Democratic flame is on a knife's edge

Democratic flame is on a knife's edge

Students place pedestal trays decorated with flowers, candles and incense sticks to pay homage to teachers. It's been a trend over the past years for students to display current affairs as a theme on these trays. Patipat Janthong
Students place pedestal trays decorated with flowers, candles and incense sticks to pay homage to teachers. It's been a trend over the past years for students to display current affairs as a theme on these trays. Patipat Janthong

We thought we were creeping back to democracy. We thought we were regaining our freedoms. After all, we have just welcomed a new government which has tried to convince the world that it came to power by democratic means.

But we are creeping even closer to 1984 than ever.

A number of high-school students have learned this the hard way. For your information, Thursday was Teachers' Day. It's a day when school children pay homage to their teachers by offering flower decorations on pedestal trays as a gesture of respect and gratitude.

In the past, it used to be just flowers on the tray. But things have taken a creative turn recently. Students at several schools decorated their trays with hand-made items, some of which had a political overtone.

Photos of these trays were widely circulated on the internet. One tray, in particular, must have rung alarm bells among the local authorities.

A group of students at a school in Nong Khai erected a miniature balance scale on their tray. One side of the scale had a paper graphic with the words "250 senators" written on it. It seems to outweigh the graphic on the other side with the word "voters".

Trays at other schools also demonstrated students' political views quite succinctly. One had the Democracy Monument encased. Another showed a sculpture of three fingers which has become a symbol of defiance to authority.

A number of policemen turned up at the Nong Khai school and demanded that the students delete their social media post, and the students complied.

Of course, once something has been posted on social media, it's almost impossible to completely delete it. So the photos continue to make the rounds.

But as one user commented, the authorities know this; they simply want to create a "chilling effect" to deter future activities of defiance such as this.

This incident took place just as police had also been accused of intimidating a French expat for posting a music video parodying the regime's theme song Returning Happiness to Thailand.

Yan Marchal was asked to apologise to the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) for the post and sign a paper to that effect.

Less known to the public is the case of a comedian who asked his followers to delete one of his video clips and not to share it.

The video is a recording of King Konbai's recent performance in Chaiyaphum where he imitated Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha. The comedian denied he was coerced but did so because his family was concerned the video would bring them trouble.

These episodes may seem to be quite far from the recent frenzy of attacks against politicians from the Future Forward Party (FFP). However, looking it as a whole, they all demonstrate the authorities' attempts to control freedom of speech and thought through the use of intimidation and witch-hunts.

Regime leaders can feign ignorance about these incidents as deputy NCPO leader Gen Prawit Wongsuwon did when asked about the Teachers' Day incident.

But he believes someone was behind the students' creations. "They couldn't have thought this up themselves," he said.

We are indeed creeping back to 1984 and even beyond. Children are expected to keep quiet, obey elders, and stay away from adult matters like politics. Yes, yes, be creative, engage in critical thinking and all that but don't stir things up or mess with matters of state.

Adults, too, better not speak up loudly or defiantly. Sure, we are a democracy but we have Thai culture to preserve, you know, and that means you better not step over the line.

But these regime leaders and their ultra-conservative followers are so out of touch with reality that they are showing what they try to suppress.

Don't they realise that their witch-hunts have aroused curiosity about forced loyalty and questions about authorities' attempted suppression of freedoms?

Don't they realise that children nowadays learn not only from textbooks in school but from the vast amount of diverse information in the cyber world?

Schools, teachers, politicians and even the established media don't have a monopoly over information anymore.

You simply cannot go back in time even with a time machine. You can try to suppress freedoms but that comes with suppressed resentment, which can explode at an inconvenient time.

In various forums on Facebook and Twitter, people are discussing the logic of standing for the royal anthem before the showing of movies and about dropping everything one is doing to stand up for the national anthem at 8 in the morning and 6 in the evening.

The logic of things in Thai society is becoming increasingly a topic of discussion. We may see that as a good thing as it shows critical minds at work. But the Thai authorities apparently have a different idea.

So now we are witnessing a clash of cultural values and ideologies. If dialogue is allowed to take place in a peaceful setup, we may see positive social transformation.

The danger is when those in power see it as a threat and encourage unbridled anger against opposing ideas. Then we may see the dark clouds of divisiveness pouring down the rain of ugliness in the way that was seen back in 1976.

Let's hope that sense and civility reign.

Wasant Techawongtham is former news editor, Bangkok Post.

Wasant Techawongtham

Freelance Reporter

Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.

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