'My country's got' these socio-political ills
The explosive Rap Against Dictatorship music video that has taken Thailand by storm has raised myriad socio-political questions and issues. Known in Thai as <i>Prathet Ku Mee</i>, the sensational music video has been viewed on YouTube more than 25 million times in just 10 days in a country of 69 million people, a feat in its own right and a record for its artistic kind in Thailand. How this five-minute rap song in the Thai language has done so much says a lot about where Thailand has been and where it is going.
First, the translation of the song's name has befuddled many. Even in Thai, the intended meaning of Prathet Ku Mee seems clear only after listening, not on the face of it. As with all rap songs, the lyrics of this Thai smash hit have an angry ring to them without a conventional melody that suits and soothes the naked ear. Its English-language title has been rendered What My Country's Got, but this translation can conjure up images of the Thailand's Got Talent or Britain's Got Talent variety. It is less what Thailand's got but what the country is afflicted by, its accumulated socio-political ailments and afflictions. So a more meaningful but less literal understanding may run along the lines of "My country's got these afflictions" or, in rap-like rough language, "That's my f*****g country".
Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches International Relations and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
For example, there are powerful and resonant lines about a country that is "corruption-free but with no accountability", where "wristwatches of a cabinet minister belong to a deceased body". Thailand is a country where "parliament is a sitting room for soldiers" and "gun barrels are pointed at our throats", with "proclaimed liberty without the right to choose". The nearly 100 lines in 10 stanzas are acerbically punctuated by two pronouncements of Prathet Ku Mee.
Second, the video and lyrics of the song are distinct and parallel, without a direct connection. The video is a critique of the "Thai state," harking back to a gruesome scene of a hanging and beating at Sanam Luang, associated state-perpetrated violence at Thammasat University in the lead-up to and on Oct 6, 1976. The images from that time have scarred Thai political history since, and the scene depicted in the music video was most symbolic of all.
Yet the lyrics about dubious wristwatches and unaccountable culprits of illegal hunting are mostly a critique of the junta-led military government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in the context of Thailand's polarisation and conflict over the past decade. So the wording of the song is aimed at the current Thai government, not the state per se. Governments change, but functions and characteristics of the state can transcend time. Regardless of which groups, cliques or clans are in government, the Thai state, its bureaucratic organs and functionaries bear responsibility for operating traffic lights and making sure the water pipes and electricity lines work as they are supposed to. The Thai state, depending on who was at the steering wheel, has also used instruments of force at its disposal against its own people in the past.
The producers and artists of Prathet Ku Mee may have conflated the video and lyrics unintentionally by focusing on October 1976 on the one hand and the Prayut government on the other. Or, they were deliberate in attacking the Thai state in the video and the current Thai government in the words. Whatever their ultimate aims, they have succeeded in drawing attention to both the injustice then and the socio-political malaise today.
Third, the success of the music video is a powerful show of popular voices. As the number of viewers skyrocketed, Prathet Ku Mee became self-evident. Its YouTube link became a kind of a polling booth that allowed people to identify with and have their say. Naturally, not all of the clicks came from supporters. Some did not agree with this piece of music, and others were just curious onlookers tuning in to see what the buzz was all about. Yet by and large, the markedly lopsided "likes" versus "dislikes" suggests the song reverberated favourably far and wide.
When the police considered arresting the artists, viewership shot up so much that the authorities had to back down partly as a result. The song received so much attention because it came out at a time of pent-up public dissent and disaffection that have been accumulating and simmering with few channels for release and expression because of official repression and intimidation. Having put up with more than four years of military government after yet another coup, the Thai people have not had a say in their government representation since the July 2011 poll. So when a rap group shouts out criticisms of what's wrong with Thailand, it won an instant following for saying what millions have seen and felt but have no way of voicing.
Finally, the political repercussions from Prathet Ku Mee are instructive. The authorities had to back down and the song became untouchable partly because of its popularity. The vast majority of the more than 25 million viewership represents more than half of the Thai electorate. If this unelected military government is not interested in winning the next election, then it may have cracked down on the song and its artists. But prosecuting these artists and banning such a high-profile song can lose a lot of votes.
The government is thus stuck between a rock and a hard place. Allowing the music video to go viral means being attacked for the military regime's flaws and lacklustre performance. Letting it go will also encourage other artistic expressions of dissent and government criticism. Yet axing it would only cause more public disenchantment and undermine voter bases. Whatever viewer number it plateaus at, Prathet Ku Mee has already had a far-reaching political impact that is unfavourable for the current government and its manipulative efforts to stay in power after the election.
An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University
An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.