This edited article by Kittinun Klongyai is from Prachatai, an independent news site in Thailand, and is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.
Last June, Thai television station Channel Seven — with ample members of the military in attendance — held a press conference announcing a new military-themed series named “Love Missions”. The show marks the military’s most explicit intervention in the country’s soap opera, or lakorn, industry yet.
Capt. Wanchana Sawasdee, a military representative, remarked:
We feel that the stories support nationalism and love for the nation.
But how much fantasy can viewers stomach, as the reality of dictatorial rule grows bleaker by the day?
Dramas as political tools
In Thailand, lakorns have long been employed by juntas to instill within viewers a sense of nationalism and positive feelings towards the military. Few other TV programs outrate soap operas and the influence of lakorns is widespread, with handsome male actors frequently referred to as “national husbands” on social media.
Chanan Yodhong, an academic specialising in Thai pop culture, explains that military-themed lakorns are often the product of a mutually beneficial relationship where the military provides resources (ranging from financial subsidies to real weaponry for props) in return for good publicity. But not all such lakorns represent the junta’s direct intervention, given these incentives for production companies to proactively produce nationalistic dramas.
Still, the marrying of love and tanks has cropped up time and time again in remakes of the military-themed romantic-comedy “Phu Kong Yod Rak”, produced like clockwork in the aftermath of coups. But Chanan points out:
…each remake of Phu Kong was produced under different conditions and political contexts, or hidden agendas.
The junta’s attitudes towards governance have as such inevitably seeped into lakorns screened since the latest coup d'état. In 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order’s (NCPO) suspension of democracy was controversial. The 2015 remake of “Phu Kong Yod Rak” was one attempt to promote extreme right-wing ideals together with a citizen-friendly facade.
The lakorn’s male lead, Pan Namsuphan, is set up as the epitome of masculinity since he signs up for the military instead of getting drafted, easily and humbly follows the commands of his leader, and collaborates with his team to help villagers. Pan is portrayed as friendly, with a provincial accent to induce comfort and laughter from viewers.
Chanan argues such a portrayal reproduces the myth that soldiers are always honorable and have good intentions and promote the idea that:
…far-right ideals of how military power is not only natural but beneficial to the nation.
In 2016 a South Korean military-themed drama, “Descendants of the Sun”, found similar fame in Thailand during a time of political chaos. “What a coincidence!” laughs Chanan. “Though of course, Thailand is chaotic all the time.”
The series follows the relationship between Yoo Si-jin, the captain of a South Korean Special Forces unit, and Dr. Kang Mo-yeon, a young doctor. Even though Yoo Si-Jin is assigned many a dangerous mission, he performs them for the sake of the nation. Eventually, he is sent on a mission in the fictional country of Uruk, where he meets Mo-yeon.
“Descendants of the Sun” won high praise from junta leader Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha himself who, Chanan argues, leveraged the show to present militarism as a global norm. Prayut once enthused:
I see in this series messages of patriotism, devotion, obedience and the duty to take care of the people. The characters have conflicts, but in the end, they understand each other.
Go watch it again! If anyone wants to produce something like it, I’m happy to subsidise.
Now “Love Missions” (Pha Ra Kit Rak) deals with a political climate where Thai citizens are increasingly demanding elections and democracy. This entertainment endeavor could hint at the junta’s longing for more time in power, Chanan suggests.
“Love Missions” was originally a military-themed romantic novel copyrighted by Channel Seven. It was adapted into a four-part military action-drama that revolves around the stories of four young soldiers committed to crushing international terrorism. The lakorn’s crisis-filled plot conveys the idea that the military is needed to protect citizens from atrocities, just as Prayut has delayed elections under the pretense that the country is not yet ready.
Perhaps more alarming than the political message, however, was the military’s overt role in producing the series. The Royal Thai Army (RTA) along with Royal Thai Police (RTP) provided much of the production’s ensemble, along with military weapons, equipment and settings. It is also unsurprising that Channel Seven is broadcasting the series, given it is partly owned by the RTA.
When propaganda flops
Rather than new and burgeoning social and entertainment platforms, why has the junta invested so steadily in soap operas? One answer could be their genuine popularity among Thai citizens. But Chanan argues military lakorns also reveal the junta’s limitations.
Chanan observes that the military’s propaganda apparatus has developed little since the Cold War. The military’s long use of lakorns as a political instrument reflects obsolete and outdated perspectives on the media, Chanan argues:
It’s of course a matter of the popularity of dramas, but one other thing is that they don’t know how to use any other methods.
Nor does the military always temper right-wing ideology enough to be palatable for mass consumption. Soaps are floating further and further from reality, leaving viewers unable to buy into the fantasy, Chanan says:
The military’s lakorns are not meticulously and professionally produced. It’s like the characters are written to plainly voice the far-right ideals. Who will eat it up?
For Chanan, overt portrayals of extreme militarism in lakorns insult the intelligence of the Thai people:
They’re blinded by their own fantasies to the point that they think the representations they set up in the soaps will surely persuade the people to believe that such perfect, ideal soldiers really exist. It’s delusional to think this is enough to alleviate the people’s sorrow and disappointment with the military in the real world.
The military’s lack of both skills in modern media and an understanding of the Thai people will be its own downfall, Chanan predicts. He says citizens can only digest so much escapism, when faced with the reality of military governance:
If the military keeps deceiving itself into thinking that it can control everyone’s thoughts, reiterating the same myth, practicing the same approaches, as well as rejecting reality and substituting with their fantasy, when will they … truly move the country towards progress?
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