Magazine article New Internationalist

King and Country

Magazine article New Internationalist

King and Country

Article excerpt

The military set up a checkpoint opposite Saowanee Alexander's workplace last year, shortly after the coup. The makeshiftfour-poled tent over the road from Ubon Ratchathani University is staffed by five or six conscripts each day. They patrol the campus in a pickup truck, eventually taking their leave at midnight.

Saowanee doesn't see it as a 'serious' checkpoint. Rather, 'they want to let us know that they are here, and make us feel their presence'.

Since the coup on 22 May last year, Thailand's military government, the National Council for Peace and Order, has really started to make its mark on everyday life in the Southeast Asian country. The military are in the streets and on the TV, and they have started joining the police in clamping down on petty crime. In July last year tourists on Patong Beach were surprised to see 100 troops making their way down the sandy stretch to evict vendors who were - as the district chief explained - 'blocking the beach'.

The military have even made it into the national school curriculum. Children are required to learn and recite a list of 12 traditional 'core Thai values', written by the country's Prime Minister, former general Prayuth Chan-ocha.* Just to make sure they are remembered, the government has released a special set of online stickers.

The Prime Minister holds a weekly address to the nation called 'returning happiness to the people', which he uses to make it explicitly clear what he expects of the country's 67 million citizens. They often fail to live up to his expectations.

Flawless values

Rangsan (not his real name), a fashion journalist from Bangkok, was searching the internet last year when he saw a green message. It read: 'The website you are accessing has inappropriate information. It has been blocked by the Ministry of ICT Thailand.' The mistake he had made was searching for porn. Despite the fact Thailand is an international sex-tourism destination, the junta does not countenance its own citizens watching porn online.

'They censor everything that they think is not right or is not proper for Thai people, like we are so clean and well-behaved. It's so wrong,' said Rangsan.

When Nattanan Warintarawet, a high-school student, launched a campaign against the 12 core Thai values, the Education Minister seemed genuinely shocked. 'From 1 to 12, these values are flawless,' Narong Pipatanasai told local media. 'If the imposition of the 12 values is wrong, we have to see if those [opposing this] are abnormal.'

To make sure they avoid awkward situations like this, the military have become proactive. Ten days after the coup, Saowanee and some colleagues at the university were called in by a group of high-ranking officers. 'They basically asked us not to engage in political activity,' she said. 'I don't know what they meant by this. We asked if it was a demand or if we would be followed. They said no, they were just asking us if we could co-operate. They were very courteous, actually.'

Saowanee consciously chose to ignore this request for self-censorship, and she remains vocal, but there is one thing which she doesn't feel safe talking about: the King.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87, plays a pivotal role in Thai politics despite his advanced years. The law stipulates that his honour is so important that no-one should defame or insult him, or the monarchy in general. The offence is called lèse majesté, and the punishment is up to 15 years in jail. Previous cases suggest that it is no defence if the statement in question is in fact true.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, an academic from Bangkok, was charged with lèse majesté in 2009. He learned that his trial would be held in secret, and the outcome was 'done and dusted' before it had even taken place. Within a month he lefthis friends, his home, his job, and moved to Britain.

'I was charged eventually with eight counts of lèse majesté,' he said, 'and I could have been put in prison for 10 years for each of them. …

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