Pravit Rojanaphruk

A reluctant ruler in the 'other Thailand'

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. -- PHOTO: AFP
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. -- PHOTO: AFPPHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In alternate Thailand the other day, a person asked me on Twitter to prove that Prayuth Chan- ocha (below) is a dictator - because he didn't think General Prayuth was one.

Welcome to the "other Thailand".

I say this because there are Thais, millions of them I suspect, who believe we're not living under a dictatorship.

Never mind that Gen Prayuth is also head of the military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), four months after the coup. Never mind that at least two leading anti-coup activists are facing the military court or that many consider that the country no longer has freedom of expression.

Never mind that more than 300 people have been summoned by the junta, some detained, including this writer, and everyone had to sign under duress an "agreement" that we shall not participate in, aid or lead any anti-coup movement.

Many also seem oblivious to the fact that the whole of Thailand is still under martial law and the junta has done little to dispel allegations of torture by some former detainees.

To coup supporters, Thailand could never have been better off compared to the past decade and some are even urging the NCPO to be more heavy-handed.

These junta backers see Gen Prayuth as a down-to-earth leader and even support him using absolute power.

This exposes the underlying belief among many Thais that as long as they consider someone to be "good and altruistic", that person can always be treated differently. That means there's no need for the normal checks and balances system. A "good" leader doesn't need to be elected or made accountable. All they need is faith that Gen Prayuth and his men are "good people".

It must be acknowledged that Gen Prayuth has from the beginning claimed that he did not want to stage the coup and that he seeks to restore law and order and democracy and return power to the people so that they can elect their own leaders by the end of next year or so.

Presenting himself as a reluctant coup-maker and dictator, Gen Prayuth managed to deflect a lot of potential resistance. By making himself Prime Minister, he has also afforded himself a basic veneer as a civilian administrator and, together with his Cabinet, has exuded the appearance of normalcy. Unlike Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, the notorious despot of the 1960s who also made himself prime minister, Gen Prayuth hasn't wielded the death penalty as a weapon to make people absolutely terrified of him.

Four months on, we can detect some open criticism against Gen Prayuth, and this commentary may be counted as one, and this gives the appearance that press freedom still exists, never mind that Thailand's press freedom rating has taken a beating and many journalists and commentators have chosen to keep silent or talk about food instead.

We can go on debating whether Gen Prayuth is merely a chatty uncle who was simply forced by circumstances into becoming a reluctant dictator, but the fact that a counter-narrative about Thailand now being under dictatorship cannot fully manifest itself is proof that Thailand is under a totalitarian state.

I respect and empathise with people who believe Thailand is free under Gen Prayuth. After all, these people are free to say all the nice things about him and the NCPO. Now, they too should recognise that others should have the right to articulate why they think Thailand is not free too - and without fear of being silenced or detained.

THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK