Dispatch

Rap Against Dictatorship Turns Thai Protests Into Video Hits

Facing a military-backed government, Thai protesters find musical inspiration.

Rap Against Dictatorship performs during a demonstration at the October 14th Memorial in Bangkok on Aug. 27.
Rap Against Dictatorship performs during a demonstration at the October 14th Memorial in Bangkok on Aug. 27. Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

BANGKOK—“When this government stop, then I will stop,” said Dechathorn Bamrungmuang, the frontman of Rap Against Dictatorship (RAD), who was arrested at his home in August on a range of charges including sedition. With his wife pregnant with their second child, Dechathorn, known to his fans as Hockhacker, is the only family man in the 12-person group of Thailand’s most popular musical dissidents.

Months of protests have been met with shutdowns in public transport, a spate of arrests of student protest leaders, and deadlock in Thailand’s legislature. RAD has kept going.

On Nov. 8, anti-government protesters closed in on buses and razor wire blocking them from delivering their petitions to the Privy Council, which advises the monarchy. Police fired water cannons above the protesters, and the demonstrators tore down the gate to Sanam Luang and streamed into the grounds, all in the light of the Grand Palace.

It was an unlikely setting for a music video, but RAD kept filming for their new video, dancing and singing their way north along Ratchadamnoen Avenue along the protest route. The video, titled “Reform,” continued shooting until around five minutes before the water cannons were released on protesters.

“We had already finished the shoot for the day, but when the water cannons came, I said, ‘Come on everyone, shoot again! It’s good for background!’” said Skanbombomb, the music video’s director, talking in a quiet alley studio in Bangkok. Within four days, the video was nearing 3 million views.

Rap Against Dictatorship shot to popularity with “What My Country’s Got” in 2018, a seething rebuke of the country’s military-aligned government. RAD has more than 600,000 followers and more than 100 million views on YouTube, and has been praised at home and abroad by fans, artists, and human rights organizations.

The group members, known to their fans by their stage names, come from diverse backgrounds. Liberate P studied architecture. 19Tyger grew up in the infamous Khlong Toey slums. E.T. remains anonymous.

“My parents worry about me,” said RAD rapper Protozua, formerly a sound engineer. “On the day my first song was released, my dad called and said, ‘Hey, good, you did something good for society.’ On the day [Hockhacker] got arrested, he called me again: ‘Hey boy, that group that you joined, you tell them you are busy and work full time.’”

“You feast on our taxes so we ceased to be mute, no we ain’t gonna grovel, here’s our three-finger salute,” the lyrics to “Reform” say, referring to the three-finger salute from the Hunger Games that has come to define Thai protest imagery.

The new single is the latest in the group’s long list of anti-government, anti-conservative songs. RAD regularly releases singles taking on topics ranging from bullying and Buddhist tradition to protests and the 1976 Thammasat University massacre.

“My family watch Nation, all day—all day,” Protozua said, exasperated, referring to the right-wing Nation TV network. Protozua said he told his mother that he was at the mall during the Nov. 8 protests; he said she would find out the truth when they release the video.

In August, Hockhacker and a member of another group, Eleven Finger, were arrested and granted bail. Hockhacker echoes the harassment in the lyrics of “Reform”: “Fight with freedom, fight with our brains. It ain’t a crime to be detained.”

“If they arrest people again, it is maybe for the September 19 mob,” Hockhacker said, the “mob” being shorthand for the ongoing protests. “There are three requirements: one, then two, and three, we must talk,” Hockhacker said, referring to the protesters’ demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, rewriting of the constitution, and reform of the monarchy.

The new single takes oblique aim at the monarchy, usually a taboo topic in Thailand, where the king is revered and a powerful force in Thai politics. Whereas the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej was universally beloved, Thailand’s current king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, has drawn criticism for his lavish lifestyle and behavior.

This is not the first time Rap Against Dictatorship has been under scrutiny from the law. Their first hit brought accusations of breaking the broadly defined Computer Crime Act, which has been used to silence the conservative government’s critics.

“Fear makes me strong,” said Liberate P, who worked on Rap Against Dictatorship’s first big hit with his solo work in 2016. “We are scared about our jobs, our work. When we get more famous, people know that we are activists.”

The anti-government protests blossomed originally from attacks on the now-dissolved progressive Future Forward Party and its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, in the wake of the 2019 elections, but the protests have evolved to be about everything from abortion to legalizing marijuana.

Right-wing royalists have been moving to counter the student-led protests both in the streets and online. Though largely older and outnumbered in Bangkok, the “yellow shirt” contingent is backed by the government and military.

Similarly, Thailand’s elite are quick to lay blame at the feet of mysterious behind-the-scenes agents, from the charismatic Thanathorn to the CIA and the British intelligence agency MI5. Echoing China’s spurious conspiracy theories during the Hong Kong protests, recent yellow shirts took their grievances to the U.S. Embassy last month. Thailand is a strong U.S. ally, but has grown increasingly close to China in recent years under military control.

On social media, rabid commentators are sure RAD is controlled by illegal, liberal forces in Thailand or nefarious foreign plotters.

“We see this every day. This is how they dehumanize the movement,” said Protozua. “They’re too far. What can we do? Almost nothing, because they don’t research, they don’t even think. They reject because they’ve programmed themselves to reject.”

Meanwhile, calls for another coup have sprung up from ultraroyalist corners of Thailand. Last week, the leader of the People’s Network for the Protection of the Monarchy, Krit Yiammethakorn, called for the army chief to crack down on the anti-government movement and to “shut down the country” with “special laws.” Army chief Narongphan Jittkaewtae ruled out a coup in a recent statement, to little relief.

Rap Against Dictatorship isn’t the only group with nontraditional protest methods. The members of Sk8tizen do tricks on skateboards reading “Fuck 112” (referring to the country’s lèse-majesté law), choreographed dancers party in the street, and bands play from the back of trucks. The ever-present mobile food vendors have earned themselves the name “CIA” because they seem to know where the protests are going to be before they happen.

“They think if we wait, we might run out of resources,” said Protozua, describing the protests almost like a festival. “I take some of my friends who don’t care about politics. Hey, let’s go to the mob, have fun, drink beers.”

Rap Against Dictatorship performed “Reform” live on Saturday at Mob Fest, a confluence of demonstrations at Democracy Monument, during which protesters turned their back on the royal motorcade.

“We just have to keep doing it,” said Liberate P. “More people will see, more people will recognize, more people will join.”

Tyler Roney is a journalist in Thailand.

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