This is the second part in our week-long series looking at Thailand six months – or 28 weeks – after the military coup. Click on the links to read earlier installments: Introduction – Part 1: The Economy –
Since his time as army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s relationship with the media has been strenuous at best. Now as the coup leader and prime minister he constantly in the limelight, and his gaffes are under more scrutiny than ever. On the other hand, the media itself is facing stringent censorship.
Reporter 1: […] so it will be sorted very soon in order to have elections, right?
Prayuth: [inaudible]…see my first answer, I already said it.
Reporter 1: General, may I ask another question: are you now the prime minister?
Prayuth: [pause] It is in progress…I don’t know yet, we’ll see, keep calm! [points to the reporter] You wanna be it?
Reporter 1: [sarcastically] YES, YES, YES…!
Prayuth: Ok, that’s enough! Thank you very much…
Reporter 2: General, just a quick question…how long will the timeline, roadmap take until a new election?
Prayuth: As long as the situation returns to normal!
Reporter 2: General, [the public] may be asking themselves how long’s gonna take, whether if it’s one year…
Prayuth: It depends of the situation! I don’t have an answer. There’s no set time!
Reporter 2: …or one year and a half…
Prayuth: …we’re controlling the situation as fast as possible! Enough! [walks off]
Reporter 2: So do you mean then…General? General…?!
That scene took place when then-army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha held a press conference shortly following the confirmation of him as coup leader by royal command on May 26, 2014 – just a few of days after Thailand’s military has seized absolute power in a coup.
For Prayuth, this was a fairly typical exchange with the media. We have previously pointed out his strenuous relationship with the press here and here – more often than not resulting in the general lashing out at a reporter, resorting to sardonic remarks or simply walking out of a press briefing.
However, that exchange on the May 26 (see full clip here) and what followed shortly after that would set the tone for the coming months: The two reporters from that press conference, Thai Rath’s Supparerk Thongchaiyasit and Bangkok Post’s military correspondent Wassana Nanuam (whose relationship with the top brass has been often brought into question), were summoned and chastised by the military junta for their ”aggressive” hounding of the junta leader.
It was an early sign that the military junta was assuming full control of the press and thus also claiming the sovereignty of the narrative. Mainstream media outlets are put under heavy scrutiny by the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO) as the junta officially calls itself. It has created monitor watchdogs dedicated to each medium in order to check that nobody is breaching the junta’s orders aimed at curtailing criticism against the NCPO. Also, the military government has taken on social media platforms for perceived coup-critical and anti-monarchy content, reportedly having installed a system for mass online surveillance.
And yet, with the General himself – now the leader of Thailand’s military government – constantly in the limelight, he still continues to deliver one gaffe after another too tempting for most of media not to report about it. From a seemingly endless stream of gaffes (see a ”best”-of list from September here), here are three examples:
- Amid potential protests by rubber farmers facing falling prices, Gen. Prayuth flippantly suggested that they may have to sell their rubber ”on Mars!” That remark attracted widespread attention on social media with many photoshopping the junta leader into satirical images – so much so that the junta told people to stop it!
- Visibly annoyed by a follow-up question from a Thai journalist aking whether he prefers to seize power via a coup than by elections, Prayuth simply threatened: ”You be careful, or else I’ll slam you with this podium…!” (Full video HERE.)
- Prayuth’s statements weren’t just picked up by local media. Following the murder of two British tourists on the island of Koh Tao (and the subsequent bumbling police investigation) – Gen. Prayuth’s poorly-worded suggestion that Western tourists, especially bikini-wearing ones, might only be safe in Thailand “when they’re not beautiful!” made international headlines. After much public outcry for this inappropriate remark, he apologized.
As we mentioned, there are a lot more examples of the junta leader putting his foot in his mouth. The continuous stream of gaffes is indicative of a massive PR headache with Gen. Prayuth and the military junta, even though it seems that the former is resistant to advice – that is if he gets any, despite close aides reportedly worried about his ‘loose canon’ nature. And if he’s not being sardonic, he comes across as an annoyed uncle in his weekly TV addresses, seemingly knowing the answers to most of the nation’s problems.
However, the conditions most Thai journalists are currently working under are no laughing matter, no matter how many verbal (and other) fouls the junta is committing. Several journalists have either been directly or indirectly pressured by the military junta for their critical reporting.
Last week, ThaiPBS dropped a TV discussion program after it aired criticism of the junta, seemingly after a visit from army officers voicing their displeasure. The program’s host has also been “temporarily” pulled off-air . This has sparked a campaign by most of the mainstream media to protest against the military’s interference. Even the otherwise tepid and often silent Thai Journalists’Association has joined the chorus calling for restrictions on the media to be lifted.
The military has denied accusations of censorship and says it would never limit press freedom – only then to threaten the media from crossing the line. And that exactly is the problem: with the military junta claiming solid sovereignty of its narrative and almost everything else in the political discourse it can easily move the undefined and invisible line to suit its needs.
And if you need any further evidence of the military junta’s open contempt towards the media, just listen to Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan – for many the real mastermind behind the coup – responding to the demands in a press conference on Monday (full clip HERE):
The policy of the NCPO is…let me put it this way: I would like to remind the media that the government, the NCPO are currently in the process to achieve reconciliation in this country. Everything that is an obstacle to reconciliation… everything that will create divisions – we won’t let that happen! Let it rest, wait for now. We have the National Reform Council, the National Legislative Assembly – they’re currently at work, so wait… for a year! We have our roadmap, the government, the NCPO are following it, they’re following their promise. So why the hurry?!
About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs extensively about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as an international freelance broadcast journalist. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.
The 28 Weeks Later series – Thailand 6 months after the coup:
Introduction: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand
Part 1: Economic stability comes at a cost under Thailand’s military junta
Part 2: Prayuth, censorship and the media in post-coup Thailand
Part 3: An education fit for a zombie?
Part 4: Are Thai people really happy after the coup?
Part 5: Thailand’s junta and the war on corruption
Part 6: PDRC myths and Thailand’s privileged ‘new generation’
Part 7: Thailand tourism down, but not out
Part 8: Education reform in Thailand under the junta
Part 9: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand: Some personal thoughts