It was a scandal too good to ignore. Prawit Wongsuwan, the deputy prime minister and close ally of Thai junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha, was photographed with a flashy Richard Mille wrist watch worth nearly $100,000 USD peeking out from beneath his white military uniform sleeve.
That photograph, and others like it showcasing a watch collection worth in excess of $1 million USD, snowballed into a scandal that, for many Thais, encapsulated their frustration with a military government that seized control in a 2014 coup and then refused to let go of power. And it was just too perfect a metaphor for political street artist Headache Stencil to pass up.
The artist, who asked us to keep his real name a secret, sketched up an image of Prawit's face inside an alarm clock. The clock's hands subtly formed an X across his face. But Headache Stencil wasn't finished. He added a Rolex logo to the general's forehead and then stenciled the image on a busy pedestrian overpass right in the middle of Bangkok. He wanted the piece to show the junta that the watch scandal was a wake up call for the people. He wanted the military government, and Prawit who had stubbornly ignored calls for his resignation, to know that time was running out.
"[The junta] will be lucky to last another two-to-three months," the artist told me. "Pro-democracy protestors are getting bolder since the watch scandal. There was nothing special about that piece. It only became popular because a lot of people agreed with the message.”
The image quickly went viral, amassing more than a million views online. Headache Stencil knew there would be blowback. He posted the image online, which opened him up to prosecution under Thailand's Computer Crimes Act—a draconian law used to punish activists who speak out against the junta. These charges are often combined with allegations of sedition as well. Together, the two charges could result in decades of jail time for critics of the junta.
It didn't take long for police to figure out Headache Stencil's real identity. Plainclothes officers swarmed his apartment building and tried to set a trap. But a friend tipped the artist off, and he fled the capital for the Thai-Cambodia border like so many pro-democracy activists had done before him.
He then called human rights groups back in Bangkok to see if they knew how far the fallout would spread. If the heat lessened, he could return home. If it got worse, he would vanish over the porous border into Cambodia. After three days he got word that his well-connected father was able to pull some strings and get the police to charge his son with a simple vandalism charge.
The irony that Headache Stencil was saved by the same political ties and patronage networks he protests isn't lost on the artist.
"Not every artist can do what I did," he told me. "I had the guts to do what I did because my dad is quite well-connected. Ever since I started doing the political stuff, I knew that if I ever got myself in too deep, I could get help from my dad."
Prawit, the general with the watch, told the press that he had borrowed the insanely expensive timepieces—25 in all—"from a friend," and refused to discuss the matter any further. The fact that Headache Stencil was nailed for vandalism while a military general accused of corruption gets to dismiss the allegations without even the facade of an investigation, smacked of an even worse kind of privilege in Thailand. If the military had to stage a coup to throw out a corrupt government, then why was it so loathe to address allegations of corruption in its own ranks?
“I knew that my street art was illegal”, he said. “So I obeyed the law and paid my fine. But what about the message in my piece? Has that been legally addressed yet?”
Street artists have always used graffiti, posters, and stencils to fight against corrupt and ineffective governments. Walls and public spaces from Philadelphia to the Philippines are full of colorful protest pieces. But in Southeast Asia, these kinds of clever political images can land you behind bars. Malaysian artist Fahmi Reza was recently jailed for a month over an image of scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak in clown makeup.
In Thailand, the junta has cracked down on dissent online. It's jailed activists and gone after the domestic media with a relentless attack on journalists and publications seen as a threat to "peace and order." It's created a strange protest culture in Bangkok, where pro-democracy activists have adopted otherwise benign actions as symbols of resistance. Activists have been locked up for eating a sandwich, reading Orwell's 1984 in public, and holding up the three-finger Hunger Games salute.
Headache Stencil rose out of this repressive environment to comment on the absurdity of the junta's politics with clever stencils. In one, Prayut holds a can of spray paint with the number 44 on it—a reference to the law he passed to grant himself absolute power. In another, a Thai soldier stands with a chicken perched on his helmet.
“The army are brave enough to stage a coup but frightened of comments on the internet,” the artist told me.
Headache Stencil has continued to criticize the junta—his latest piece shows a referee handing a red card to Darth Vader, who is carrying a yellow lightsaber—a color associated with Thailand's royalists.
The junta has taken to using the country's already strict lese majeste laws like a sledgehammer to crush dissent. More than 100 people have been charged with insulting the monarchy since Prayut seized control from Thailand's democratically elected government in 2014. Under the previous government, only five people were charged with violating the law.
But he's also turned his attention to the country's wider issues with privilege and impunity. When Premchai Karnasuta, a 63 year old billionaire, shot a protected black panther on a hunting trip to what was supposed to be a wildlife sanctuary, Headache Stencil sketched up an image of a panther lying in a pool of blood. A tag on its tail reads "authorized," suggesting that the billionaire's illegal hunt was given the blessing of a corrupt official. But the panther's body is buried under a pile of banknotes in a wry reference to a Thai idiom that could also serve as a metaphor for all of his work.
“There is an old Thai saying," the artist explained, "you can’t cover a dead elephant with a lotus leaf."
James Buchanan is a Senior Research Associate and PhD Candidate at the Department of Asian and International Studies, at the City University of Hong Kong.