There's a point in the music video of Rap Against Dictatorship's "My Country Has" when the camera pans from the masked rapper, past the braying crowds of men, and the guitarist picking out a mournful solo to a shot of what has everyone so worked up—a battered body hanging from a tree.
The music video, which at the time of writing has clocked up over 30 million views, is a blazing critique of life under the ruling junta. But its most powerful statement may well be about the country’s long history of state violence.
The gruesome scene in the video refers to a real-life lynching during the massacre of student protesters at Bangkok’s Thammasat University in 1976. Officially, 46 are said to have died at the hands of police and right-wing paramilitaries that day. Unofficially, it’s claimed that over 100 lost their lives. Many more were wounded. Female students were raped. Corpses were mutilated.
One of the Rap against Dictatorship members, Jacoboi (real name: Pratchayaa Surakamchonrot), told VICE Asia that the concept for the video actually came from the director but the group agreed with the idea.
"I feel like our current social and political atmosphere has some similarities to that event, but with less violence,” he said. “I’d like to use this song to create awareness of how bad things can sometimes get."
The Thammasat massacre was so traumatic that, even today, it's a scar on the national psyche, explained Charnvit Kasetsiri, a distinguished Thai historian.
“The manner of that operation is brutal beyond anybody’s imagination,” he told VICE Asia. “The shooting, burning and hanging was all so horrible. And the fact that it was partly televised and printed in the daily newspapers affected the hearts and minds of the Thai people. It shows the dark side of Thai society that we don’t want to admit to."
Events at Thammasat University in 1976 were particularly barbaric, but it was neither the first nor the last massacre in Thailand. In 1973, at least 77 student protesters were killed during a crackdown by the military and police. In 1992, the military opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators, killing at least 52. And in 2010, more than 90 people died during military crackdowns on Red Shirt protesters, who had gathered in the capital to call for elections. That operation was overseen by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who now leads the country after seizing power in a 2014 coup.
But the massive popularity of the Rappers against Dictatorship video is a clear sign that Thais are frustrated with life under military rule.
“This junta has been making people dislike them,” says Jacoboi. “Not only those who were anti-coup from the beginning, but even people who originally supported them. Our song was released at the right time.”
For the junta, however, the timing couldn’t be worse. Aware that Thais won’t tolerate military rule indefinitely, they have set elections for February 2019. But there are signs the election will be flawed and that the junta are trying to hold onto power, perhaps even with Prayut staying on as prime minister. The viral rap video may now set the tone for the election and harm his prospects.
In fact, sensitivity to public opinion in the lead up to polling day is probably what saved the rappers from the wrath of the junta. After initial statements that the group—and even those sharing the video—could face charges, the authorities seemed to back down.
Rappers against Dictatorship member Liberate P (real name: Nutthapong Srimuong) told VICE Asia: “I don’t see the upcoming election as fair or democratic because the junta drafted the current constitution. I think it’s impossible for a people’s party to win. The election will just give legitimacy to whomever the junta chooses to be their successor.”
Bandmate Hockhacker (real name: Dechathorn Bamrungmuang) agrees, but thinks it’s still important for people to vote.
“Even though it’s not a fair election, it’s a game we have to play. We can’t fight them any other way. But, eventually, we have to wake people up, make them get involved and realize how terribly they have been taken advantage of."
With the fairness of the upcoming election in doubt, all eyes will be on its aftermath. If Thais are unhappy with the process, they may once again return to the streets to vent their frustration. In that case, they put themselves up against a military that has shown itself capable of killing its own citizens time and again. Will the vicious circle of coups, protests and massacres ever end in Thailand?
“I can’t answer that,” Liberate P said. “Anything can happen in this country."
James Buchanan is a PhD candidate at City University of Hong Kong who is studying Thai politics. His last story was about two teenage rappers trying to change the perception of Bangkok's most-notorious slum.