A battle of the bands in Thailand, with political overtones

CHANGE IS COMING. Ahead of a long-awaited election, scheduled for February 24th after years of delays, the military government is expected to relax a few of its repressive rules, including a ban on political gatherings of more than five people. Its response to a musical protest against military rule, Prathet Ku Mi (“What my country’s got”), suggests it may already be trying to change its tune.

The song, from an alliance of Thai artists called Rap Against Dictatorship, went viral after the release of its gritty black-and-white video in October. To date it has been watched some 44m times. The rappers allude to the impunity of the elite, entrenched corruption and political oppression: “A country where the point of the gun slowly aims at the Adam’s apple / A country where they say you have freedom, but there is no right to choose.” They also single out members of the government for specific criticism, such as the deputy leader of the junta, who was discovered last year to own more expensive watches than he could have afforded on his modest salary (he says they were a gift from a dead friend): “A country where a minister’s watches belong to a ghost.”

In keeping with the junta’s repressive instincts, the police initially pondered the possibility of charging the artists under the harsh new law the junta pushed through to stifle online dissent. Then they mysteriously backed down. And in November the government released a ditty of its own.

“Let’s get it going, make it more wow, more wow!” the song exhorts. Unfortunately its writers forgot this injunction when choosing the song’s title: “Thailand 4.0”. The lyrics seem to be borrowed from a motivational poster: “Who says innovating is hard? / Know. Think. Create. Build it up, build it up!” The positive thinking at times shades into outright delusion: “Do good. Be cool, you can do it / Just understand the new world, then you’ll be cooler, cooler!”

The public ridicule has been relentless. This is not the first time that Thai officials have used music to woo citizens. The junta leader and prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has written five songs urging the nation to unite, with titles such as “Returning happiness to the people” and “Because you’re Thailand”. Before Valentine’s Day this year he released “Diamond Heart” (not to be confused with Lady Gaga’s offering of the same name). It likens his relationship with the Thai people to a romance, and worryingly suggests that he will stick with them forever, through “fire and water”. The reaction of his sweetheart (six times more dislikes than likes on YouTube) suggests that his devotion is not reciprocated. Thailand 4.0., meanwhile, boasts 14 dislikes for every like.

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