It’s my own fault; I shouldn’t have been watching Indiana Jones in the first place. But you know how it is with Indy—the thing comes on and you think, ‘Oh no, not Indiana Jones! I must have seen this a dozen times.’ But you stay on the channel just to make sure you don’t want to watch it. Gradually, especially if you’re as old as Khun Pobaan, you get the idea that you actually haven’t seen this one before. How could you have missed it? They only made four of them and it certainly feels as if you’ve seen them all multiple times.
I watch a bit more. It gets less familiar the more I watch. It’s entertaining in an Indiana Jones kind of way and I don’t have anything else to do, so I hunker down to enjoy the movie. It turns out to be about crystal skulls, so must be the fourth title in the Indy franchise, explaining why I haven’t seen it before: mental exhaustion brought on by the previous three films.
So there’s Indy leaping about in the jungle when suddenly the screen changes. It’s an official-looking announcement, followed by the appearance of the prime minister in front of a suitably devout Buddhist backdrop, followed by a video of dirty water flowing out of a pipe. ‘Oh no,’ I think despairingly, ‘It’s the evening lecture from our military dictatorship.’
I swiftly change channels. More dirty water. I change again. It’s still flowing out of a pipe. The prime minister’s voice drones on, presumably telling us about drains. I change channels frantically and have to go a long way to avoid the drain lecture. At Khao Talo Towers, our television channels are coaxed down from the ether by a satellite dish. This crude-looking bit of apparatus brings us about fifty channels, the majority of which seem to broadcast nothing but football matches. In the evening, about ten of them are taken over by the military to convey to us the same information about drains. Why we need to watch the same thing on ten channels simultaneously is not clear to me, but we all know that military intelligence is an oxymoron so we cannot expect the government’s propaganda to be arranged along logical lines.
I have to give up on Indy and his crystal skulls. I switch off and gaze at the wonders of nature as represented by the plants in our garden instead.
I’ve never lived in a military dictatorship before, nor experienced a coup, but it all seems eerily familiar—a case of déjà coup, perhaps. It’s as if there’s an instruction manual somewhere that tells you how to take over a country and what to do next.
For example, why is it always the army that does it? Why not the air force? And why does it have to be the military at all? Have we ever known of a coup by brewers, bank managers or dental hygienists? Where is their civic pride? Where is their patriotism? Could these people not see the parlous state of the nation? Why wasn’t it they who stepped in to take over and make promises about peace and harmony and prepare the country for another brief bout of democracy?
You may think it’s obvious, that the army are the ones with the guns and can shoot us if we disagree with their plan. But the brewers have control of the nation’s beer supplies. The bank managers have our money. Dental hygienists have floss. This gives them immense power. Gatherings of muttering discontents on street corners could be broken up by threatening no Singha beer for a week. Publication of subversive leaflets could be stifled by stopping the traitors’ direct debits to their mobile phone companies, effectively cutting them off from their Instagram accounts and leaving them with nothing to do with their thumbs. The dangerously seditious could be whisked away in dawn raids and strapped to reclining dentist’s chairs where they would be played agonisingly soothing music and threatened with regular flossing until they named their accomplices.
The video about the drains was meant to make us feel happy and cared for and that Something is Being Done about flooding. No one comes on the telly to say that Not Enough is Being Done about flooding so we have no way of knowing whether the good job that the army tells us it is doing is good enough, except by waiting for the monsoon and checking the water level in our living room.
Last week the lecture was about roads. Two nervous-looking men with military titles read from auto-cues about their plans to build more spanking new roads. The trouble is, although most people will think this is great because they’re road users, none of us is actually an expert on roads so we have no way of knowing if the roads are in the right places, or if they represent good value, or if they’ll be built well or if it might be a better idea to build something else instead, like railways.
You only truly appreciate something when it is taken away. Think of air. You can’t even see it. The same is true of democracy. It’s easy to dismiss political debate as childish bickering and to long for everyone to work together for the common good. But what is the common good? When you live in a dictatorship you find that it’s what a bunch of soldiers tell you it is. Who is there to challenge their view? No-one.
They could even be wrong.
Frankly, I’d rather have the brewers or bankers.
Or even the dental hygienists.