Through rap, graffiti and photography, young Thai people are fighting back against censorship
“I think most people don’t know the structures behind bad politics,” says Dechathorn Bumrungmuang, a young Thai rapper with a prickly buzzcut and soft smile who goes by the stage name Hockhacker. “They can recognise bad actions by politicians, but not the structures behind them.”
For a fresh-faced twentysomething who has just racked up fifty million views on YouTube, it might be surprising to hear such clear-minded and critical rhetoric. But the starkness of the political situation in Thailand – where there has been increasing online censorship, Orwellian surveillance, bans on political protest, and arrests of activists – means that Hockhacker’s collective, Rap Against Dictatorship, see little other option.
Under the current government, which has been led by a military junta since a coup in 2014, one man was sentenced 35 years in prison for sharing images of the Thai royal family on Facebook, while activists have been jailed for eating sandwiches as a form of “peaceful resistance”, reading George Orwell's 1984 in public, and holding up the three-finger salute of the Hunger Games. Beyond those headlines, a Human Rights Watch report has said there is a regime of “repression of civil and political liberties, imprisonment of dissidents, and impunity for torture.”
“It’s about creating fear,” claims Hockhacker, who counts NWA, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino among his inspirations when it comes to politicised rap. “The government want to scare young people to prevent them from reacting. But we must participate in stopping inequality and unfairness in the world.”
Rap Against Dictatorship’s video proved a watershed moment: it made direct and bold criticism of the Thai government. In it, ten rappers attack corruption and bad governance, before the camera reveals a crowd cheering on a man using a chair to hit a corpse of a student hanging from a tree. It was a provocative reference to the massacre of as many as 100 left-wing students by regime supporters at Bangkok’s Thammasat University on 6 October 1976. It’s not an event featured in school textbooks, but was captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by Neal Ulevich.
Thailand’s prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha hit back, warning “anyone that shows appreciation toward the song must accept responsibility” amid threats of arrest for damaging the country’s image and breaking the computer crimes act. But the video has struck a chord in the country, reaching far beyond the realms of the Thai rap scene: an anti-dictatorship arts movement has emerged. Although political activity is still banned after the 2014 coup, strands of socio-political activism have begun to spread.
“The government is stuck between a rock and a hard place,” according to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of International Relations at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “Allowing the music video to go viral means being attacked for the military regime's flaws and lacklustre performance. Letting it go will also encourage other artistic expressions of dissent and government criticism.”
With elections set to take place next month, it’s a key moment for Thai politics. And it’s one that masked graffiti artist Headache Stencil, known by some as Thailand’s Banksy, is keen to grab with both hands. He’s about to set off on a week-long road trip from Khon Kaen in the east of the country to Chiang Mai in the north.
“I will paint everywhere that I drive past,” he tells me cheerily. “The idea is to get people more interested in politics. It’s a really exciting time. Our new generation, they can go to the election and make a difference this time.”
Known for his skewering satires of the military government, Headache Stencil hit a nerve after Prawit Wongsuwan, the deputy prime minister, was photographed with a lavish watch worth nearly $100,000. In response, he sprayed an image of Prawit’s face inside an alarm clock, making a unequivocal point: time is up for the old politics. “I made that full of emotions,” he recalls. It did not go down well and, pursued by the authorities, he fled to the border with Vietnam and into hiding.
He has avoided arrest until now, but wider fears remain. “I want the world to look more at Thailand in the next few months to see if the elections are fair or not,” he explains, before pleading: “Don’t leave us alone.”
Those concerns appear to be justified. Political cartoonist Kai Maew, whose Facebook page is liked by more than 300,000, has had to dodge attempts to close down his website, while the conceptual photography of Harit Srikhao led to soldiers shutting down an exhibition called “Whitewash” at Bangkok’s Ver Gallery.
“The government want to scare young people to prevent them from reacting. But we must participate in stopping inequality and unfairness in the world” – Hockhacker
Srikhao’s series was about the “Red Shirts” movement in 2010, which saw political unrest and brutal, violent responses from the military, resulting in thousands of civilians being injured and some killed. At the time, he was just a schoolboy and supported the government. Only later, he learned the truth. The images are a dreamy, ephemeral depiction of that sanitisation of public knowledge, with gleaming soldiers and cartoonish crowds.
Srikhao has since left the country and is studying an MA at the University of Milan, with an upcoming show in Manchester. “I was very shocked and unhappy about what happened at the gallery even though it wasn’t unexpected,” says the 23-year-old. “It was supposed to be very personal work about how my friends and I thought about the events. But now I’ve left Thailand it’s given me a lot of freedom to do what I want. To be far away, I understand what is happening in my country better.”
Understanding procedures will be a stern test during the upcoming elections. Although said to be a democratic process, the Thai army will have the final say on any result because of the military-drafted constitution in 2016, which means that they may choose an unelected prime minister and a third of the politicians regardless.
Hopes nonetheless lie with the new progressive political group Future Forward Party, who were only formed by 39-year-old billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit in March and whose slogan promises “a brighter future”. They claim to speak for this younger generation, and have gained significant support.
Realistically, however, a victory for Future Forward would be an incredible surprise and highly unlikely. But there is a feeling among Thailand’s youth that they are on the cusp of change. “The new parties have started a new idiom, a new concept, about having the future in our own hands,” says rapper Hockhacker. “We are the new generation.”