Prayuth must ignore urge to suppress
If Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha reads or watches The Hunger Games, he would know that what triggered the “revolution” is not the three-finger salute. It’s the public execution of an old man who first responded to the sign.
If he reads on to the final book in the three-part series, the coup leader would also know that, suppression, even annihilation, of people who rise up against severe oppression is futile.
The series’s final book Mockingjay shows that once a defiant spirit catches on, no power can stop a rebellion against brutal dictatorship.
The best course of action for Gen Prayuth for now, therefore, is to do nothing.
The army chief has already turned himself into a despot by seizing all legislative and executive power. He does not need to add ruthlessness to his qualifications.
He does not need to fuel pockets of resistance and fan them into a popular uprising either.
It’s clear that people who are against the coup are not orchestrating a physical fight. They are not conducting street occupations or long-stay rallies.
What they have opted to show is a symbolic resistance. They are contesting military might with viral messages.
They are showing up as flash mobs; small groups of people that are quick to mobilise and disperse. They are creating signs of resistance which pique people’s interest and look good on Facebook and Instagram. They try to draw attention from members of the press, especially foreign media, so that they can expose the junta as being heavy-handed and totalitarian in its lining up of thousands of armed soldiers to fight small groups of peaceful protesters.
Gen Prayuth can afford to let these voices of dissent be aired.
The coup leader last week outlined three stages under which Thailand will be returned to democracy. The first stage should last several months and seeks to restore peace and unity.
The peace part is not debatable, but it’s not clear what is meant by “unity”.
He said reconciliation centres will be set up in the capital and at village and district levels, where rival parties can meet and iron out differences. Entertainment events have also been held to promote understanding among people.
The general may hope that it’s possible to initiate “reconciliation by suppression”. He may hope that under the intense pressure of his strict rule all conflicting sides will be melted into one, a uniform community with unvarying political ideals.
In reality, however, it is plain to see that is impossible. Years of political strife have allowed differences to settle into belief systems. Animosity has seeped deep into people’s bones. Those who have died for their political cause won’t return to life. What can the military-style reconciliation centres or touchy-feely music events do to make a difference?
The only harmony that modern-day Thailand can ever hope to foster is an atmosphere that allows its politically and culturally diverse citizens to agree to disagree, to co-exist even when they do not see eye-to-eye.
What the junta can do, which it has already successfully done, is to ensure peace and freedom from violence. The fact that the use of war weapons and bomb attacks have stopped since the junta took over on May 22 has been its saving grace. But to hope to create national unity, military-style, is beyond its abilities.
At a practical level, it’s difficult to imagine how the bulky, inflexible military force could cope with the fast-moving troops of symbolic protesters.
Anti-military demonstrators may have opted for the three-finger salute as their symbol of resistance today, but they are not bound to use it forever. In fact, it’s likely they will come up with other photogenic, eye-catching symbols as they move their protests on. Suppressing the gesture will only make the coup makers look crazy.
The coup makers’s main task is to ensure peace and security during the short-term and return the country to democracy as soon as possible. As long as they are dedicating themselves to these tasks, they need not fear symbols.
The power of a symbol or symbolic gesture lies in its ability to inspire a kindred spirit. That ability hinges on how the coup makers choose react to it. Suppression is sure to augment its power and cause resistance to multiply.
Right now, there is no film screen heroine Katniss Everdeen to lead the anti-coup crowd. The military does not want to quell the movement to the point that one is produced. It has seen how former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra could lead her party to election victory in less than 50 days. It does not want to see “a girl on fire” leading the protests.
Atiya Achakulwisut is Contributing Editor, Bangkok Post.
Columnist for the Bangkok Post
Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.