Creative Development | Rap Against Dictatorship: Thai lessons in history, politics, and belonging by Roy Huijsmans

On December 30th, 2018, when the end-of-year music charts were nearing their annual climax, music history was made in Thailand: the music video of Thai collective Rap Against Dictatorship called Prathet Ku Mi ([What] My Country’s Got) reached 50 million views on YouTube. This blog post explains that appreciating rap as social critique requires going beyond lyrics to contextualise its multiple and at times subtle messages and references.


Thailand has a long history of military coups.[1] The most recent one took place on May 22nd, 2014. Since then, Thailand has been ruled by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), formed by the military. Various observers have expressed concern about the human rights situation in Thailand under the NCPO. In 2018, Freedom House cautioned that the government ‘has exercised unchecked powers granted by the constitution to impose extensive restrictions on civil and political rights, and to suppress dissent’.[2] Next to rewriting the constitution, the NCPO has used various legal instruments to supress critical voices, including a new Computer Crime Act and restrictions on political gatherings.[3]

Within this context, academic conferences are monitored, too. Recently, charges were pressed against Thai academics who protested this at the 2017 International Conference on Thai Studies (Chiang Mai) by holding up handwritten Thai language signs declaring that ‘an academic forum is not a military camp’. This peaceful protest was deemed violating Order No.3/2015 that forbids political gatherings of five people or more.[4]

Rap as critique

The country free of corruption which doesn’t even investigate on it,
The country whose prime minister’s watch is made of corpses
The country whose parliament is the playground of its soldiers,
The country in which a constitution is written so that its army’s paws can trample all over it,

This is my country, this is my country.[5]

Holding up some handwritten signs at an academic conference seems gentle protest compared to the language used in Prathet Ku Mi. It thus came as no surprise that within days of its YouTube release (October 22nd, 2018), the Thai newspaper The Nation reported that ‘police had already been ordered to identify the rappers and explore the option of pressing charges’.[6] The day after, The Nation continued reporting on the song, stating that it ‘went to the top of Thailand’s iTunes download list’ and had already attracted millions of viewers.[7] Possibly because it went viral, to date no actual charges have been pressed against the rappers.

The lyrics are only a small part of what makes Prathet Ku Mi such a remarkable song. James Mitchell explains on New Mandala that the real power of the song perhaps lies in the moving images of the music video.[8]

From lyrics to visuals

The music video restages an iconic image of what is known as the Thammasat massacre or the 6 October event. At 3:20 minutes into the clip a guitar solo sets in. The camera zooms in on an electric guitar in the colours of the Thai flag – the only colour scene in the music video. The next scene makes clear what the audience in the background has been cheering to: a hanging, and a young man beating the hanged body with a chair.

On 6 October 1976 Thai state and paramilitary forces violently ended a student protest at Thammasat University in Bangkok. Students protested the (invited) return to Thailand of the former military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn. Suchada Chakpisuth, a then first year student at Thammasat, recalled that the violence was triggered by a mock-hanging students staged to demand justice following an actual hanging of students by state forces. Unfortunately or deliberately, the Thai radio reported it as ‘a play lynching the Crown prince’ by communist students unleashing disproportionate countermeasures.[9]

To date, no one has ever been charged for the violence and many questions have remained unanswered. The music video returns to this moment in Thai history in a musical genre that appeals to the young. As James Mitchell argues, the music video thereby ‘accomplished what the Thai education system cannot’ because school books do not discuss this moment in Thai history in much detail.[10]

Prathet Ku Mi: a statement of belonging

With the long-delayed elections in sight (March 24th, 2019), Rap Against Dictatorship has released a timely and youthful lesson in political consciousness and citizenship. Their message is one of critique, but a deeply engaged one. This is realised by juxtaposing the listing of criticism with the phrase prathet ku mi (ประเทศกูมี).

Coupling the Thai term prathet (ประเทศ) for country with the first person pronoun ku (กู), the English translation as ‘my country’ does not do justice to the intricate meanings conveyed through this phrase. First, connecting the collective notion of prathet to the personal deviates from common expressions used by politicians such as prathet Thai (ประเทศไทย; Thailand) or prathet rao (ประเทศกเรา; our country). Next to this individual claim on a collective concept, ku is not a neutral personal pronoun. Ku is what is used informally among friends as a means to bond but also to convey anger. This intricate use of language not only fits the style of the rap genre – it also conveys a very firm sense of belonging. It is a personal statement, yet reclaiming the collective. It is informal, yet referring to the formal construct of country. It is full of anger, yet it is all but disengaging. After all these rappers suggest learning from the troubled history of ‘my country’.


Hyperlink to Youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZvzvLiGUtw
[1] https://www.newmandala.org/counting-thailands-coups/
[2] https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2018/thailand
[3] https://asiancorrespondent.com/2016/12/understanding-thailands-revised-computer-crimes-act/
[4] https://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1314859/charges-against-academics-harm-nation
[5] https://lyricstranslate.com/en/%E0%B8%9B%E0%B8%A3%E0%B8%B0%E0%B9%80%E0%B8%97%E0%B8%A8%E0%B8%81%E0%B8%B9%E0%B8%A1%E0%B8%B5-prathet-ku-mi-my-country.html
[6] http://www.nationmultimedia.com/detail/breakingnews/30357295
[7] http://www.nationmultimedia.com/detail/breakingnews/30357314
[8] https://www.newmandala.org/thailands-rap-against-dictatorship/
[9] https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/unforgettable-unrememberable-the-thammasat-massacre-in-thailand/#!
[10] https://www.newmandala.org/thailands-rap-against-dictatorship/

This article is part of a series on Creative Development. See the first article of this series here.


Image Credit: Pauliepg. The picture has been cropped.


Color 2 Roy Huijsmans

About the author:

Roy Huijsmans is a teacher/researcher at the ISS.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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