There can be little doubt that Thailand is one of the stranger places in a world that finds itself rapidly descending into madness. Thailand seems to embrace and internalize this trend for global psychosis faster and easier than your average nation. The opinions of your average Thai person are subject to change more often than a bar girls underpants.
One idea that is fashionable with the youth of the country today, is drawing a parallel between their current military dictatorship and the book, movie franchise, ‘The Hunger Games’. Let me start of by saying both are utterly ineffective at what they aim to do. Suzanne Collins’ trilogy is a banal and disappointing effort that jumped on the zeitgeist of the dystopian novel bandwagon. It promises much but leaves you feeling cheated and unfulfilled. It is possible to say exactly the same about Thailand’s current cabaret act of a government. General Prayud is a leader demanding the respect of his nation. No doubt he has been used to receiving respect in the army as a senior ranking officer, but unfortunately for him he is quickly learning that having been given no mandate to rule leaves him vulnerable to ridicule. When he swept to power sat astride the barrel of a tank, he had all the buoyant, optimistic enthusiasm of any other megalomaniac. But, time is starting to take its toll as each day he starts to realize the authority he enjoyed inside the walls of a barracks falls on less receptive ears in the streets and paddy fields. Today he cuts a somewhat diminutive figure and is often shown on the news shuffling around like a clown at the end of another laughless day.
And it is there that any similarities between the books and Thailand really end, both of them promised to deliver great entertainment but instead left the public feeling disappointed and ashamed of themselves for having fallen for what amounts to little more than a cheap marketing campaign.
The anti coup activists have hijacked the movie for two reasons. Firstly the movie presents a barbaric, oppressive, totalitarian government and secondly they have no sense of proportion. Yes General Prayuth is a dictator who seized power undemocratically via a military coup. To the best of my knowledge he has yet to force large areas of Thailand into borderline starvation, in fact I’ve actually put on weight since the coup nor has he started to hold bizarre competitions that require children to slaughter one another. I know it’s still early days but I’m still hopeful that he is not capable of such barbarism.
The release of the first part of what is the final book in the trilogy, does however pose a real threat to the Junta. In a digital world ideas and fads spread fast, maybe even more so if it’s a shallow fad based on a bad idea. Through mass communications popular culture can quickly become an irrepressible storm surge of ill informed opinion, created by the most brutish and banal elements of a society (in this case Hollywood). The Hunger Games were poor books with a facile message and the movies are certainly no better, but they appeal to the masses who have drawn this crude link between the struggles of the story’s heroine Katniss Everdeen, and their situation of living under an undemocratic ruling military government. The accuracy of how well the story reflects Thailand’s circumstances is no longer of importance, what matters is that the Thai people have a symbol under which they have found an identity and can unify, a symbol that represents their decision not to conform. Only a fool underestimates the strength of symbols and their ability to galvanize the masses, history is so full of examples that there is no need nor time to develop this truism.The three fingered salute, a reference to District 12 the home of Katniss, symbolizes a struggle against oppression. Whether the Thai people are really suffering oppression right now is a moot point. It’s true that the military coup took the only thing of any value, a constitutional right to vote, that some Thais have, and it’s difficult to find a sense of justice in that. The General and his military circus are taking this threat seriously though, the three fingered salute was banned at the beginning of June, but, all this has really done is to add to its mystique and to its power as a cultural symbol. Should the army really crack down on dissidents using the three fingered salute, there is perhaps an even more appropriate salute that requires the use of two less fingers.
A measure of the General’s hubris was witnessed yesterday, when it was somewhat optimistically decided that it would be good idea to go and make friends with the people of Isaan, in the northeast of Thailand. Isaan is a notorious stronghold of the Thaksin family, the family responsible for much of this mess as a result of their populist policies, and when the General began his speech at Khon Kaen University four (according to The Bangkok Post) or five (according to CNN) anti – coup protestors gave him the three fingered salute. They were quickly detained and will face a charge of breaking martial law.
With the movie due for release today there are a growing number of news websites reporting that the film is being pulled. Such a course of action only highlights the desperation and fragility of the Junta’s position. Any government that feels so threatened by a facile piece of popular entertainment is clearly without a strong mandate to lead a country. That is saying nothing about the flagrant use of censorship and manipulation of the media they feel is needed to maintain their position.
Interesting though it is, that popular culture and mass media are able to unsettle a country, what is worrying is the quality of the material that has provided the motivation and how this might be manipulated in the future.
Insofar as Thailand is concerned, none of this matters. If over time the governments of Thailand have conclusively proved one thing it’s that they have no idea what they are doing. It really makes no difference who you put in charge of messing things up. The brilliant mind of Carl Sagan perhaps says it best:
One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”