Songs for life as it's no longer lived

Songs for life as it's no longer lived

Ad Carabao's new song Prachathipatung is released in early April. (Photo: Ad Carabao)
Ad Carabao's new song Prachathipatung is released in early April. (Photo: Ad Carabao)

Ad Carabao's new song Prachathipatung revives the myth of vote-buying and ignorance in rural society. The title is a coinage blending prachathipatai (democracy) and tung (money). On the track, parents ask children to return to their home village to vote for local politicians who give them money. It puts into song from the political discourse of an urban middle class that expresses disdain for villagers along with antipathy for one type of money politics as well as full-fledged democracy.

These are the very same ideas that justified the military coup in 2014.

The song's narrator, probably Ad, follows a bakhum (a term for a boy or young man in Isan) and his siblings who are expected to cast ballots for local politicians in exchange for money their parents will receive. Ad asks what's the point of an election when democracy "shepherds voters" into polling stations and "involves huge cash handouts". He describes villagers as unknowledgeable and miserable, but honest in exchanging their political support for money. He warns the young man:

"Mark my words. You are deeply indebted to your native land. You are swapping borneol for salt. It is just a magician hiding under the cloak of democracy."

Carabao popularised the phleng phuea chiwit (songs for life) genre in the 1980s. Inspired by its ideological predecessor Caravan that shaped the democracy movement in the 1970s, Carabao continued to voice social criticism, addressing the harsh experience of farmers (hence the water buffalo icon), villagers and breadwinners -- all kinds of working-class people -- in a highly stratified society. Cassette tape sales of the album Made In Thailand (1984) reached a record 5 million.

So, why does his new song revive the outdated stereotype of politically naive villagers?

After the Oct 6, 1976, massacre of student activists, an army faction staged a coup, imposing a 12-year hiatus on constitutional democracy. Gen Prem Tinsulanon continued his premiership for eight years (1980-88), under which military men were brought into the senate and key ministries, hence the form of government being dubbed prachathipatai kreung bai (semi-democracy). His regime saw the emergence of local godfather-turned-politicians who engaged in vote-buying. His successor, Gen Chatichai Choonhavan, presided over a "buffet cabinet" that saw a further shift to this type of politics.

In A History of Thailand, Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit explained that the National Security Council sought ways to create unity to overcome the polarised politics of the 1970s. Their research found that "the peasantry… honoured the monarchy and religion and had no interest in politics", needing only decent income and paternal tutelage. Meanwhile, a study by the Interior Ministry found that "Thai people were not ready for democracy" because of poor upbringing, lack of ethics and a subservient disposition. As a result, the government launched education programmes to inculcate national ideology and civic duty.

The notion of rural ignorance is a product of official discourse that has justified "guided democracy". Many recent studies, however, have challenged one component of the notion -- the myth of vote-buying. A study on local elections by the King Prajadhipok's Institute in 2022 found that 70% of people do not vote for candidates who engage in such practice, while 30% are hesitant. In 2014, Pasuk Phongpaichit noted some of the middle class think that Thailand is not ready for electoral democracy, yet her study found that only 5% are influenced by cash handouts. Yes, vote-buying does exist. But contrary to popular belief the practice is concentrated in the country's central and southern regions. In fact, it is brand loyalty that can influence voters most.

Ad's new song is trapped in an ideological construct of the 1980s. From a contemporary perspective, it is difficult to say whether vote-buying is right or wrong without taking into account a history of uneven development. Local politicians, despite their shady business backgrounds, saw to it that villagers had access to resources -- whether medical care, tuition fees or outright pork-barrel funding -- that otherwise are disbursed in the capital.

What's good about a government that worsens inequality, and is run by people who don't endorse electoral democracy thus ensuring a lack of adequate accountability?

But apologies. I sometimes forget that the country should be ruled by "good men".

Thana Boonlert is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

Thana Boonlert

Bangkok Post columnist

Thana Boonlert is a writer for the Life section and a Bangkok Post columnist.

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