In the coming February 2019 general elections (if it’s not again delayed), the Thai people will face a choice between a ruthless, corrupt capitalist versus a patriotic soldier, a kind and gentle father-figure – at least this would be the narrative as told by the political communication machine behind General Prayuth Chan-ocha.
The sweetest, most sugar-lathering and diabates-inducing day of the general’s career as a soldier and politician would be if (or when) he wins the general elections.
It would be the day he can tell the entire nation, “See, I told you so.” Thaksin Shinawatra would throw up his hands and say, “ah… fuck it.” Abhisit Vejjajiva would be left with a blank stare, wondering, “They didn’t teach me any of this at Oxford.” Suthep Thuagsuban would run through the streets, blowing into a whistle in jubilations.
With the prizes of continued power and righteous vindication in mind, 2018 has been the year of “Think New, Do New” for the general. Sure, this was a once famous slogan of Thaksin, but the comedic value is too strong to resist here.
Gone are the days when he used to yell, scream, scold, scorn, push podium and point finger, striking the fascistic fear into the hearts of annoying reporters. Well, not quite all gone, but he’s less moody these days. The year 2018 witnesses a kinder and gentler general, one that takes selfie photos with celebrities, throws up K-Pop poses with teenage girl-groups and hugs little school children.
And it’s working, as the latest Dusit Poll suggested, the Thai people prefer the general to Thaksin and Abhisit. Then again, one never has to take a stats class to realize, a poll can be designed to garner the desired results.
If I were to take a poll with the sampling group of the 11th Infantry Regiment Division, of course the general would win. If I were to take a poll with the sampling group of my Facebook friends, then yours truly is set to become Thailand’s next prime minister. This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with Dusit Poll, but only to point out that polls are flawed and corruptible no matter who conducts it.
The key to political communication, otherwise known as propaganda, is to create a narrative. To manage the perception and shape the reality of the public. Every politician does it, and ever since the general declared himself a politician earlier this year, he has been doing it… and doing it reasonably well.
Coup and dictatorship aside, in the first years as prime minister, the general suffered a negative public image. He’s viewed, and rightly so, as crude and crass, an officer, but not so much a gentleman. It might not matter much in a dictatorship, but if one wants to win votes, one must paint a different public image.
Therefore, these days the general is often seen visiting the provinces and meeting with school children, patting them on their heads and offering them fatherly advises and blessings.
As such, last week the general was seen all over the media channels with Japan’s number one pop idol girl-group, ABK48, all smiley and cheery, giving them a tour around his offices.
Before that, he was seen with Thailand’s number one pop idol girl-group, BNK48 (which, like anything else around here, is but a knock-off imitation of Japanese or Korean products), striking cutesy poses and throwing up finger signs, with head tilting just so.
Not only that, Cher-prang, the most famous of BNK48, appeared on the general’s television program “Thailand Moving Forward – The Teen Version”, only a week ago. (Yes, there’s a “Teen Version” of the show.) Furthermore, the general has been doing photo-ops with famous celebrities of popular TV soap operas.
Like anywhere else in the world, a large portion of the Thai public suffers from Celebrity Obsession Disorder, otherwise known as Mad Idol Disease, which is more dangerous than even Mad Cow Disease. The symptom is, when a celebrity says 2 + 2 = 7, the die-hard fan club squeals with sincere conviction and complete enthusiasm, “greeeeeed, you are a mathematical genius.”
Even Hilary Clinton posed with Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Perhaps it didn’t work out for her because Americans might be more gun-obsessed than celebrity-obsessed. As well, in every election, Thai politicians hire celebrities to be their mascots. A pretty face with no conviction is everyone’s favorite product endorser.
The endgame is to create an image, kind and gentle, fatherly in a way. With this perception, perhaps what will follow is the reality of winning the elections.
The question I often ask people, not just in Bangkok, but also when I’m out in the provinces, is: Would you vote for the general? If so, why?
The following is by no means a nation-wide survey based on impeccable scientific method. It is merely personal interviews with a few people of various backgrounds. But the answers give food for thoughts. Not just to the reasons why one would vote for the general, but also to the reflections of the culture of those who perceive that the general is the best choice to lead Thailand.
The first reason is that they believe the general is not corrupted. Sure, you can throw a number of corruption allegations against the government, and they would point to Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan instead. General Prawit has been the best thing to happen to General Prayuth, both intentionally and unintentionally. Intentionally, without General Prawit, General Prayuth may not have become the dictator in charge. Unintentionally, anything that goes wrong, lovers of General Prayuth willingly throw all the blame to General Prawit.
Otherwise, it’s already generally accepted, for many of us Thais, we aren’t necessarily against corruptions. We are just against the corruptions of the opposing faction.
The second reason is old and well-known, but works well every time it’s brought up. That is the fear and hatred of Thaksin Shinawatra, coupling with the perception that the general is the only man who stands against his return to power.
The third and most interesting reason, is one that I never thought of before, until having these conversations. Furthermore, it’s also the most important reason for the majority of those I talked to.
Eyes lit up. Faces beamed. Stating enthusiastically, “he’s like a father.”
They explained that, with the general, there’s the sense of safety and comfort, the sense that there’s someone looking after the people. (Mind you, don’t get carry away. “He’s like a father” isn’t the same as “THE FATHER”)
Here’s a reflection on the Thai culture. We are conditioned, not to be led by a leader, but to be ruled a father-figure. The general is a solider. He’s authoritative and straight forward. He scolds and scorns. But he also has a kind and gentle side, as this has been the narrative for these past many months. The carrot and stick combination of a fatherly figure.
At all levels of society, people look to their leaders as a father-figure, or a mother-figure. Both Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra are looked at by many of their followers as a father- and mother-figure respectively. Villagers look at their village heads as father-figures. Even in the work place, people would casually refer to their bosses as either daddy or mommy, depending on the gender of the boss.
The language that we use reflects the inner belief of our conscience. To say the Thai culture is paternalistic is never an understatement. And while certain segments of society may pay little mind to traditional culture, Thailand at large still hangs on to the old ways.
A nation of adults has no need and no wish for a father-figure as a leader. It’s not in the culture. But a nation of children finds safety, comfort and surety from a father-figure. This is in our culture.
So we have a narrative of the patriotic soldier who stopped the violence and prevented Thailand from descending into chaos. He saved the country. Not only that, he’s a kind and gentle father figure. As such, if you love BNK48, and BNK48 loves the general, therefore…
It’s a simple mathematical equation that might not work out 100%, but it can work to a significant extend.
Political manipulation is an art form. Squealing tweenies and middle-aged adolescents are easy victims. Heading into the 2019 elections (if it’s not delayed again), if the general succeeds in managing the perception and shaping the reality of the public, then the choices will be between voting for a ruthless and corrupt capitalist versus a patriotic soldier and a fatherly figure.
Like it or not, this is how the game is played.