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Rapping against dictatorship

Thai rappers Pratchayaa Surakamchonrot a.k.a. Jacoboi (R) and Dechathorn Bamrungmuang a.k.a. Hockhacker from rap group 'Rap Against Dictatorship' rap during an interview at a music studio in Bangkok Photo: Diego Azubel / EPA-EFE

The music video for Rap Against Dictatorship’s track Pratet Ku Mee – translated roughly as “My Country Has This” – is set against the atrocities committed at Bangkok’s Thammasat University on 6 October 1976. During that event, paramilitary police and state-sponsored right-wing thugs murdered pro-democracy and left-wing students in cold blood, ushering in another period of military dictatorship.

“My Country Has This” outlines almost everything that is wrong with Thailand today. This includes the impunity enjoyed by the rich when they break the law by killing a protected species in a wildlife sanctuary or by committing murder. It looks at the immunity enjoyed by junta leaders when they are accused of corruption.

It criticises the failure to reduce inequality and the fact that money speaks louder than morals. It mentions the hypocrisy promoted by the junta and suit-wearing elites who talk endlessly about “good people” and the need to “respect the law” while they engage in corruption and the creation of immoral laws.

It describes how Bangkok has often been turned into a killing field – in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010. It talks about the present “Parliament” which is just a lounge for soldiers and various constitutions which are written and then rubbed out by the military jackboots, where a gun is held to our throats with the claim that we all have “freedom”.

It criticises suppression of dissent and state surveillance, but also the fact that many so-called dissenters line up to follow the dictatorship like ants. It paints a picture of a country where critical thinkers have to either pretend to be asleep, go to jail or leave the country; where society is deeply polarised but everyone is afraid of the military, who behave like evil animals and show no willingness to allow real democracy.

When the music video was released in October, it soon stacked up a few hundred thousand views. But then the junta’s police threatened to prosecute the artists and production team, and the number of views shot way up – and stand at nearly 35 million views as of the first week of November. The junta, realising its response had made it a laughingstock, withdrew the prosecution threats. This is a reflection of the fact that the dictatorship can be sensitive to public opinion, especially when backing down does not affect its long-term strategy. It’s also because junta leaders have hopes of engaging in electoral politics.

The military dictatorship claims a general election will be held in February 2019. Even if that’s true, it will hardly be democratic. Junta threats against dissenters continue unabated. Last week, a former whistle-blowing campaigner, who was part of the mob that opposed the 2014 elections and welcomed General Prayut’s military coup, said he felt he had been used by both the military and mob leader Suthep Thaugsuban. He was paid a visit by a group of soldiers.

Around the same time, people with calendars bearing the photos of former Prime Ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra were taken into military camps for “attitude changing” sessions. Both former prime ministers, who headed democratically elected governments, were overthrown by the military. Trials of pro-democracy activists, accused of breaking the law with peaceful protests, are still being held in military courts. Political prisoners remain locked up, including those accused of lèse majesté. Some prisoners have not yet been tried in court because the prosecution witnesses “fail to turn up”. Yet they are refused bail.

This is the kind of atmosphere in which the so-called elections will be held. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

The military’s constitution and its 20-year National Strategy mean that any elected government will be severely constrained within the military’s policy agenda – and the powerful military-appointed Senate and judiciary are there to police this agenda. New election laws have been designed to discriminate against parties that are supported by the majority of the electorate, i.e. Thaksin’s parties. These laws, combined with justified fear that their party may be dissolved by the military just before the election, have resulted in Thaksin’s allies creating more than one party.

Some new parties, such as the Future Forward Party and the Commoners Party, have announced that they will oppose the legacy of the dictatorship. But even if they manage to win enough seats in Parliament, which is unlikely, they will not have the power to overrule the National Strategy, the Senate and the judiciary. Only a powerful pro-democracy social movement outside Parliament could do that. Such movements have been built in Thailand in the past, but at present, everyone is mesmerised by the prospects of the election while all but ignoring entrenched military power. Others are being side-tracked by ridiculous myths about the so-called power of the new king.

Thais are not the only ones mesmerised by the election. Western governments cannot wait to re-establish “business as usual” with Thailand, irrespective of whether or not the elections are democratic.

Nevertheless, the fact that millions of Thais, especially the young, identified with Rap Against Dictatorship’s rousing rap is a ray of hope for the future – but only if this sentiment can be turned into action.

On the one hand, we can see the level of anti-junta feeling, which may be reflected in the election results, but unless people are given hope and confidence to organise themselves into a social movement to expand freedom and democracy, the interest and support for the rap will remain mostly passive.

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