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Jun 05, 2014 | INTERNATIONAL

Thai Coup d'état: The Unbearable Lightness Of Meaning

In an apparent effort to nip an absurd, nation-wide, semantics brouhaha in the bud, the Thai military junta (unironically named National Council for Peace and Order), has been weighing in with its own interpretation of the meaning of the three-finger salute that anti-establishment protesters are using to show their dissent.


This is by no means a random act of semantic intervention. When the Thai military deposed the caretaker civilian government last month, it did so not so much to restore physical order, but in essence to re-establish semiotic orthodoxy. During the years of political turbulence that culminated in the violent protests that begun on November of 2013, Thai society was not only rattled by government overreach and corruption , but more importantly, in the eyes of the army generals at least, by semantic obfuscation and linguistic apostasy in an unpatriotic attempt to denigrate the national identity and demoralize the collective psyche.


Concepts such as the "ruling elite", traditionally sacrosanct and awe-inducing, were being undermined, underhandedly painted in a negative valence, while others like "majority rule" were being stripped off of their intrinsically nefarious undertones and promoted in a falsely positive light. Even the color red was high-jacked by the pro-Taksin faction to dress all those downtrodden, lumpen supporters, thereby replacing its elemental psychological meaning of optimism and passion with defeatism and disdain. All this linguistic and semantic disorientation was literally making people antsy & bellicose and finally drove them out on the streets to rage & riot. The army had no choice but to intervene.


Immediately after declaring martial law on May 20th, in order to get this message through (namely that words are not up to whimsical interpretation and that any such attempt to obscure or replace their single, authentic, sanctioned meaning can only result in confusion at best and mayhem at worst), the army coyly issued a statement denying that the coup that just happened was a coup. Of course two days later they retracted this, but the whole point was to demonstrate the silliness and absurdity of tampering with the established linguistic sensibility and preordained order of things. During the two days of semantic hell and conceptual angst that Thai citizens had to endure, they lost faith in their ability to understand words and by extension in their own sanity, which led them to realize the slippery slope the pro-Taksin faction's unhinged governance was pushing them on to, a downwards spiral to existential negation.


So when General Prayuth Chan-ocha finally announced on TV that this was indeed a coup, a collective sigh of relief was felt across the country. The announcement also put the ensuing imposed restrictions (curfews, media blackout, social media censorship, prohibition of public gatherings, etc) into perspective. When you are freed of existential turmoil, staying at home watching military TV programming does not seem that bad.


As far as the three-fingered, Hunger Games inspired gesture is concerned, the ruling Council was of course shift to provide strict guidelines as to its use to avoid confusion & malpractice, namely to ban it. No surprise there, it is after all a protest sign, but more than that, its meaning was neither defined nor can it be influenced or altered by the authorities. It is therefore anathema to a dictatorship (like any authoritarian regime) that vies to be the sole purveyor of content & context. Plus, as powerful as the Thai dictatorship is, all guns- & tanks-wielding, it still cannot compete with a Hollywood multi-billion entertainment franchise.

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