The paranoia, poor issues management and cack-handed propaganda that casts doubt over the competence of Thailand’s military junta were laid bare when Mockingjay — Part 1, the third film in the Hollywood sci-fi franchise The Hunger Games, was yanked off the screen by one cinema on Friday and slammed by the nation’s Prime Minister, former army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Six months in, the junta appears set to extend its original timetable for holding elections and returning the nation to “democracy”, senior businesspeople who have recently held meetings with ministers in the new government tell Crikey.
Martial law, lifted just four months after the 2006 coup, remains in place, and there’s no sign of any respite, leaving citizens stripped of normal legal protection and at the mercy of courts-martial. Progress has been slow on appointments to several key new bodies charged with reinventing Thailand by way of a new constitution — the country’s 20th in 80 years — and myriad other reforms.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
The media remains under strict censorship more reminiscent of Communist China than a wannabe democracy. “It has been necessary to request the media to curtail presentation of information that could intensify tensions, including unverified news,” Prayuth said. Prayuth’s junta has also ramped up the prosecution of Thailand’s famously oppressive lese-majeste, which forbids the publication of any negative stories about senior members of the royal family. It is within this context of rigid censorship that the hit movie franchise featuring Jennifer Lawrence has been blacklisted.
The Hunger Games films present as heroes revolutionaries determined to destroy the wealthy, elite aristocracy who rule a dystopian, future United States by suppressing the rest of the nation into grinding poverty. The broad similarities to Thailand and other developing countries, to greater or lesser extent, are unmistakable.
The celluloid revolutionaries that have so unsettled the Thai junta use a salute that raises the middle three fingers. As life imitates art, this salute has been adopted as an unofficial symbol against Thailand’s ruling government. Following a speech by Prayuth in the north-eastern hub of Kohn Kaen, a major base of the opposition Red Shirts, students raised the salute at military units in protest — five were detained.
Prayuth’s comments are just the latest in a series of paternalistic edicts by the government, exhorting Thailand’s people to “be happy” and end the political conflict. But it’s hard to swallow that a career soldier can seriously believe that directives from on high can help end conflict.
The military is all too keen to avoid handing back power too soon. The junta sees this as a major error that was made after the previous 2006 coup — elections were held 15 months after that coup — which resulted in major projects initiated by the military not being fulfilled by the Democrat Party government. These policy failures contributed to its heavy defeat in the 2011 poll, in which Yingluck Shinawatra swept to power.
“The media remains under strict censorship more reminiscent of Communist China than a wannabe democracy.”
In a further effort to exert full control of all government departments and ensure its agenda is rubber-stamped without fuss, the junta’s ruling body, the National Council for Peace and Order, has constituted three new bodies stacked with the Bangkok elites and their mates: a new National Legislative Assembly (which named Prayuth as Thailand’s latest Prime Minister); a National Reform Council, which will develop a “reform roadmap”; and the Constitution Drafting Committee.
Still, the elephant in the room is the royal succession. Thailand’s revered and increasingly frail 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is due to be succeeded by Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. He has only a fraction of the support of his father, who attained godlike status in the country due to generations of deliberate inculcation into a national personality cult.
Most analysts see the succession as the fundamental raison d’etre for the coup, the final act in a tightly choreographed six-month program to discredit the Yingluck government. The former prime minister herself may be be charged with corruption after Thailand ‘s anti-graft watchdog has recommended she face trial. She also faces impeachment for alleged mismanagement of the economically disastrous rice-pledging scheme, which has cost the country upwards of US$20 billion.
From the first day of street protests led by former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, Thai people have been demanding reforms. The Red Shirts’ discontent arises from the fact vast swathes of the country survive on subsistence agriculture and average wages — front staff in major hotels chains, for instance earn between 12,000-15,000 baht (about $420-$520) per month. Contrast that with the wealth of Thailand’s ruling family, which has been estimated at in excess of US$30 billion.
So far, the junta’s rare wins have been almost exclusively economic. The most significant of these has been fast-tracked plans to clear a decades-long backlog of major port, rail and roads projects by successive governments — delays that have chipped away at Thailand’s competitiveness.
The junta also faces a flatlining economy, which is now forecast to grow at only 1% this year, a prospect unforeseen 12 months ago as protests began to roil Bangkok’s streets. Exports, the economy’s main driver, continue to struggle amid the continued weak global growth recovery, now being exacerbated by slower-than-expected growth in China. The tourism industry is 10% of GDP, and visitor numbers have dropped 11% so far this year, compared to 20% growth in 2013. And the price for the country’s two main cash crops (rice and rubber) remain in the doldrums in oversupplied markets now bumping up against slowing growth. This has thrown up the thorny challenge of boosting growth and the Bank of Thailand may cut interest rates next month if current conditions continue, economists say, and fresh government stimulus can be expected.
Still, for now, the Red Shirts and other supporters of the Thaksinite parties — elected democratically on six occasions, but deposed within one electoral cycle — remain selectively critical but appear to be keeping their political powder dry.
Thai cinema-goers gave the government three fingers at the weekend when Mockingjay’s opening weekend box office, in the wake of the government’s twitchy over-reaction, was up 20% on the franchises previous instalment Catching Fire.
Prayuth and his shadowy backers in the Bangkok elite continue with their so-called “reform agenda”, effectively excluding the party that, since the 2001 election, has represented the majority Thai people, rather than the combined weight of voters bank accounts. It’s a potential time bomb, far more concerning for the people of Thailand and the Asia-Pacific in the shape of a real, rather than fantasy, revolution.