The Army and its flood PR

16 11 2011

Thomas Fuller at the New York Times has a useful account of how the disgraced Army has used the flooding as a public relations exercise to rehabilitate its public and political image: “Troops and army trucks are rolling through the streets of Bangkok again. But this time it is not to battle protesters or overthrow a prime minister.”

PPT is not yet convinced that the Army isn’t preparing to do the latter, but as Fuller makes clear in this first sentence, the floods are being grasped by an Army and their commander as a means to fight back against their disgrace at having killed civilian protesters in 2010 and their enormous loss of face when the electorate voted against their favorites to elect a government General Prayuth Chan-ocha had pointedly warned against putting in government.

Fuller says that this time they are “ferrying residents around the city on heavy-duty military vehicles that can get through its flooded streets, with banners on each one reading “Royal Thai Army helping the people.” Most also have English-language signs, just so the international media knows that camouflage painted trucks are Army vehicles.

For examples of the kind of pro-military propaganda that has become all too common, see this article in the Bangkok Post. Oddly, and reflecting some peculiar debates on the nature of the Army’s flood relief work and perhaps the Army’s own PR too, the Post has the story filed under “charities”). Remarkably, there was a far more realistic account in the same section of the newspaper on the very same day, and it is certainly worth a careful read.

Fuller observes that “Thousands of soldiers have been sent to the capital to help civilians.” Of course, if press reports are to be believed, far fewer were sent to the areas most heavily impacted by the floods. The top brass seems to have courted political impact more than anything else. (The official death toll is now 562, with 38 in “Greater Bangkok,” defined as including Prathumthani, Nakorn Pathom and Nonthaburi provinces. As far as PPT can tell from the data, no one is officially reported to have died in the Bangkok Metropolitan area proper.)

Fuller also observes that “the military has broadcast a series of slick television advertisements showing its soldiers as more than just battle-hardened fighters, including one in which children learn about soldiers who build roads and tend to the sick. ‘We are the people’s army,’ says a voice at the end of the ads.”

PPT wishes that it were true; we can only observe that the military has a reprehensible history of repressing, gunning down and killing its own people. And, as Fuller points out, General Prayuth who says, “I want people to love soldiers,” is the same man “who led the troops that broke up antigovernment demonstrators in Bangkok last year in a violent episode that left at least 90 people dead…”.

Meanwhile, Pravit Rojanaphruk at The Nation states: “After launching nearly 20 ‘successful’ coups d’etat, the Army has established a firm presence in Thai politics, arguably becoming almost a state within a state. Now, the flood crisis and the Army’s role in assisting flood-affected residents has, whether intentionally or not, reinforced this view and suggested how difficult it would be for Thailand to cut back on the power and introduce solid civilian control over the top brass.” That’s the point of Prayuth’s “charm offensive.”

None of the charm changes the Army’s ultimate political position. As Pravit says, “the Army is increasingly affirming itself a major ‘semi-independent’ political player, claming to be the ultimate defender of the throne and the country.” That self-proclaimed role means that the military will continue to choose when it can ditch out civilian and elected governments. The current PR blitz makes that a potentially easier task for the undemocratic Army.

Pravit essentially pleads that: “Repeated military interventions will only further weaken civilian control of the Army, which is not elected and thus not accountable, and eventually render the system ungovernable because there is still a substantial section of Thai society that will no longer put up with another putsch. As supporters and cheerleaders of military rule continue entertaining these prospects, Thailand would do well to understand their myopic and draconian minds better.”


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