Thai commander-in-chief's anger at media

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 2, 2011 We have featured the outspoken commander-in-chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha before, which has been a constant source for material including his, erm, shall we say unusual handling with the media. Recently, the armed forces have suffered a series of three consecutive helicopter crashes within a week which has claimed at least 17 lives in total (including a Channel 5 cameraman). The first two reportedly went down due to bad weather, while the last one suffered a technical failure. While accidents are unfortunately unavoidable, the string of tragic events that hit the rescue operations after the first crash on July 17 posed questions about the state of the army's equipment and funding despite a $5.2bn strong war chest.

The more Gen Prayuth felt the need to defend his armed forces from any criticism - in his usual manner...

ประยุทธ์ฉุนจวกนักวิชาการด่าทหารโกงโยงฮ.ตก ซัดพูดแล้วต้องรับผิดชอบ ทำทหารเสียขวัญ อัด “เอเอสทีวี-ทีวีแดง-เฟซบุ๊ควาสนา”ทำบ้านเมืองเสียหาย (...) พ้อไทยไม่ได้เป็นชาติมหาอำนาจจะได้มีฮ.ทันสมัยสูงสุด แต่ยัน ฮ.ไทยทันสมัย อาเซียนก็ใช้ โวจะอยู่เป็นผบ.หรือไม่ ไม่สนใจ แต่ทบ.ต้องอยู่ด้วยเกียรติยศ วอนนำเหตุฮ.ตกเป็นบทเรียนปรับปรุง

Prayuth has slammed military experts, who have accused [the army] of corruption in relation to the crashed helicopters, saying that those have to take responsibility [for their words] for destroying the armed forces' morale. He attacks "ASTV, red [shirts'] TV and 'Facebook Wasana'" for destroying the country. (...) He says: "Thailand is not a developed country, which can have the newest helicopters," but also insists that "Thai helicopters are up to date. Other ASEAN states are also using them." Prayuth is not interested if he stays commander-in-chief or not, but the armed forces should have honor and that the helicopter crashes should be taken as a lesson for improvements.

"ในหลวงพระราชทานน้ำหลวงอาบศพเหยื่อฮ.ตก ผบ.ทบ.จวก“เอเอสฯ-ทีวีแดง-เฟซบุ๊ควาสนา”ทำบ้านเมืองเสียหาย", Siam Rath, July 25, 2011 - translation by me

This is an unprecedented case in which a high ranking, influential army officer has explicitly singled out media outlets for criticizing, as if he were trying to point out those who have been especially naughty. But what and who is he referencing to? At the center of Prayuth's attack is Wassana Nanuam, military correspondent for the Bangkok Post, whom he bizarrely referred to only as 'Facebook Wassana' (which also doesn't make much sense in Thai as well).

Here is what Wassana wrote on her Facebook a day before:

เก้าอี้สะเทือน ฮ.ตก3 ลำซ้อนพล.อ.ประยุทธ์ โฟนอินทีวี3-ทีวีไทย ยันเครื่องขัดข้องเสียใจ อย่าตำหนิทหารขอกำลังใจเห็นใจทหารเสี่ยง สายข่าวเผยเจนเนอเรเตอร,มีปัญหา แต่ก็เอาขึ้นบิน นักบินเสียขวัญ คำถามตามมา ให้ ผบทบ.ตอบมากมาย..แต่ควรมาแก่งกระจานเยี่ยมลูกน้องบ้าง ไม่กล้านั่งฮ นั่งรถก็ได้

The chairs are shaking, three helicopters down - Gen. Prayuth phones into Channel 3, TVThai, claims technical failure and mourns [the deceased] - urges not to criticize the army, but to show sympathy and acknowledge their risks. Reports have indicated problems with the generator, but still went up anyways, the pilot has lost confidence [in the machine]. Many more questions for the commander-in-chief to answer [now], but he should visit the troops in Kaeng Krachan - if he's too afraid to take a helicopter, he can go there by car!

Facebook status update by Wassana Nanuam, July 24 at 12:49pm - translation by me

Of course, Wassana took a small swipe at Prayuth and this status update has set off a long discussion thread in the comments with now few heavily taking aim at the commander-in-chief and the armed forces. This was then later mentioned on ASTV and Manager Radio, both media outlets of the yellow shirted, ultra-nationalistic PAD, who have been fiercely criticizing the armed forces ever since the Preah Vihear temple conflict with Cambodia.

Clearly, this appears to be a case of somebody mixing up the medium with the person and its interaction possibilities. Wassana seems to share the sentiment as she wrote in her rebuttal on Facebook:

ผบ.ทบ.เปิดศึกโซเชี่ยลมีเดียตำหนิทวิตเตอร์เฟสบุ๊ควาสนา แย่มากโจมตีกองทัพเรื่องฮ...ไม่รู้ท่านอ่านเองรึเปล่า...คนอื่นแสดงความเห็นทั้งนั้น วาสนาช่วยแจงจนคนหาว่าวาสนาเข้าข้างทหารด้วยซ้ำ ทหารฝ่ายเสธ.เอาแต่เรื่องไม่ดีรายงานนาย ทีช่วยกองทัพกลับไม่รายงาน..สงสัยเห็นวาสนา เป็นผู้ชายเหมือนกันมั้ง

Commander-in-chief declared a war on social media, blames Twitter and 'Facebook Wassana'. What disgrace, criticizing the army over the helicopters... I don't know if the general has read them himself... it was all the other people expressing their opinions! I tried to explain this until they [the comments] accuse me to side with the army. The Chiefs of Staff only report about the bad news to [Prayuth], but when I try to help [explaining] them they don't. May be they think that I'm a man among those men.

Facebook status update by Wassana Nanuam, July 25 at 2:03pm - translation by me

One really wonders what Prayuth thinks about the media, old and new alike (other than closing them down). Nevertheless, a day later, he tried to justify his public erratic behavior:

พล.อ.ประยุทธ์ ยังกล่าวอีกว่า ทุกครั้งที่ตนแสดงสีหน้าอาการดุออกโทรทัศน์ เพราะต้องการแสดงให้เห็นถึงภาวะผู้นำของตนเองเท่านั้น

General Prayuth said: "Every time when I appear angry on television, it is because I only need to show my leadership [authority]"

"ผบ.ทบ.เตรียมจัดซื้อเฮลิคอปเตอร์ล็อตใหม่30ลำ", Naew Na via RYT9, July 26  - translation by me

Which probably then excuses the next nervy outburst:

"วันก่อนผมเดินทางไปร่วมพิธีรดน้ำศพของผู้เสียชีวิตที่กาญจนบุรี ซึ่งเรามีแผนการเดินทาง (...) ทั้งเดินทางด้วยรถยนต์ หรือฮ. ถ้าโดยปกติถ้าอากาศไม่ดีก็จะไม่บินขึ้น (...) แต่ไม่ใช่ว่าไปเขียนกันว่ารมว.กลาโหม ผบ.ทบ.ไม่กล้าขึ้นฮ. แต่ให้ลูกน้องขึ้นแทน ซึ่งผมไม่ได้โกรธ แต่เป็นธรรมหรือไม่"

"Yesterday, I traveled to the funeral in Kanchanaburi, for which we had plans for the travel (...) including by car or by helicopter, which normally in bad weather would not be used. (...) But it's not like in the newspapers that the Defense Minister and the Commander-in-Chief are too afraid to go on the helicopter, but let their soldiers go on it instead - I'm not angry about it, but it is not fair!"

"ถ้าไม่ตอบคำถามตนว่าใครพาดหัวข่าว ก็ไม่ต้องมาถามกันอีก ต่อไปนี้จะไม่ให้สัมภาษณ์แล้ว"

"If you don't tell me who wrote those headlines, then you should not come to me for questions, from now on I would not give any more interviews!"

"ปรากฎการณ์" ฟิวส์ขาด"ผบ.ทบ.วาทะร้อนไม่กล้าขึ้น ฮ. สื่อvsบิ๊กตู่"บทบาท"ที่แตกต่าง แต่"เจตนา"ไม่ต่าง", Matichon, July 28  - translation by me

As usual, General Prayuth talks about journalists required to take responsibility over their words and not 'destroy the country' (or at least his vision of it), while at the same time being completely oblivious about his own words and how they come across to the public eye. The commander-in-chief's relation with the press will remain a contentious one.

BONUS UPDATE: Thanks to @SteveInCM on Twitter, we have now video footage of that most recent incident, including him walking off the interview and making gestures at the press. Also, I forgot to mention that Matichon headline has been aptly named "Blowing up his fuse, Commander-in-Chief spews fury, (...) media vs Big Tu [Prayuth's nickname] (...)"

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and now also on his public Facebook page here.