Book nerd PM: Prayut’s new image?

After Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha’s recommendation of Animal Farm last month created a small wave of George Orwell fever sweeping through the Thai internet, last Tuesday (11 June), he also recommended that Thais read Aesop’s Fables for moral guidance. It appears that Gen Prayut is trying to create a new image for himself as an intellectual, bookish Prime Minister. Not only is he recommending books, he is also sporting a pair of glasses.

Left: the letter from the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand
Right: Gen Prayut holding a copy of Aesop's Fables

But this image seems to only be skin-deep. On Thursday (13 June), a number of publishers received a letter from the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand, asking them to send books to the Prime Minister so he can recommend them.

The letter stated that because the Department of Cultural Promotion, Ministry of Culture, is organizing “the Prime Minister’s weekly book recommendation” activity in order to promote reading and to support the national strategy of developing human capital, the Association is asking publishers to send copies of books they would like Gen Prayut to recommend, along with a form containing the details and a summary of the book.

The letter also listed the requirements for the book to be submitted:

  1. The book could be of any genre or type that is suitable to every age group.
  2. The content should be relevant to current situation, but not a political satire.
  3. The book should be about morals, ethics, and proper behaviour.
  4. The book should be inspirational and give hope in living.
  5. The book should promote determination in the face of obstacles.
  6. The book should promote the preservation of the environment.

Many publishers spoke out against the request. Bodthajorn Publishing editor Warong Lupaiboon wrote on his Facebook page that “Bodthajorn publishes translated literature. From what I know, the important idea that gives literature meaning in the modern world is the idea of liberty, so I think that this would not go with our method. But there many kinds of books, so there is probably a book that suits the project.”

Piyavit Tepumnuaysakul, editor of Sommadhi Books, who recently published a Thai edition of Orwell’s 1984, posted on the publisher’s Facebook page that he felt “very angry” and “depressed and hopeless” when he saw the email from the Association.

Vachira Buason, editor of Samanchon Books, wrote that the publisher does not wish to associate with the Prime Minister in any way, and that the Association should not try to serve an individual to such a degree that causes trouble for others in the profession. Vachira said that since the Association has recently published a handbook of recommended books, there should be no need for the Association to be asking publishers to send over books.

Read Italy, a small independent press specializing in translations of Italian literature, posted a question on their Facebook page asking why the government does not buy the books themselves.

“Why doesn’t the government set up a budget of 1300 million to get the books, instead of asking for free copies? Most publishers can barely survive as it is. You want us to send free copies and even summarize information for you. How convenient.” 

For Makut Onrudee, editor of Butterfly Book, the Ministry of Culture made a mistake in making such a request, since it shows that the Ministry has not thought this through, because people in the profession have not been reacting well to both the Association and the Prime Minister.

“This kind of case, if people understand the publishing system and think it through, there are many other ways of doing things, but not like what has been in the news and embarrassing to all of us, both the government and publishing circles.”

Meanwhile, Gammagie Publishing, another small independent press specializing in translations and the Thai publisher for the bestselling Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, simply posted a picture on their Facebook page: a black square with the sentence “Sorry. We’re not submitting” printed in white.

After receiving this negative feedback, the Association has announced that they are postponing the call for submissions. Meanwhile, Thai netizens see through Prayut's attempt to remake himself. Many Twitter users could be seen posting the same thing: if he is really a reader, why would he need someone else to send him a list of books to recommend?