Guns and guitars

I LANDED in Bangkok on June 11 anxious to hear from friends in the classical guitar community there of their experiences of, and what they thought about, the most recent military power grab in Thailand. Having been there three times for guitar festivals and competitions since 2012, I had hitherto been reluctant to press the issue of the political divide between the reds and the yellows because friends were evasive. But this time, my mood was different.

The martial law that was later revealed as an outright coup is Orwellian, which is why its opponents have flash public readings of 1984 as a sign of protest. The junta, otherwise known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and led by Army General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has promised to “return happiness to the people” after ousting an elected government. Its measures at thought control extend to much of social media, and includes Facebook “likes” and Twitter re-tweets. It has the power to detain dissenters for a week without any formal charges.

The measures to “make the people happy” include state spending of the equivalent of about P600 million to make all World Cup matches available on four public TV channels, including the Army’s network; free pop concerts and fashion shows in downtown Bangkok; and Gen. Prayuth inflicting his singing of a love ballad he recently composed on the population.

(The general, who acts like a monarch, has admonished Thais abroad and foreigners in Thailand against committing lese majeste. But the only affront to the king I would recognize would be playing the classical guitar adaptations of Bhumibol’s traditional Thai and popular jazz compositions without permission or payment of royalty).

The first anecdotes I heard struck discordant notes. The hotel manager who welcomed me said the coup was a necessary evil because the discord and violence had brought the economy to a standstill. She said attendance at the 2014 Asia International Guitar Festival and Competition would be down 30%. But that was all for the good because the situation was getting out of hand for tourism in general anyway. Two festival organizers said Bangkok residents welcomed the peace and order the junta had imposed. That voice was amplified by a tour operator who told me she could weather the downturn and that things would get better soon.

Claude, a French guitar enthusiast based in Pattaya, was more outspoken with his views, saying the Thais were not prepared for a republican system. A Canadian who’s trying his luck as a luthier in northern Thailand observed that the junta leader would win an election hands down if held in the next few weeks, but lamented that there was a tendency to blame the Shinawatras for all the country’s ills.

Ek, a classical guitarist and professor who studied at the University of Santo Tomas and University of the Philippines in the first half of the 1990s, said he could not but oppose the coup. It was not only that the Shinawatras gave him a break, but also because the ousted government had a clear popular mandate.

Woratep, one of the festival organizers, said Thais were simply tired of the street violence and welcomed the intervention of the Army. Pongpat, also known simply as “Four” to friends, is among the concertists. He said he was only slightly yellow and supported the coup — as did Nalin, his colleague, who said she didn’t wear a color. Four referred me to another colleague, Ja, who further referred me to a red shirt leader that I was able to interview. Four said the red shirts are anti-king and I asked him, “So what?” Ja believed that in the long term, the coup would not be good for the Thai democratic system and worried about who would eventually make the generals accountable for their actions and corruption.

The red shirt personality I talked to — let me just refer to her as C — said that while the general claims to be above the fray, the NCPO agenda is that of the yellow shirts and the monarchy. The general delayed being tough on Yingluck Shinawatra because she had not prosecuted him for human rights abuses but instead showered him with material favors. C said that the portrayal of the conflict as one between the populist red shirts and the “democratic” and “good governance” yellow shirts was a poor caricature. It seems that the redistributive measures initiated by the Shinawatras, with advice from the remnants of the 1970s Left, has gained a solid majority following expressed through the electoral system.

There might be a shallow but not necessarily inappropriate analogy here between he who must not be named and Erap Estrada. But the red shirts lead a clearly popular and grassroots movement. In a formal democracy, where one person has one vote, shouldn’t it be expected that a well-informed and empowered poor super-majority would vote consistently for a program to redistribute assets and income, and equalize opportunities for all?

The junta has already made draconian economic decisions, mainly on infrastructure, that have long been in the yellow agenda. But the long-term agenda is to impose a constitution that would disenfranchise the poor because a decisive number in parliament would be appointed by the old ruling elite. After all, the coup was provoked and encouraged by the yellow forces.

C’s fearless forecast was that when I return for the festival in June next year to listen to classical guitar, Thailand would still be under the gun.

POSTSCRIPT: A day after my return to Manila last Monday, C e-mailed me to say she had been ordered to report to a military camp for an “interview” the following day. I have not heard from her since.

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