Bangkok, Thailand – “The country that points a gun at your throat. Claims to have freedom but no right to choose.”
Rap Against Dictatorship (RAD), a Thai hip-hop group, pulls no punches when rapping about their country’s military rulers.
It’s lyrics like these that have struck a chord with the Thai public and shaken up the generals in charge of the country in the lead up to a long-delayed election.
The group’s hit song What My Country’s Got, a lyrical onslaught against the military government, went viral after it was released last year, and has attracted almost 60 million views online.
“The country where the government is untouchable. The police use the law to threaten people. Though you’re enlightened, you have to pretend to sleep,” they rap.
In a country where anyone who criticises the military can receive lengthy jail terms, these young rappers take risks few are willing to emulate.
RAD, as the group is known, is on the front lines of a battle for the right to speak out in the lead up to a pivotal election that could set Thailand on a course back towards democracy, or see it reach new depths of state control.
Since the military took control in May 2014, authorities have arrested activists for acts as seemingly innocuous as a defiant hand gesture and banned the George Orwell book, 1984.
According to Human Rights Watch, authorities prosecuted more than 100 pro-democracy activists in 2018.
But even after their song became an online sensation, RAD is still walking free and unleashing their rap tirades against the military at gigs across Thailand.
“Our work went viral at a time when it hit the government the most. They’d shown they aren’t able to improve the situation and people are upset,” says Hock, one of the band’s cofounders.
He sees the power in numbers and believes the huge popularity of their video has helped keep his collective out of jail.
RAD’s provocations come at a sensitive time for the regime.
Almost five years after they seized power at gunpoint, the military finally confirmed an election would take place on March 24. They had made five previous promises to hold elections.
The constitution and electoral rules they have imposed have been heavily criticised.
They are stacked with provisions that ensure no single party can win a majority while the entire senate is appointed by the military. Incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha is tipped to remain in power.
However, high-profile corruption scandals implicating senior members of the ruling elite and heavy-handed attacks on those who dare to criticise them have tested the patience even of some who originally supported the intervention.
Trade the microphone for a spray can and you get graffitist Headache Stencil. The artist has defied censorship threats to skewer some of the military government’s top brass, including coup leader Prayuth, in stinging satirical works on walls across Thailand.
“I just know that dictatorship will never be good for any of us. That’s why I stand up for myself and do something about it,” he says.
“I have seen many military supporters are now unwilling to support them. I think this is the turning point.”
Stencil hit a nerve with a public growing tired of political corruption when he produced a stencil of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan’s face inside a clock following revelations of the politician’s vast, undeclared luxury watch collection.
It was swiftly painted over but lives eternally on social media platforms such as Instagram.
‘We love freedom’
Lieutenant-General Peerapong Manakit is the commissioner of Thailand’s National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), which regulates how politics is covered by the media.
“Believe me that we are impartial and we love freedom. We promote democracy. We are not a servant to one side,” he tells Al Jazeera.
“When it comes to regulating [media] during the campaign period, we are actually more careful about not bothering them so much.”
But the NBTC has come under fire for temporarily shutting down a television station linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – Voice TV – just months out from the election for airing content “causing confusion and inciting divisions”.
Advocates say it is a case of stifling press freedom. Peerapong says the station was repeatedly warned and the timing is just a coincidence.
Meanwhile, one image that Thailand’s ruling elite had effectively whitewashed from the historical record has become a focal point for artists.
In 1976, state-led forces massacred more than 40 students at Thammasat University who had been protesting the return of a former military dictator.
Renowned photographer and film producer Manit Sriwanichpoom depicts the massacre in Shakespeare Must Die, a film that has been banned by Thai censors.
“They don’t even put it in history textbooks because they know that this symbolises the spirit of the people fighting for democracy,” he says.
Rap Against Dictatorship and Headache Stencil are now openly featuring the massacre in their work by referring to an iconic photograph of a student being lynched.
It’s the kind of work Somrak Sila promotes at her Bangkok gallery, WTF, one of the few that dares to showcase political work.
“I want to provoke but I’m also scared to do that,” she says.
“You have to be obviously careful and smarter, you can’t do anything straightforward, or the message that you want to deliver. It has to be more layered, more dimensional.”
But Somrak is getting bolder. For her latest show, she’s given Headache Stencil free rein to pillory the powerful on the walls of her gallery.
“People are excited about the election and they’ve been watching every move and they want to know as well how the government will react to this kind of art during this period of time,” she says.
Power of art
Actor Pornthip Mankong knows how high the stakes are better than most.
The military regime’s courts jailed her for more than two years for her role in a play deemed to violate the country’s lese majeste laws – some of the strictest in the world.
“I think the military or the police, they will think that I will not be on the stage any more. That I will not make some artwork any more,” she says.
“But why I will not do that? Because I know the power of art. Because I saw. I saw the fear of the military. That’s why they put me in jail – because they fear.”
Theatres won’t work with her so she’s taking to the streets for pop-up performances demanding answers to why she’s been banned from politics for 10 years.
“They must control the people. We had to make a confession when we got arrested because under the military rule we will not win the case,” she says.
“This is the real life that you have to face with the threat of the military.”