Unfolding and unscrambling the Thai military junta’s policy advertorial

Originally published at Asian Correspondent on February 26, 2016

An advertisement supplement touting the polices of Thailand's military government appeared on the front page of the English-language newspaper The Nation on February 23, 2016. (Pic: Reader submission)
An advertisement supplement touting the polices of Thailand’s military government appeared on the front page of the English-language newspaper The Nation on February 23, 2016. (Pic: Reader submission)

THAILAND’S military government has gone on the media offensive to promote its “reform roadmap” by planting paid advertisement supplements in Thai newspapers. But the published product is, in its own words, one giant “confusion trap”.

It is an uphill struggle the Thai military has faced ever since it took over in the coup of May 22, 2014 and almost two years later it has become increasingly Sisyphean. The battle over the sovereign narrative of the political discourse in Thailand is one of the biggest headaches for the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO) – as the military junta formally calls itself.

Considering the restrictions by the junta to curtail any kind of criticism, be it by online censorship, aggressive behavior towards the media (also increasingly against foreign media) and the detainment and harassment of dissidents, the generals have a hard time of convincing anyone of their iron- and at the same time ham-fisted rule, let alone winning back any hearts and minds it has intimidated.

With general grumbling over the government’s performance (especially economically) growing, a second controversial constitution draft far from being safely confirmed and thus eventual elections still an empty promise at this point (despite repeated assurances that it will definitely take place next year no matter what, just not exactly which month!), the military government of junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has its work cut out.

Coinciding with the reemergence of a certain former prime minister in the public eye (more on him next week), the government’s PR department also mounted a media offensive of their own. Over the course of the week, it has placed special policy pamphlets wrapped around the newspapers of Thai-language Thai PostPost Today, its English-language sister publication Bangkok Post and its direct rival The Nation. These supplements were sponsored by the state-owned Government Savings Bank, Krung Thai Bank and the Government Lottery Office.

It was a confusing sight for many readers at first, since the paid advertisements bore the logos of the respective newspapers and looked like an actual product from the newsroom, thanks to the lack of any disclaimers – with the Bangkok Post being the only exception (clearly marked as a “special advertisement supplement”) in addition to a clarifying remark by its editor. While a newspaper being wrapped by a full double-paged advertisement is not unusual, it is not often that a Thai government does it on that scale, which makes it look almost like an advertorial.

Instead of presenting a product with the loftiest ideas money can buy, this particular printed product touts ideas money can’t buy, but is sure to still cost some money anyways: the military junta’s policies, its “reform roadmap” and why the coup was necessary in the first place. However, the end result left readers with a lot more questions than answers.

Starting off with the upper half of the front page (see header picture above), it described “Thailand’s vicious cycle” of “bi-polar”(sic!) political “hyperconflict” (sic!) as a result of “without credibility government” (sic!), leading into all kinds of traps like “conflicting” and “confusing” (and for some reason illustrated by a fishing hook), thus making the “NCPO undertaking” (sic!) – more commonly known as the 2014 military coup – necessary in order to prevent the county from becoming a “failed state”. It does not mention the military’s involvement in this vicious cycle (including the last coup in 2006), nor the manufactured deadlock by the anti-election movement 2013-14 that paved the way for the most recent coup.

The bottom half of the front page featured the usual long-term sales pitch for building Thailand into “a first world nation with stability, propensity, sustainability” through the “sufficiency economy philosophy” while at the same time eventually lifting Thailand into a “high-income country” and “knowledge-based economy” after it has transformed itself into an “innovative industry” (a long way ahead since the country is currently ranked below the worldwide average in that regard) – that and “Hope, Happiness & Harmony”. All in all a tall order for the junta that is fighting a sluggish economy that is expected not to grow more than 2 percent this year.

The biggest headache highlight though is the centerfold, displaying a mind-boggling behemoth of a diagram, supposedly displaying the Thai military government’s “Administration Guidelines”. Written in what can only be smaller than font size 10, it spreads out into a completely illegible maze of different government bodies, which have countless committees, which in turn have countless sub-committees tackling a seemingly wide array of issues – we just simply can’t read them at all!

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Behold, the centerfold of the Thai military junta’s policy pamphlet! (Pic: Reader submission.)

One noteworthy item in this unattractive centerfold is the junta’s purported timeline in the right bottom corner, which claims to hand back power to an elected government sometime in 2017, while also already setting off a “20-Year National Strategy Plan”. The plan, which in fact is a bill, came out of the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA, a fully-appointed government body) and was passed by the fully-appointed legislative body last week. The bill sees the establishment of a 25-member group that seeks to dictate long-term policy goals to the cabinet, which could be yet another mechanism  to restrict an elected government. It’s not made better by the fact that members of the current junta, including Prime Minister Prayuth, will be on this panel for the first few years.

The backside is probably the most egregious part of this pamphlet, attempting to explain why its policy of “Pracharat” (commonly translated as “state of the people”) is the polar opposite to the “evil” populism-schemes of the previous governments the military has ousted – even if the former is currently nothing but the junta’s hottest buzzword as it has yet to be defined into actual policies, unless it’s just a simple rebranding.

However, the coup de grâce is found in the bottom half. Not only does the graphic un-ironically define how a “pseudo-democracy” differs from a “genuine” one (considering the current state of Thai politics), but it also tries to cram several dozens of items from the centerfold into just three small boxes – and fails miserably …

All in all, it does beg the question: what is the military junta is trying to achieve here? It is not going for maximum exposure since it has published this pamphlet in three four newspapers, only one two of them in Thai, thus leaving international readers as the likely target audience. However, given the authoritarian rule of the government, it won’t be easily swayed by some loftily phrased aspirations – let alone by that giant policy diagram.

The last time the military published a diagram, it was a largely unfounded mess. This time, it published a series of haphazardly-constructed infographics, making things more difficult to understand to the general public. The junta’s long-term policy vision just mentions democracy as a side note and reinforces a paternalistic style of governance, seeing itself as the ultimate arbiter of the future direction Thailand is taking, while at the same time completely muddling its message.

But then on the other hand, transparency has never been the military’s strong suit.

Correction: An earlier version stated that three newspapers have carried the Thai junta’s advertorial. It is four – in addition to Bangkok Post, The Nation, Post Today, Thai-language daily Thai Post also ran this.

h/t to several Twitter followers and readers for providing photos and copies of the pamphlet. 

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