Theater of Cruelty

Pending Thai new elections

While the sun shines on Thailand's sandy beaches, the political storm is never far away.


Parit Chiwarak is only twenty years old, but he has several years behind him as a political activist. Today he is one of the most profiled anti-junta debate aunts in Thailand. I meet him one night at the renowned University of Chulalongkorn in Bangkok. He tells me that the police are monitoring who he hits. I look over my shoulder in pure reflex, but Parit seems calm and undisturbed. He would rather focus on why he does what he does. He starts with the beginning, and that is always a good starting point.

In 1912, during the reign of Thailand's King Vajiravudh, soldiers and intellectuals secretly devised a plan, with the intention of establishing a democratic state and a new constitutional monarchy. As so often happens: The plan was leaked and the plotters arrested.

For the past four years, the National Peace and Order Council (NCPO) has sought to control all political resistance.

The coup makers who wanted to challenge the king's superior supremacy received an answer to the indictment in the form of a play Chuay Amnat ("Take Power") – led by the pen of King Vajiravudh himself and performed in 1923.

The intention was to educate civil society and the military to be loyal to the monarchy. King Vajiravudh used the theater format as a medium to convey his monarchical visions around the concept of Thaiism. When you are Thai, you are one of us – you are for the kingdom. Cultural activism is not just reserved for today's protesters or future coup makers, it is deeply ingrained in Thai culture. And here lies a certain expectation: Thai means free in Thai.

The red ones against the yellow ones

Simply put, since 2006, Thailand has been locked in a color-coded political standoff, dominated by two fronts: red shirts against yellow shirts. This political crisis is a conflict between the "yellows", who are fighting for a royalist democracy in which the king acts as supreme law, while the red shirts promote democratic values ​​such as free and fair elections.

The red shirts are formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (2001–2006) in the lead.
The members are mainly from the districts and outside the big cities, but also include urban students, leftist activists and business people. They view the attempt by the urban and military elite as a threat to democracy in their attempts to control Thai politics. Shinawatra became very popular in the countryside because he initiated a policy that strengthened the funding of the health care and education sector – also outside the urban core areas.

Ex-Prime Minister Shinawatra basically also united the yellows in opposition to him.

Film screening and artist talk at Hausmania in Oslo

On November 18 at 18.00 p.m. At 34, Karl Ingar Røys shows some of his film projects from Norway, Burma and Spain in the multi-use hall at Hausmania Kulturhus, Hausmannsgate XNUMX in Oslo. The event is part of the exhibition series "Fight – mine, yours and everyone else". The project is a collaboration between Hausmania Kulturhus and The Black Cube.

The yellow shirts can be said to be a loose group of royalists, ultra-nationalists and the urban middle class, also known as the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). They are led by media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul and Chamlong Srimuang – a former general with strong ties to the king's advisers. The yellows accused Shinawatra of corruption and abuse of power. They claimed that he bought and exploited the voices of the poor in the countryside, which they felt could not be better understood. They also claimed that he was not loyal enough in his support of the monarchy.

When elections were held 18 months after the military coup in 2006 – where the Thai army overthrew the elected government – Shinawatra still had support in the countryside, even though he was in overseas exile in London as a result of the military coup.

Northern Thailand voters turned down the election and restored power to Shinawatra's Allied People's Power Party (PPP), only to see the government fall short after the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) mobilized huge protests in Bangkok against a proposal from the PPP to amend the Constitution to protect Shinawatra and his supporters from corruption charges.

It all culminated in Thailand's constitutional court dissolving Shinawatra's ruling party PPP, following revelations of electoral fraud. Parliament elects opposition alliance leader Abhisit Vejjajiva (leader of Thailand's Democratic Party), to major protests from the PPP, which indicates he is not democratically elected.

This became the starting signal for the red-shirt protests, which is still going on to this day.

Promises of choice

The next few years are characterized by a series of lawsuits against Shinawatra, who is in exile, where he is charged with, among other things, corruption and tax evasion. This leads to prison sentences in absentia as well as seizing large parts of his family's assets. Large demonstrations demanding new elections block the city center in Bangkok, and in 2010 it culminates in violent clashes between the government security forces and the red shirts, where 91 people lose their lives.

"We've encouraged people to bring a copy of George Orwell's 1984 and read it when we have lunch." Chiwarak Ditch

Fast forward to today's situation and we have a junta that goes under the self-glorifying term, Thailand's National Council for Peace and Order.

Thailand's citizens have been repeatedly assured by them whether a democratic election will be held – ever since the coup makers took power in 2014 on the grounds that they should "defend democracy". They proclaim that the maintenance of law and order presupposes that all political activity is prohibited.

After several broken laws, the latest plan was now to hold elections in November 2018, but this was again postponed to a vague promise where the date for a new election would take place "between February 24 and May 5, 2019", according to Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam June 25, 2018.

Patrit. Photo: Røys

These broken laws have created an apathetic ground for dissatisfaction and demonstrations, but what can one do when there is a law (NCPO Order No. 3/2558) which prohibits any political gathering with five or more participants?

For the past four years, the National Peace and Order Council (NCPO) has sought to control all political resistance.

Measures have included limiting the scope of important political figures by interning them for "attitude adjustment" and subsequent forced self-declarations to refrain from any future political activity to keep them at bay.

When the pro-choice group "We Want to Vote" announced that a peaceful protest would be held at Thammasat University in Bangkok on May 21 and 22 this year to mark the fourth anniversary of the 2014 coup, the police and military did their best to prevent the demonstrations from happening.

Soldiers and police sought frequent and arbitrary activists – both at home and at work – to intimidate protesters to remain passive. As in an Orwellian world where the goal is to promote a mindset where self-censors put an end to the thought before it is thought.

Not only that, during the demonstration itself, which had only a few hundred attendees when many of the participants from the districts were prevented from traveling to Bangkok, the police equipped themselves with a loudspeaker system that played loud music from a Thai soap opera to drown out the protesters' speeches. They had previously been drastically reduced technically: the junta had interned the man who was to rent out the sound system to the protesters. After this lame demonstration, all the leaders were arrested.

Tourists like buffer zone

Thailand is a favorite destination for many in Norway. This is also an important shelter for the Thai authorities. As long as tourists can stroll on the long sandy beaches, shop unobstructed by problematic protesters at the major shopping malls in Siam, well, that reality is a fact. This is what today's protesters have taken in, and most mobilizations take place precisely in the areas with the most tourists and exclusive shopping malls. The tourist's eyes are information channels and can and do serve as a buffer for abuse against those who demonstrate.

But tourists and malls despite, according to Human Rights Watch (World Report 2018), the Thai military regime has severely cracked down on all kinds of protests since coming to power in 2014. At the same time, they have censored the country's news media, restricted the right to public assembly and arrested critics and opponents of the regime. Hundreds of academics, journalists and activists have been arrested for up to a month.

Peaceful gatherings prohibited

On the surface, the efforts of the leading military junta may seem to have had some degree of success. Important political movements such as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) have failed to organize demonstrations on the size scale they had before the 2014 coup.

However, the apparent absence of a strong Foreign Ministry does not mean that the opponents of the current military regime have resigned.

In a political landscape where even non-violent manifestations are banned, activists must think differently to avoid government censorship.

Their creative response lies in transforming everyday tasks into explicit expressions of their own underlying frustration.

As Anon Chawalawan of the iLaw organization – which documents human rights violations under Thailand's military government – says:

"They simply want to convey that expressing oneself politically about the society one lives in is a normal, harmless thing that all citizens can take part in – rather than a dangerous and scary activity as indicated by the NCPO's discourse."

"That's exactly what we're doing," says Parit Chiwarak.

“We want to convey that everyone can contribute what they can, we can express something together. They don't have to go out into the streets to fight. They can join us when we meet outside the mall and eat boxed noodles. Cheap food and common action can symbolize so much. What about the country when corruption takes over, what should we eat when the leaders supply the Treasury as if it were their own wallet? ”

Chiwarak says that protesters often organize spontaneous gatherings through social media to mark creative protests against the existing military dictatorship:

"We confuse the authorities so they don't understand what we're doing. Punishing us for doing something as simple as eating noodles together ridicules their actions. We have done several such small demonstrations, we have encouraged people to bring a copy of George Orwell's 1984 to read it when we have lunch. We went to the cinema to see The Hunger Games, used the 'three-finger gesture' from the movie. For us, the gesture symbolizes solidarity, and not least the French slogan of 1789: frihet, equality and brotherhood. "

Since the bloody clashes between red-shirted protesters and the military in recent years have not led to political changes from the coup makers' stand, it may not be surprising that young activists like Chiwarak use social media as their platform – where the media stunts they carry are not dependent of how many people participate, but more of how many likes they get in hindsight.

There is power in the pointing fingers.
Karl Ingar Røys is a visual artist and filmmaker

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