Smashing up beliefs no way to instil order
If you ever wonder what the military wants to make of Thailand and its people, the answer lies in a phone-smashing video clip that went viral earlier this week.
Dubbed "Soldiers must endure" (Taharn Tong Od-ton), the clip starts with a row of young navy officers in gleaming white uniforms and shiny black shoes being reviewed by their superior. On the floor in front of each is their smart phone and a block of concrete.
Their boss, whose face we cannot see, asks each officer what make their cherished phones are. "Just bought it, eh? Expensive?" he asks in a slow, calm voice, apparently enjoying the mental torture. Then the navy officers drop to the ground, and use the concrete blocks to smash their phones into pieces.
Reactions to the clip are so fierce the navy and other military bosses may find it hard to comprehend what happened.
They most probably think it is just a phone. They most probably believe it is the soldiers' duty to submit to their bosses' orders without question.
Since the young naval officers are not allowed to use their cell phones during training, it is only right that any signs of disobedience must be punished severely, surely?
That the clip quickly went viral shows the public mostly disagrees. Thai parents like to joke that smart phones have become the 33rd body organ or their children. It's more than that, actually.
For young people, smart phones are their voices and their faces to the world -- their identity. When they see the navy boys swallow their pain, drop to the ground, and smash their phones, they see themselves being violated too.
The navy later clarified the incident which took place at its Communications and Information Technology School.
There are rules against the use of cell phones, but violations are rife. The teachers have developed an "honour system" in which disobedient students must smash their phones "voluntarily".
That a military school focusing on communications and information technology does not view mobile phones as learning tools, but obstacles that must be banned, says a lot about how much the military has to do to catch up with the world.
Incidentally, the phone-smashing controversy occurs at the same time as the military is stepping up its policy to summon political dissenters for "attitude adjustment".
First, the confiscation of Pheu Thai politician Chaturon Chaisaeng's passport. Then the summoning of his colleague, former energy minister Pichai Naripthapan, and former Pheu Thai MP Karun Hosakul. The latest is The Nation journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk for his anti-coup stance.
What on earth they are trying to do? Why suppress mere "noise" when the military already has a full grip on power? If you are also asking the same question, the phone-smashing episode may offer an answer.
In the military psyche, any noise cannot be tolerated because it means total obedience is not yet in place. To attain it, the bosses have every right to reprimand, scold, and dehumanise you if they detect signs of disobedience. If the noise continues, it is only fair to smash it into total silence.
Now I understand why the prime minister and junta leader thinks nothing of launching tirades against the press or issuing threats to political dissenters.
Or why the summoning policy continues. We may think it is wrong, but for the military, it is what bosses do every day to extract total obedience from subordinates.
It is how the military is run. If we are unhappy about this, it only shows we have not yet accepted the fact the country has been now reduced to a military camp.
Gen Prayut has insisted this is not the right time to invite free political discussion. You can do it in the future when things are back to normal, he said.
I fear for the future, however, because what is unfolding now looks like a repeat of history.
To win general elections after coups d'etat, military leaders in the past set up their own parties or proxies to continue running the game. But things eventually exploded after power abuse and political suppression, resulting in bloodshed. Then another coup, and another round of violence.
How to break the vicious cycle? It starts with not equating peace and order with total submission and silence. It starts with accepting the country is not an army regiment and that smashing different beliefs through summoning and detention has no place in modern Thailand.
Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.
Former editorial pages editor
Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.