Thailand’s ‘Newspeak’: Orwell’s worst nightmare just got real

 

Thailand’s junta always obsessed about ‘the power of language’ although such obsession never helps improve its popularity. This article shows how the junta during the past two years has reframed and redefined political terminology of Thailand. 
 
‘Newspeak’ is a word appearing in George Orwell's famous novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Wikipedia gives a very brief but conclusive definition of the term, saying that ‘it is a controlled language created by the totalitarian state … as a tool to limit freedom of thought, and concepts that pose a threat to the regime such as freedom, self-expression, individuality, and peace. Any form of thought alternative to the party’s construct is classified as “thoughtcrime”.’
 
 
George Orwell (source: Reason and Meaning)
 
For two years since the 2014 coup was staged, the junta has shown that it takes the novel as a bible. The junta’s method of propaganda, surveillance, and thought control are similar to what Orwell portrayed in the novel in a less intense form. 
 
Throughout Thai political history, the pro-establishment wings have always shown their obsession with political terminology. Although a change of words rarely leads to any tangible political outcomes, the establishment always prefers the public and media to use its invented terms.
 
For example, during the political crackdown against the red-shirt protests in 2010, the Democrat Party, the then government, told the media to use the term ‘tightening the space’ to refer to the government’s attempt to reclaim the red-shirt protest site in the middle of Bangkok which ended as a bloody crackdown with the loss of almost 100 lives. Sukhumbhand Paribatra, the current Bangkok Governor from the Democrat Party, has said that the recent sudden flood in Bangkok is actually rather just ‘water waiting to be drained.’
 
The newspeak tactic, therefore, is an occasional feature of Thai politics, especially from the pro-establishment political wings. However, newspeak under the current junta has been invoked more often than at any other time in modern Thai political history. In this article, Prachatai presents you just nine examples.

1. It is an ‘attitude adjustment session,’ not detention 

 
Intimidation is one of the junta’s greater concerns. Although the junta was repeatedly condemned by various sectors for its practices of intimidation, it barely changes anyone’s behaviour.  The junta usually deals with the issue by newspeak, in the hope that things sound less severe.
 
The term “attitude adjustment” was the very first example of newspeak by the junta. After the coup was staged, the junta repeatedly summoned people to military camps, mostly politicians, media personnel and activists seen as a threat to it. The military has the power to detain them for up to seven days. Neither media nor lawyers are allowed into the camps. It is basically arbitrary detention without charge or court oversight. The detainees are lectured by military personnel about the necessity of having the junta in power. 
 
But the junta claims that is just ‘attitude adjustment’ which is necessary for those who might misunderstand the junta’s ‘goodwill’ and direction. Later, when the term ‘attitude adjustment’ gained a negative connotation, the junta said that they preferred the term ‘talk for a better understanding’ although the form of detention is pretty much the same.
 
“It is not about adjusting your attitude like the junta tries to claim. They just simply asked you to remain silent,” said Watana Muangsuk, an embattled Pheu Thai politician who has been summoned four times.

2. It is not a ‘military visit’, it’s just a ‘coffee talk’.

 
In some cases, the junta authorities, mostly soldiers, have approached individuals, including journalists, academics and politicians, who have criticized the junta regime. This is an alternative form of intimidation since an official summons for attitude adjustment usually triggers public outrage. 
 
Generally, such visits take place in a public cafe or restaurant and the military will treat its guests to coffee or tea. Therefore, the junta always says that what they do is not intimidation, but rather just a chilling ‘coffee talk’.  
 
“Although they (the junta personnel) treated me well and politely, it is anyway ‘polite’ intimidation. It makes me feel that the freedom of expression and criticism against the government which we used to have under elected governments has gone,” said Pravit Rojanaphruk, a senior reporter who was invited to a so-called coffee talk with the military. 

3. They are not ‘junta opponents’. They are ‘influential figures’.

 
On 29 March 2016, the junta issued NCPO Order No. 13/2016 which grants the military police-like powers to crack down on local mafia and ‘influential figures’ across the countries. The order immediately raised international concerns since it is equal to extra-juridical power. The EU delegates, the Canadian government, the US Department of State, and various international organizations simultaneously issued statements condemning the order.
 
When it came into practice, the public increasingly condemned the order since the so-called ‘influential figures’ who were prosecuted under the order are mostly junta opponents including community rights advocates, human rights defenders, and social activists.
 
“Currently I am terrified of the accusation of unwittingly being a Mafia or influential figure. I would not have worried if I were on my own, but my family would suffer hardship without me,” said Anan Thongmani, a community leader who was alleged to be an ‘influential figure’ for opposing an eviction and demolition order of the junta.  
 

4. It is not silence, it is ‘reconciliation’ 

 
The junta is among the worst political silencers Thailand has ever experienced. Any attempt at criticism of the junta, the draft constitution, or the referendum is prohibited. The junta’s silencing method is pretty interesting. It rarely bans or shuts down the media directly, but rather issues a variety of laws making the media too paranoid to do their work freely. For instance, whenever reports on the anti-draft charter campaign are published, the ‘Vote No’ message on a campaigner’s t-shirt is usually deleted out of concern that the message could breach the controversial Referendum Act.   
 
The closer to the August referendum, the more intense intimidation gets. In the past month, the junta has set a new standard of intimidation by arresting a journalist, summoning a journalist’s wife, prosecuting an activist’s mother, and pressing charges against children under the legal age. However, all of these violations of human rights practices were justified for the sake of so-called “social reconciliation.”
 
Right after they staged the coup in 2014, the junta told the public that Thailand had suffered from political dissent for more than a decade. Therefore, the junta would rebuild social reconciliation and ‘return happiness to all Thai people’. To achieve their promise, the junta has made various efforts to make sure that no one would think differently from what the junta wants them to think. In fact, the real root cause of Thailand’s political dissent, such as economic inequality, discrimination against provincial people, and disrespect for different thinking, have barely improved under the junta. Instead, they were intensified.
 
“Never expect reconciliation from Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, I’ve said so many times that Gen Prayut does not understand social conflict and the concept of reconciliation,” said Chaturon Chaisang, an embattled Pheu Thai politician. “Reconciliation is not when everyone in society thinks in the same way. On the contrary, it is where people can think as differently as possible but still can be together peacefully,”  

5. Do not call them ‘activists’, call them ‘lawbreakers’

 
The junta is obsessed with the laws and orders they have written themselves. They usually issue regulations with severe punishments to prohibit people from sharing opinions against them. This is to make sure the country will move forward peacefully and silently. In only two years, a variety of authoritarian regulations, including NCPO Order No. 3/2015, the Public Assembly Act and the Draft Referendum Act, were issued. The junta has just approved an amendment of the controversial Computer Crimes Act to increase punishment and surveillance measures. The junta even once used the Public Cleanliness Act to press charges against pro-democracy activists when it could not prosecute them under more authoritarian laws.
 
Despite various concerns from human rights groups, the junta never hesitates to impose these laws on their opponents. Apart of the number of laws, due process under the junta is also corrupted. Under NCPO Orders No. 3/2015 and 13/2016, the junta can search, arrest, and detain people for up to seven days, without an official warrant or permission from the court. 
 
Is this a human rights violation? No, do not call it that. The junta justifies these authoritarian practices, saying that it does not have to care about the human rights of those who break the law. 
 
“Don’t think that way. I didn’t arrest students [activists], I arrested lawbreakers. There’s the law and I do everything in accordance with the law,” said Prawit Wongsuwan, the deputy junta head, after the media asked whether the arrest of student activists is a human rights violation. He also added that if the junta had not arrested them, there was no point in having the law.

6. It is not an authoritarian regime, it is a ‘transition period’.

 
“Transition period” is arguably the most common tern in the junta’s newspeak. Whenever the junta faces public criticism, it usually repeats this term to remind the public that this is not a normal political climate where people can freely express their ideas. However, the junta never explicitly explains where exactly the ‘transition’ is going to end – in democracy, semi-democracy, a full military regime, or the era of the new throne.
 
“This is a transition period. There will be a lot of time to talk about freedom after the charter draft is ratified. We’re now in need of peace and order. So don’t ask me again. If anyone breaches the law, I will catch them all,” Prawit Wongsuwan. 
 
The junta’s draft charter, which will be subjected to the 7 August referendum, makes it more or less clear that the term ‘transition period’ could be interpreted as the junta’s attempt to transform Thailand’s politics back to an authoritarian military regime by various mechanisms. 
 
For instance, the additional question in the referendum asks voters whether they want to give 250 junta-appointed senators the power to vote jointly with the House of Representatives to select a PM. The draft will also allow the junta to set up a 20-year-long national strategic plan which future elected governments have to follow whether they like it or not. Worst of all, every authoritarian order which has been issued by the junta will remain even if the draft is ratified. 

7. This is not a dictatorship. This is a 99.99 per cent democracy.

 
Dealing with media is not what the junta is good at. It often makes clownish statements, either by intention or just a slip of the tongue, and the Thai media never lets a single slip go unreported. The junta is concerned about the issue and begs the media to use proper terminology. It once asked the media to avoid using terms with a negative connotation such as ‘overstate’, ‘threaten’, and ‘deny’. In the worst case, they even suggest to the media what kind of story should be published although most media rarely complies with its suggestions. 
 
On 23 March 2015, Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta head, accepted that Thailand under the junta regime is not fully democratic. However, compared with the political situation in neighbouring countries, he said, Thai politics was far better and could be called a 99.99 per cent democracy.
 
“Our country nowadays is 99.99 per cent democratic. I never prohibit anybody from criticizing me, just don’t oppose me. If you were in other countries, you would be probably in jail or executed by shooting,” said Prayut. 
 
However, on 24 June 2015, just about two weeks after Prayut came up with this example of newspeak, 14 student activists, who participated in a commemoration of the 2014 coup, were arrested and later imprisoned for violating the junta’s ban on public gatherings. Apparently, freedom of assembly is not considered part of the so-called 99.99 per cent democracy.  

8. It is not a ‘kickback’. It just a ‘consultant’s fee’.

 
Getting rid of corruption is one of the junta’s main objectives. When it came into power, the junta publicly promised to uproot all forms of corruption from the country. However, corruption is regularly detected under the regime. Instead of instituting serious investigations into corruption scandals, or at least rejecting the allegations, the junta asked the media to use its newly invented newspeak.  
 
On 10 November 2015, Gen Udomdej Sitabutr admitted to the media that there were kickbacks paid in the construction of Rajabhakti Park, a park with seven statues of the prominent past kings of Thailand. As a Chairman of the Rajabhakti Foundation, Udomdej accepted that officials had asked the foundries hired to make the seven statutes to give them kickbacks. However, Udomdej said that all the kickbacks had already been donated to the project, The Nation reported. 
 
The kickbacks were believed to total more than one billion baht.
 
Although this was not the first corruption detected in Thai politics, to officially accept that the scandal is real without any prior investigation is a very rare phenomenon. Therefore, the public demanded a serious investigation into the issue. Udomdej was widely condemned for claiming the royal institution to get kickbacks for his own sake. 
 
However, a self-investigation by the Royal Thai Army concluded that there were no kickbacks in the construction process. There were only huge ‘consultant’s fees.’  

9. It is not a ‘foolish cost.’ It is a ‘fairly expensive cost for knowledge’ 

 
From 2005 to 2009, British businessman James McCormick sold the Royal Thai Army hand-held bomb detectors called GT200. He also sold similar devices called Alpha 6 which were claimed to sniff out narcotics. The devices, which were later discovered to do nothing, cost 900,000 baht to 1.2 million baht each. A total of 772 devices were purchased. When the deals were done, Thailand had spent more than 1 billion baht, reported Khaosod English.
 
In June 2016, after the British court sentenced McCormick to 10 years in jail for selling the bogus devices, the Thai public demanded for a serious investigation to find the officials responsible. The Thai media usually refers to the wasted billion baht as a ‘foolish cost’ (kha ngo). 
 
On 22 June 2016, Wissanu Krea-ngam, Deputy Prime Minister, told the media that the government will sue the vendors for compensation. However, he asked the media to avoid using term ‘foolish cost,’ but rather a ‘fairly expensive cost for knowledge.’
 
“Should it be called a foolish cost? Well, that depends on the media. But it’s not good as it will create the sense that whatever we have paid for is useless. It should be called a cost for better knowledge but it’s just fairly expensive.” said Wissanu.