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Does Thailand Secretly Think Its Dictator Is an Idiot?

Prayuth Chan-ocha, who recently seized power, is known for a series of gaffes that go beyond being harmless slips of the tongue and instead come off as borderline insane.
November 3, 2014, 5:00am
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Prayuth Chan-ocha, the man who helped lead the Thai royalist coup that allowed the military to take power earlier this year, is the undisputed leader of the Thai government, but he ceased being commander-in-chief of the armed forces at the end of last month. It might have something to do with a series of gaffes that go beyond being harmless Bush- or Biden-esque slips of the tongue and instead come off as borderline insane.

The political elite of Thailand appear to see him as "a loose cannon and an embarrassment," according to Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai academic based in Kyoto who is recognized as an expert in Thai politics. "The generational change within the military party allowed Chan-ocha to rise to eminence," Pavin told me. "This could mean he faces no challenge within the military and believes he can do or say whatever he wants. In other words, there could be a leadership crisis in the army, to the point that it allows incompetent figures like Prayuth to rule."

As the man put in place to cement the power of Thailand's royalist elite, he is expected to engage in a charm offensive and woo the Thai population. The snag is that he's not particularly smart, and the things he says in public can be a little deranged. How exactly does Prime Minister and former General Prayuth go off script and stray from the royalist program? Like this:

"I am a victim of black magic by the anti-coup elements."

Thailand is a superstitious country where  magical tattoos bestow fortune and protection (disclaimer: I admit to having three on my back) and mystical talismans with the same powers can be found around the necks of many men. "This is not uncommon," Pavin told me, "and he is a reflection of an overall society which clings to superstition, fortune-telling, and astrology. In the political context, deferring to supernatural belief is a way of gaining legitimacy: If it goes right, then it is OK. If it goes wrong, then it is not his fault-it is destined." But for Prayuth to blame the opposition for every ailment he has-he once blamed a sore throat and neck pains on "curses"-seems a bit far-fetched.

But that's no surprise. As Pavin said, he's not particularly bright:

"The other day, I had a look at the homework of a por neung [first grade] student. I must say that I didn't even know how to do it. Homework is too difficult for students."

No matter where you are, you deserve a leader who can tackle the intricacies of single-digit addition and the ability to dictate your language's alphabet. Or maybe it's just that he couldn't figure out how to use the ta​blets that some first-graders in Thailand now have in the classroom. In any case, if a six-year-old can do better in his final exam than your prime minister, your country has a problem.

By the way, Prayuth was also an officer at the Thai Oil Public Company and a director at the Thai Militar​y Bank. You'd think he'd have some basic math and writing skills.

Still, his heart's in the right place. Sort of. He wants to safeguard Thailand from foreign invaders:

Tourists in Thailand need to be "screened and of​ quality."

Does this mean the culture-less barbarians of tourists roaming Bangkok's Khao San Road will soon go extinct? Will Alex Garland's " cen​ter of the backpacking universe" soon implode? Will Pattaya's mess of bars, massage parlors, and saunas be able to stay in business?

His next gaffe at the expense of tourists was theoretically an attempt to protect women:

Should foreign women wear bikinis in Thailand? "Only if they are no​t beautiful."

He apologized. And then he made a special offer:

To promote " sustainable​ happiness" in the country known as the Land of Smiles (or not), he ordered the production of pleasant soap operas and set the scribes to work. He even said, "If they can't finish it, I will write it myself."

There's been no word on the progress of Prayuth's opus, but he has previously dabbled in the arts. The lyrics of a ballad called "Return Happiness to Thailand" were written by Thailand's Dear Leader.

In the song, Prayuth says that "the nation faces danger with unrest everywhere / we would like to come in and save the nation so that it is not too late."

He was referring to the enemies of the coup, like Pavin, and a group of high school students who are being t​hreatened by the junta because they oppose the "12 Thai Values" created by Prayuth. The prime minister and his backers demand total loyalty, and those who step out of line are h​unted down and charged with the crime of lèse-maj​esté, which carries sentences ranging from three to 15 years in prison.

Pavin pointed out to me that it's not just the elite who question Prayuth's competence. "Most Thais feel that Prayuth lacks charisma and, worse, a brain," he said. "If Prayuth has proven to be a liability, rather than an asset, he could be removed soon."

For Bangkok's elites, this is a critical time. "We are talking about the upcoming royal succession," Pavin noted. The king of Thailand is old and has health problems, and the crown prince is seen as weak and corrupt-he recently named his dog, Foo Foo, air chief marshal at a canine birthday celebration that featured a cake topped with a pig in a bikini and a to​pless crown princess.

The prime minister and the monarch are the two most prominent symbols of the power of Bangkok's elite. If one is no longer dependable and the other has no popular support, the structure of the ruling class will be dangerously unsettled.

In the meantime, Chan-ocha wants Thais to "love [him] just a little, but love [him] for a long time." The prime minister of Thailand is flying high, and anyone who utters a syllable of dissent is branded an enemy of the state. So give him a little love. That's all he wants-well, that and your freedom.