In junta-ruled Thailand, critics turn to comedy

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Dissent has been muted by Thailand’s ruling generals since a 2014 coup. But there is one area where critical voices still have some space: humor.

Winyu "John" Wongsurawat poses at his studio before the start of his political satire online broadcast in Bangkok, Thailand July 18, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

With political activity banned, internet censorship in force and activists and dissidents detained or summoned for “attitude adjustment”, public discontent is being manifested in widely shared cartoons, internet memes, and parody music videos.

“Thais are becoming more open to what critics and humorists are saying about the junta and the military government,” political satirist Winyu “John” Wongsurawat told Reuters.

Winyu is the co-host of YouTube show “Shallow News in Depth”, which uses humor to comment on politics.

Last week, Thai pop band Tattoo Colour released a video for their single “Dictator Girl”, which opens with a book titled “44 Rules” – a reference to Article 44, a measure that gives junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha absolute power in the name of national security.

“Dictator Girl” includes lyrics such as: “I must accept everything” and “there are no equal rights”, not-so-subtle references to the ruling National Council for Peace and Order, which has broadly cowed opponents into silence.

“We’re happy that people get it and try to interpret what we meant,” Nittakarn Kaewpiyasawad, who directed the video, told Reuters.

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Also at the forefront of the trend is Facebook page, Kai Maew. Known for comic strips featuring prominent political figures, it has more than 350,000 followers.

It is produced anonymously.

In one of its most popular strips, Prayuth is depicted in a tank - a nod to the junta’s recent military spending - past a farmer struggling with falling commodity prices and a civilian who can’t afford health care.

Another Facebook page uses memes from the 2004 movie “Mean Girls” to tackle topics including a general election that has been pushed back several times.

“There is more talk, especially about the hypocrisy of the military government. There is laughter, but there is also an impact on people’s feelings,” said Winyu.

Government spokesman Weerachon Sukhontapatipak warned against poking fun at the military government online because it could breach defamation and cyber crime laws.

“Before you do anything, please consider existing laws and regulations first,” he said.

In March, Veera Somkwamkid, an activist and vocal coup critic, was charged over a mock poll that parodied the junta’s theme song, “Returning Happiness to Thailand”.

There is also one area where comedy is always off limits.

Thailand’s monarchy is protected by one of the world’s harshest laws against royal insult which says anyone who defames it can be punished with up to 15 years in prison for each offence.

Police have said they will target even those who look at online content critical of the royal family.

Editing by Matthew Tostevin, Robert Birsel