Rapper has more to say as election nears

Rapper has more to say as election nears

"Do they think we can be shut up forever? Do they have that low an opinion of Thai people?” aks Nutthapong Srimuong, who raps as “Liberate P”. (New York Times Photo)

The rhymes came to Nutthapong Srimuong before dawn, when Bangkok is as still as it can be and the night jasmine overpowers the capital with its perfume.

“The country whose capital is turned into a killing field

Whose charter is written and erased by the army’s boots

The country that points a gun at your throat

Where you must choose to eat the truth or bullets”

A largely nocturnal individual, Nutthapong, 30, had worked on a few bars of Prathet Ku Mee (What My Country’s Got), for months. Then he abandoned the project.

But the rule of the military junta had stretched past the four-year mark. Restrictions on free speech showed little sign of abating. Elections, frequently promised, never materialised.

In late October, a group of musicians called Rap Against Dictatorship, led by Nutthapong, released Prathet Ku Mee. Within a week, the music video had collected 20 million views — in a country of 68 million people with a general aversion to dissent, given what tends to happen to those who speak up.

The nearly five-year rule of the current military junta led by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha has featured arrests of people for acts as threatening as reading 1984 in public, or flashing the three-fingered salute from the Hunger Games films.

Hundreds of people have spent time in “attitude adjustment” sessions. The Computer Crimes Act and sedition law are used liberally to intimidate and silence activists, human rights groups say.

After repeated delays, a general election has been called for March 24, but efforts by the National Council for Peace and Order to kneecap the political opposition have left little hope of free and fair polls.

“Thais have been taught that politics are disconnected from their lives, but I want people to know they have rights to elections and democracy,” said Nutthapong, who raps under the name Liberate P, the P standing for “the people”.

“I wanted this song to bring out our voices, but I never expected it to have such a big impact. It shows that even grassroots people are tired and want change.”

As more and more people listened to Prathet Ku Mee, the government responded with its own rap song, Thailand 4.0.

“There are lots of talented Thais if we work together,” went one lyric that accompanied a video in which a bespectacled girl built a robot. To date, the video has been viewed 4.6 million times, compared with 56 million for Prathet Ku Mee.

Gen Prayut, who has written several syrupy songs of his own, including Fight for the Nation, blasted the harder-edged effort of Rap Against Dictatorship.

“Anyone who shows appreciation for the song must accept responsibility for what happens to the country in the future,” he complained to local reporters. Talk of a criminal investigation ensued, and Nutthapong worried about arrest.

But Prayut is running for prime minister, and detaining the rapper behind a viral video is not a winning campaign strategy.

Still, distaste for the song lingers in pro-military circles.

Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of the 2014 street protests that paved the way for the coup, wrote on Facebook that the rappers “were born Thai, but they express themselves in such a disgusting, abominable way and think to destroy their own homeland”.

Nutthapong puts things differently.

“I love Thailand,” he said. “I want a country that I can be proud of.”

Nutthapong grew up in Chanthaburi, the eastern province famed for its fruit including durian,. Thai pop, with its bubble-gum sweetness, was not for him. He gravitated instead to American rap.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Nutthapong studied architecture in college in Bangkok. Eleven years later, he’s still not quite done with his thesis. Rap, in all its windowless studio intensity, got in the way of his diploma.

Even if his fine-boned features and strategically tousled hair seem more suited for performer in a boy band, Nutthapong began dredging up some of the country’s darkest history in his rhymes. His audience has followed. In just the past week, another half million people viewed the Rap Against Dictatorship video.

In one of his earlier rap songs, Oc(t)ygen, Nutthapong mined the turbulent period of the mid-1970s, when dozens of protesters, many of them students, were massacred by security forces and right-wing mobs.

"You have guns and power but you don’t have the right to take away lives"

Those killings were memorialised in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken during the 1976 massacre at Thammasat University of a lifeless student dangling from a tree as a man swings at the corpse with a folded chair. This episode, like other bloody crackdowns on dissent, is missing from Thai schoolbooks.

“They want us to forget everything,” Nutthapong said.

In the video for Prathet Ku Mee, shot in black and white, the lynching at Thammasat is re-enacted, a man heaving a chair at a hanging dummy as a mob cheers him on. Nutthapong, rage rippling across his face, enters the frame.

"The country that makes fake promises like loading bullets

Creates a regime and orders us to love it"

There is no guarantee that another violent crackdown won’t happen some day to rival the horrors of 1979, the events of Black May in 1992 or the violent end to the red-shirt protests in 2010.

“It’s the same loop over and over,” Nutthapong said: elections followed by coups, interspersed with bloodletting on the streets.

“The only bargaining power the people have is democracy but everything looks like it’s in the dark and there’s no way out.”

Next month’s election, which is circumscribed by a military-drafted constitution that keeps considerable power in the army’s hands, brings him little hope.

“With the upcoming election, it was unfair from the beginning,” he said. “People are in servitude.”

But just because younger Thais are disenchanted with the current state of politics doesn’t mean that they will be placated by air-conditioned malls and the latest in selfie technology.

“I grew up in a province that is full of fruits and good soil,” Nutthapong said. “Sweet things are not enough. We need freedom.”

Despite threats of detention, college students have led rallies against the junta. For millions of others, listening to a rap anthem of dissent is their outlet.

Meanwhile, the junta remains ever-vigilant for signs of dissent. This week the broadcast regulator ordered the pro-Thaksin Voice TV off the air for 15 days, a decision overturned late Friday night by the Administrative Court.

“Do they think we can be shut up forever?” Nutthapong asked. “Do they have that low an opinion of Thai people?”

As political parties restart their rusty machinery in preparation for an election that will be neither free nor fair, Nutthapong has been working again in the dark hours.

He’s recording a new Rap Against Dictatorship song titled Capitalism, which he describes as a meditation on income inequality and human rights.


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