Comedian John Oliver has achieved cult status in the United States thanks to the epic “viral rants” he delivers on his late-night show Last Week Tonight — but Thailand’s military junta, the National Council of Peace and Order, is apparently not amused.
An official document seen by VICE News and marked “highly confidential” shows that the junta that seized power in May is paranoid about Oliver’s activities after he mocked the government and made fun of Thailand’s Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn during the June 22 episode of his HBO show.
The British satirist lampooned the “happiness campaign” launched by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the military regime's leader, to make Thais feel better about the junta’s crackdown on human rights and freedom of speech. Oliver also described Thailand’s crown prince as “buffoonish” and “an idiot.”
While discussing Thailand's draconian lèse majestè law, which punishes anyone mocking the royal family with three to 15 years in jail, Oliver showed a brief clip from leaked footage of a birthday party beside a swimming pool featuring the crown prince and his wife, who is shown topless. In the footage, the royal couple blow out candles on the birthday cake with their pet poodle Foo Foo, who holds the rank of air chief marshal in the Royal Thai Air Force. The crown prince’s wife is later seen lying on the floor at her husband’s feet, posing with a piece of cake.
“And you’re telling me they’re not supposed to make fun of that?” Oliver asked. “That’s entrapment!”
The leaked Thai document, written four days after the show aired, focuses on overseas activities that the junta regards as “undermining the royal institution.” It discusses the establishment of the “Free Thai” resistance movement that was set up by exiled activists to combat the coup, and then devotes a passage to Oliver’s comedy show. A translation of the paragraph reads:
Mr. John William Oliver, a comedy actor known for parodying English politics, discussed the issue of Crown Prince Felipe of Spain’s inauguration, criticizing it and referring/connecting it to other countries with monarchs, such as Queen Elizabeth II, by means of showing sections of and criticizing ‘the poolside clip’ on HBO.
The absurdity doesn't end there — others named as threats to the stability of the Thai state included Chatwadee “Rose” Amornpat, a 34-year-old Thai woman working as a hairdresser in London who has criticized the monarchy on social media, and Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a well known pro-democracy Thai professor based in Kyoto. Pavin has publicly rejected the junta’s demand that he return to Thailand for “attitude adjustment” in military detention, jokingly offering in a Facebook post to send his pet chihuahua instead.
John Oliver’s office chose not to comment on the leaked document. Junta spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukondhapatipak acknowledged a request from VICE News for comment, but did not provide an official response. The Royal Thai Embassy in Washington, DC, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Regardless of the government’s concerns, the military’s history of intervening in domestic affairs is a source of legitimate frustration. The army has rarely engaged in conflict outside of the country — its only major military engagement in recent decades involved a border dispute with Laos in the late-1980s — but it meddles incessantly in politics, staging 12 successful coups over the past eight decades. To justify its frequent power grabs, the military routinely claims that it is defending the monarchy from sinister foreigners conspiring to destabilize the kingdom.
Four times in the country’s modern history — in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010 — the military massacred protesting civilians in Bangkok. Following the violence of 2010, in which more than 90 people were killed and 1,800 wounded, the army claimed it was not responsible for a single death or injury. Official statistics later revealed that the army had used 117,923 bullets during the clashes. Subsequent inquiries and leaked documents also found Thai soldiers responsible for at least some of the deaths.
In a farcical 2010 episode it was revealed that generals had been duped into buying hundreds of bogus explosives detectors. The devices had initially been sold as novelty dowsing rods for finding lost golf balls, but British conman Gary Bolton repackaged the devices, which cost as little as $3 to make, and sold them around the world for up to $25,000 apiece. When the deception was discovered, Thailand’s top brass held a surreal news conference and insisted that they worked. “This may not be explained scientifically,” said army chief Anupong Paochinda, “but I’m telling the truth.” For Thailand’s military, it seems, even the fundamental laws of physics can be ignored with impunity.
General Prayuth’s recent happiness campaign involved screening World Cup soccer matches for free on television and throwing street parties where Thais are entertained by scantily-clad dancers and military bands. A patriotic song called “Returning Happiness to the People” — with lyrics allegedly written by the general himself — is played incessantly on television, and singing it daily is compulsory for schoolchildren and army conscripts.
“Returning Happiness to the People”
The junta has outlawed criticism of its actions. Street protests are banned, as is any political gathering of more than five people. Pro-democracy students mocked these oppressive edicts by holding picnics at which activists sat in small groups eating sandwiches and reading copies of 1984, George Orwell’s famous novel about a totalitarian dystopia. The junta’s reaction was to announce that anyone eating a sandwich “with political intent” faced arrest. Activists have also been detained for raising three fingers in a defiant salute borrowed from the Hunger Games movies.
Meanwhile, the royal family’s popularity continues to decline, with the Instagram feed of the king’s youngest daughter, Princess Chulabhorn, a particular focus of ridicule. The royals still expect Thais to kneel on the ground in their presence as a gesture of respect, and some of Chulabhorn’s recent photographs have been a source of bemusement:
These absurdities have provided ample fodder for mockery on social media — which the junta has also banned, of course. But while comical, the paranoia of Thailand’s military dictators about seemingly innocuous satire is well founded. As Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has observed, when ordinary people lose their fear of laughing at the ridiculousness of authoritarian regimes, dictatorships can quickly crumble.
“We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice but goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss,” he wrote. “When it loses its authority, the regime is like a cat above the precipice: in order to fall, it only has to be reminded to look down.”
Original images of the leaked documents: