PM's book choice baffles nation
When I saw the headline, that Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha had recommended the people he is repressing read George Orwell's Animal Farm, I thought it was fake news from a parody page.
My initial thought was: "That must be a joke." Then came the outburst of laughter when the news was actually true.
Still, I had my doubts and thought it might have been a misquote until Gen Prayut came out the next day to say that the book "has nothing to do with politics". That was when I realised that the comment was authentic but then came a bigger question -- what did he mean by that?
Go and read Animal Farm. Is he trying to say that Napoleon, the corrupt opportunist, is similar to Thaksin Shinawatra when he was prime minister, or is he trying to say that the next government should not follow the same path? Or, has the irony that a tyrant is encouraging people to read about a power-hungry pig turned totalitarian dictator really eluded him?
"The prime minister respects the law and votes from every party," deputy government spokesman Werachon Sukondhapatipak said when he unveiled the premier's book pick last Wednesday. "The prime minister also recommends everyone read the Thai edition of Animal Farm. It's a book that offers good advice on how to live our lives."
He explained that Gen Prayut admires the novel's content, which provides "thought-provoking lessons", but it clearly did not provoke the thought that Orwell's main character in the satirical novel is modelled on Joseph Stalin, a brutal Soviet dictator. Maybe the brainwashing stories told by his regime since they overthrew an elected government in 2014 are now that deeply embedded in his philosophy.
For his critics, Gen Prayut is Napoleon, the disgruntled pig who rallies the other four-legged animals to rise up and seize power from their two-legged owner. The one who never believes in the collective strength of the socialised animals and the one who works only to expand his power over them. Napoleon's pet project is the training of his puppies, which he does do to educate them for their own or the collective good but rather for his own benefit as his private army.
But my friend also pointed out to me that Orwell wrote the novel towards the end of his life in 1946 when he was very disappointed by his far left friends who were fighting each other for power after the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. The novel he wrote is an allegory that is critical of the Russian Revolution by the Bolsheviks which clearly portrays Old Major as Lenin, Napoleon as Stalin and Snowball as Trotsky.
The book criticises the Bolsheviks, or the pig faction, which campaigned on equality and basic rights before winning the revolution and then committing the same crimes of repression themselves. Hence the term, "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others".
Lt Gen Werachon said that Gen Prayut recommends the book as a reminder to the Thai people to always work towards the interests of their country despite ongoing struggles by rival factions to form the next government.
"He wants society to consider national interests and unity," he said while forgetting that one of the main sources of political conflict right now is the fact that the junta leader and his cabal are trying to cling on to their illegitimate power by self-written electoral rules, running in the election themselves, installing senators and working to get rid of political opponents and dissidents.
To my friend, Orwell was a true "Burkean conservative", a term which comes from Anglo-Irish member of parliament Edmund Burke who opposed the French Revolution for its disregard of tradition and religion. My friend sees Orwell as a person who was against all kinds of repressive power and also against the idea of swift revolutions that completely disregard the old values.
"I am not sure whether any political player in Thailand has actually read Animal Farm critically because I believe that Orwell was trying to warn everybody," my friend said, adding: "All sides [in Thailand's politics] could learn from the lessons about power-mongering in Animal Farm." I concur.
No matter what Gen Prayut might have meant by recommending the novel, the politicians he was targeting are already mocking him.
"We should help each other to build a society where everyone is truly equal, without anyone being more equal than others, where I and #FutureForward will eventually end the National Council for Peace and Order's power. #TheEraOfPigsIsOver", wrote Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward party.
With Mr Thanathorn still eligible for the premiership, and since he is using Gen Prayut's comments to make his point, I would like to remind Mr Thanathorn as well that the hunger for power can afflict anyone, regardless of which side they're on.
Erich Parpart is a senior reporter of the Bangkok Post.
Senior Reporter - Asia Focus
Senior Reporter - Asia Focus