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How Thai junta should respond to three-finger protest

Symbols alone will not topple a regime, especially if that regime is a fully-armed, militarised one. Thailand’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) should know that.

A student flashing the sign inspired by The Hunger Games in Bangkok. Last week, five students who flashed the sign in protest against Mr Prayuth Chan-ocha were detained. Photo: Reuters

A student flashing the sign inspired by The Hunger Games in Bangkok. Last week, five students who flashed the sign in protest against Mr Prayuth Chan-ocha were detained. Photo: Reuters

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Symbols alone will not topple a regime, especially if that regime is a fully-armed, militarised one. Thailand’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) should know that.

That is why it is in the junta’s best interests not to push idealistic protesters away to the other side, where a mere symbolic gesture could catch fire. (Last week, soldiers and the police detained five Khon Kaen University law students who flashed a three-finger sign inspired by Hollywood film The Hunger Games in protest against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.)

If General Prayuth cares to watch The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, he will see that while the three-finger sign plays a big part in igniting the revolution, the fight would not be possible without the military prowess of the District 13 rebels.

And as the movie shows, suppression only fuels the resistance. Soldiers in real life are often like the film’s Peacekeepers, ruthless enforcers for the dictatorial regime. Their heavy-handed approach — arresting, gagging and barring people from discussing the country’s problems — provokes anger and further defiance.

If the junta keeps adding pressure, soon the resentment could come to a boil. The NCPO does not want that and neither should this country go through yet more turmoil. That is why it is in the junta’s best interests to relax its iron grip and start allowing people who disagree with it to air their opinions, as long as they do it in peaceful ways.

Better yet, the NCPO could take the high ground and earn international plaudits if it reaches out to these activists and academics, listens to them and takes into account what they have to say.

IS PRAYUTH OUT OF TOUCH?

Two anecdotes from last week’s incident in Khon Kaen province illustrate why it is futile for the military to meet protests with oppression.

The first occurred right after the five students were detained. On the backs of each of their T-shirts were the words, Mai, Ao, Rath, Pra, Harn, or “Say no to the coup”. The authorities must have known by then the students were there to spread the anti-coup message, to let the world see the sentence printed on their shirts.

However, even after the students were loaded onto the back of a police truck, the officers did not have the wit to separate them and jumble the message. They were hauled away shackled in the same line-up: Say no to the coup.

The authorities’ reaction was thus a double failure. They not only showed the world they have no tolerance even for only a handful of students, but they also lack the ability to understand the purpose of the symbolic act. Without any skill in modern communication, the junta is doomed to fail in the guerrilla game of symbolic defiance.

The other shortcoming came from Gen Prayuth himself. While the Premier must be praised for his calm reaction in the face of the protest, he tried to deflect the situation by saying he thought the protest was part of a kratua taeng sua performance, a reference that reveals just how old-fashioned he is.

Most people would have to turn to Google to know anything about this archaic performance, which features a hunter fighting against a man-eating tiger. Even people who perform this show admit that it is slow-paced, not that fun and unpopular among the younger generation.

I understand that the Prime Minister was only trying to lighten up the atmosphere during the three-finger protest and the ensuing arrests with his kratua taeng sua remark. But the comment was starkly out of sync with the contemporary protest gesture in front of him, inspired by an international blockbuster.

Gen Prayuth’s conjuring of a traditional Thai performance to counter a Hollywood-inspired protest is symbolic of his thinking, which generally favours a return to Thai conservatism over the embrace of international values. He has hinted many times of his intention to build a “Thai-style democracy”. To him, this is a kind of political order he believes will be less turbulent than the Western-style model, based on election supremacy, that seems to have cast so much conflict over the country during the past decades.

However, it remains to be seen whether Gen Prayuth’s version of democracy, to be based supposedly on individual morality and traditional Thai virtues, will come out like a kratua taeng sua performance that struggles to find an audience in the age when an anti-oppression message adopted by movies such as The Hunger Games is capturing people’s aspirations.

Symbols will not topple a military regime, that is true. It does not mean, though, that dealing with these symbolic acts of defiance will not be a challenge for the NCPO. BANGKOK POST

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Atiya Achakulwisut is a contributing editor at the Bangkok Post.

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