A MILITARY COUP ... AND NOTHING TO SAY
By Andrew Biggs
(Note: Written during the week of the military coup, May 2014)
This week your favorite columnist is restricted by what he can write.
According to the National Council for Peace and Order, I am not allowed to criticize them. Nor am I allowed to tell lies about them.
I can live with those two edicts. Throw enough money and alcohol in my direction, packaged with a few veiled threats concerning the ease with which a visa can be abruptly cancelled, and it is quite startling, if not pitiful, how quickly I will toe the line.
My question is this: If I can’t criticize or tell lies about them, can I tell the truth about them?
Now we are in murky water because if the answer is “yes”, what if the truth is unpalatable in the eyes of the NCPO, which in turn makes it tantamount to criticism? That would bring me face to face with the coup leaders faster than I could imagine.
Thus I am in the position of being unable to write anything that criticizes, lies or tells the truth about NCPO. Nor can I ignore the NCPO, considering the current climate, for fear of being branded a military lackey. Lesson to be learned; don’t let your kids grow up to be columnists in a failed state.
The only way I can get around my unfortunate predicament is to make this column an educational experience.
What have I learned from living under curfew owing to a coup d’etat?
1. Working in the electronic media is a bitch
“Read this,” my radio producer said to me upon reaching the studio last Monday night, pushing an officious-looking document towards me.
It was a directive from the NCPO. Under no circumstances were radio announcers allowed to give any opinions. News was to be read, and that was all. There was to be no comment, no explanations, nothing.
“How intriguing, considering we’re a news analysis program,” I replied. “How come newspapers are still printing opinion pieces?”
My producer gave me that “don’t give me any of that farang gobbledygook” look.
“Because they are newspapers,” she answered. “They have more freedom than the electronic media. Just read the news reports I have printed out and nothing else. They will close us down if we make any form of criticism.”
“Can we mention the anti-coup protests?”
My radio producer gave me a look as if her grandmother had been hit face-on by an amphetamine-crazed bus driver as she quietly masticated betel nut at a Vipawadee-Rangsit bus stop.
“Okay I get it,” I said. “No mention of the protests.”
“Just act as if everything is normal,” she said, a sentence that could very well end up as a nomination for Ludicrous Directive Of The Year at the 2014 Stupid Awards.
What was I to do?
I had a brainwave. I would take the opportunity to teach vocabulary associated with the coup.
You know, words such as “coup d’etat”, “curfew”, “military” and stuff like that. That killed at least ten minutes and ensured your correspondent was safe from the lumpy pillows at military prison for another day.
Trust my inquisitive co-host to ruin it for me.
“And what about the word ‘junta’?” he asked.
“Oh that’s a military government, but it’s a very negative word. It conjures up ideas of a forceful, strict, unjust group of soldiers taking control. I don’t think you could use it here.”
It turns out that’s exactly what they’re using here, in the local and international English media, including this one. I had no idea. I had just inadvertently offered an opinion on the new military government.
Nevertheless we managed to pull off an informative, albeit dull as ditchwater, radio program without a single intentional opinion thrown in, just as our radio producer told us. We didn’t act like the newspapers. We read directly from the scripts.
How ironic. All our scripts are lifted straight from newspapers.
2. The Cartoon Channel is dangerous to Thailand’s stability, but Facebook isn’t
I can understand wanting to ban E! Channel, and we owe the NCPO a vote of thanks for taking all cable stations, including E!, off the air, giving us respite from the relentless waves of celebrity news.
The first two days after the coup were a landmark in the history of modern Thailand.
For the first time ever, 68 million Thais sat down in front of their idiot boxes, ready to watch their favorite game shows and soap operas.
Instead they were greeted with ancient marching songs extolling the virtues of being born to be a soldier.
That wasn’t a criticism, by the way. They are, after all, soldiers, and what other music would they think to subject 68 million people to? Playing the same three marching songs 159 times over, however, reminded me of a hideous weekend back in 1991 when an American radio station did the same thing to Michael Jackson’s brand new single, Black Or White. Not my favorite song either, but at least Black Or White had a hook.
When I first heard there were protestors after the coup, I immediately started making placards with messages such as HOW ABOUT SOME DISCO HITS and GIVE KATE BUSH A CHANCE. That came to an untimely end when I learned with great disappointment they were protesting the coup, not the choice in music.
What a pity I wasn’t the musical director for the junta.
I would have started with some classical music like the Brandenburg Concertos. In Australia at a juvenile detention center, they started blasting those concertos out on loudspeakers instead of the usual rap and hip-hop music they allowed the young detainees to choose. Despite an initial uproar over the switch, violent acts at the detention center dropped by 30 per cent.
That wasn’t a criticism, by the way. I’m just saying if you want to placate the masses, the Brandenburg Concertos are a good start.
At least the game shows and soapies were off.
In the west we have laugh tracks to tell us what’s funny. Here in Thailand, they have all manner of strange noises, such as “bleeeeep” “whoop-whoop-whoop” and “boingggggg” and it has now reached the point where on some programs those noises are non-stop.
It is a true assault on your senses. Watch a Thai comedy and you will understand why otherwise normal people pick up M-16s and mow down innocent schoolchildren.
All that went silent for a full 24 hours after the coup.
The effect was horrific. Vast swathes of the population had nothing to do. In some parts of the country people even took to reading books. Thai Mensa estimates the general population’s intelligence collectively rose 2.45 per cent as a result, alarming news to any military junta in any country around the world.
The shows quickly went back on air.
As the Cinderella song says, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Sunday morning I was at the gym when a game show was being blasted out from a nearby TV as I engaged a futile machine to increase my abs.
It was a show featuring stars and starlets whose immense physical beauty was inversely related to their grey matter. “Which of our star guests would most likely fall in love with his enemy? Hahahahahahah!” Whoop whoop! Bleep! Boingggg!
How I yearned for a decent military marching song.
By Sunday things were just like they had been pre-coup. And that is where we are today, dear reader; a country of bleeps, boings, no critical thought, no lies, lots of whoop-whoops, and a gaping chasm where truth should be.