Big Brother’s watching me watching him
Skip out for beer during the commercials, because the revolution will not be televised — or so goes the Gil Scott-Heron song. If only it were that simple! Because while the revolution may not be televised, coups will. Coups have. Actually, a coup only qualifies as a coup when the perpetrators appear on television, epaulets sparkling as they line up before an extremely boring backdrop to announce their masterstroke. A coup needs tanks less than it needs a TV signal. We’ve borne witness to it too many times over the past 40 years, with first analogue broadcasting, then Earth-orbiting satellites and now digital TV.
The most tedious part, it seems, is that the memory of the latest coup persists on the tube without the mercy of commercial breaks every Friday night without fail, when our daily fix of prime-time soaps give way to the prime minister’s garrulity. Usually his monologue clocks up 65 to 75 minutes — a long, rhythmic lull, again against the backdrop of an uninspiring set unchanged since the Manhattan Rebellion of 1951. Last week, upon learning that people were getting tired of his weekly television address, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha retorted that those who dislike it can always switch channels. Switch channels? To what? The mark of true dictatorial rule is not your thunderbolt summons of dissidents or your decree on unpopular tax laws — it is when you deny people their choice of television channels, when every public station shows the same image, when you dictate the citizens’ audiovisual reception and tell them what to see and hear.
Skip out for beer even though there are no commercials, okay?
A failure to communicate is a failure of hope, and a failure of hope is a failure of government. My sincere advice is that the junta is in serious need of a new PR strategy: hire a new communications team, an ad agency, a public relations guru, an Obama-calibre speechwriter, an acting coach, a voice coach, a clairvoyant, whatever — surely the government can afford one or two with all the new (and yet impossible) taxation. Really, they need to do something before their ratings plummet further. An administration that produces no results but knows how to talk and persuade is bad enough — we’ve seen many in the past — but an administration that neither produces results nor knows how to talk is far worse trouble.
The Friday-night speech — which sometimes resembles a modernist experiment on stream of half-consciousness, veering off without skipping a beat from agricultural policy to the benefit of canal boats — tests the patience of even coup supporters (and there are many). After the coup before this coup — the labyrinth of Thai coups is rich — Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin wasn’t too keen on the camera and microphone, so at least he didn’t expose his joys and agonies, his fortes and foibles, to the public on a daily or weekly basis. The thing is, you have to be strong to hold yourself in front of the camera day in, day out, because as every documentary filmmaker knows, the insistent gaze of a camera peels off your skin and bares your soul. Fifteen minutes on a TV screen makes you famous. Hours and hours of it, week after week, reveal how smart (or not) you truly are.
Yingluck Shinawatra was atrocious at the beginning. She seemed to learn the tricks of the trade fast enough, and the wardrobe helped, though not much. This time, Gen Prayut soldiers on without much coaching. He’s neither an orator, like Abhisit Vejjajiva, nor an oily charmer, like Suthep Thaugsuban, and his headstrong determination to prove his worth has increasingly backfired.
Whether the junta government has produced something concrete or not is one issue (they haven’t), but the communication breakdown shows a deeper symptom: they are out of touch with the way the world speaks and listens. They don’t have the modern language or the correct tone to grab people’s attention, to rally for more support or to placate the opposition. The dull, bureaucratic, impotent backdrop of the weekly address, for instance, seems like a small detail but actually speaks of their inability to connect with the reality of 2015. Not to mention the long-winded speeches lacking substantial meaning and other communicative babble, such as the embarrassing LINE stickers, the quickly forgotten "12 Values" and their accompanying songs (an instant vintage) and short films (where are they now?).
Military rule is an antiquated system. Yes, we have to contend with one now, but the nature of its antiquity and disconnectedness with the larger world remains an indisputable fact. Let’s switch channels — wait a minute — no, we can’t. Big Brother is watching you, but more sinisterly: he wants you to watch him, too.
Kong Rithdee is the Deputy Life Editor of the Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post columnist
Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.