Back in June, Duncan McCargo wrote a short article for Foreign Policy on why the coup is destined to fail. While BP agreed with the premise, it seemed better to wait to post until reality started to hit. BP has been waiting for the façade to start to crack. It is happening now. Below are some excerpts from McCargo’s article:

Far from being smiling, passive, and deferential to authority (like the tourism authority would have you believe), Thailand’s 69 million people are some of the most politicized and polarized people on the planet. The notion that they are going to embrace peace and orderliness on the instructions of a few guys in uniform is a joke. Thais like the rhetoric of order and enjoy the idea of a strong leader, but the novelty wears off once they have had a few weeks of stiff military paternalism. Already, Thais are finding novel ways to demonstrate displeasure with their new rulers.

Unfortunately, the military does not seem to understand this. Thai generals experience little criticism during their professional lives. Socialized into military culture from the day they enter pre-cadet school at age 15, they can look forward to a 45-year career in the Army. Thailand has one of the world’s largest contingents of serving generals – around 1,500 across the three services, from a total military personnel of just over 300,000. Many of them have literally nothing to do except dabble in business and meddle in politics. Surrounded by yes men for most of their lives, they are ill-equipped to run real businesses or assume ministerial, political, or other public offices. The Thai Army is a uniformed bureaucracy that has not fought a real war since playing a supporting role to the Americans in Vietnam.

BP: With the Cabinet coming into office, the military dominating the NLA, the new constitution, and the scandal over the microphones, it has been noticeable that the level of criticism directed at Prayuth has increased. Prayuth has also been giving long speeches and well seeing his continued presence so often has caused some people to tire of him. Some recent tone-deaf comments by Prayuth when he is insensitive to the plight of others raises questions over his political acumen because continued statements like this will really hurt his image. The best example of these are comments Prayuth has made this week about (a) rubber farmers and (b) tourists wearing bikinis.

On (a), Reuters:

Prayuth says farmers demands for a guaranteed price for their rubber of 90-100 baht (around $3) per kilogram, compared to existing market prices of around 45-49 baht per kg, are unrealistic.

“Who on earth can they sell this rubber to? I don’t understand,” Prayuth said in a speech on Monday.

“We have a large rubber stockpile in this country and farmers keep on growing more rubber trees. How about selling the produce on Mars in the future? Demand on this planet is no longer enough.

Unprotected by a government scheme, rubber farmers in Thailand have seen local prices slump nearly 30 percent this year in tandem with Tokyo’s regional benchmark as economic growth slows in key rubber consumer China.

BP: No doubt rubber farmers were laughing at his joke at the time they are suffering. At the end of the day, Prayuth may decide not to do anything, but if so trying to show some empathy will work better than trying to parlay the situation into a joke.

On (b), AFP:

“There are always problems with tourist safety. They think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is also the army chief, told government officials. But “can they be safe in bikinis… unless they are not beautiful?” he said, addressing the issue of tourist safety in a speech broadcast live on television.

Prayuth, who seized power from elected government in a May 22 coup, is well known for making off-the-cuff remarks. His statement appeared to echo others made to reporters on Tuesday in which he questioned the behaviour of the murder victims as well as the perpetrators.

Then, Waan of the WSJ has the full quote in Thai and translation:

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BP: Given his comments about rubber farmers above, his trend in recent weeks to insert jokes into his speeches, and upon reading the full context, BP views he was trying to focus on tourist safety so it doesn’t sound as bad. BP doesn’t think he was trying to blame the victim so on one hand, you could say the AFP quote was unfair as the full context was not included. However, on the other hand, if AFP had continued the quote, they would then have included his joke about the audience being beautiful and that they can wear bikinis. When two tourists have just died, should he really be using the circumstances of the deaths to tell jokes? No.

Prayuth today correctly apologized* for his comments and also expressed sorrow over the deaths of the tourists, so he is learning. There is a time for leaders to tell jokes, but when you are talking about deaths or hardship, it is not a smart thing to do. Perhaps, some self-deprecating humour would be a better strategy if he finds he wants to spice up his speeches with jokes.

*Not all in the Thai political scene are known to apologize for their comments either….