police and reported to the Ministry of Love via the technology of telescreens in the novel 1984.

Such a line of inquiry risks a logic in which thousands of lèse-majesté investigations are initiated, which would, sooner or later, provoke a societal reaction whereby the slogan ‘All Thais love the monarchy’ becomes a hollow mantra. One of the mechanisms through which this would occur is ‘Labelling theory’, where those who are labelled social deviants become deviants not because it is their true nature but because they are labelled as such. In other words, labelling people anti-monarchists and ‘not Thai’ in large numbers will create such people. Moreover, the nature of Thai society is highly networked, thus social contacts as well as extended family members can easily lead to entire ethnicities or social classes becoming aware that growing numbers of members of their communities are being labelled, as in the ‘Red Buffalo’ phenomenon whereby Red Shirts eventually came to ‘own’ the label through the Kwai Dang Community and develop their own ‘Red Buffalo’ Line stickers. Thus, the ‘crimethink’ logic would seem to defeat the entire purpose of solidarity-creating events such as ‘Bike for Dad’, which is a pity given that respect for fathers should be a universal human value.

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