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Mop-haired, swoon-worthy pop star Dan Worrawech has a message for the youth of Thailand.
Actually so does Pod, laidback crooner with the Thai alt-rock trio Moderndog. As does Ad Carabao, Southeast Asia’s scraggly answer to Bruce Springsteen.
Who has the power to assemble this perfect trifecta of coolness: the heartthrob, the indie dude and the mass-appeal classic rocker? And what message have they joined forces to deliver?
That would be the Thai military. And the message – conveyed in song, of course — is that Thailand’s youth must live simply and avoid extremism. Participating in the country’s smoldering political divide? Definitely not cool.
“We need not be so selfish and we shouldn’t fight one another,” said Pod at an event for “Moderation Society Thailand,” a campaign designed by the military’s Internal Security Operations Command, which has a long history of promoting nationalism in times of crisis.
Better known as “MoSoThai,” this is the domestic security division’s hippest and most digital propaganda outing yet. Its anthem, "Thinking Longterm," is well-crafted pop rock, driven by blazing synthesizer riffs and three-part harmonies. The campaign has produced not just TV and radio ads, but an online community as well.
Even the title “MoSo” is a play on the Thai slang “HiSo” or “high society.” It’s a phrase that sometimes pejoratively describes Bangkok’s well-heeled jet set.
“I want people to cooperate to tackle the country’s current problems,” said MoSo sponsor Panwad “Sugar” Nirunkul, the well-known daughter of a celebrity game show host. “Every Thai, in every region, must help one another pass through the crisis.”
The chaos, hinted at by MoSo celebs, is rooted in a political divide fuelled by region and class bitterness. Tension sparked by the 2006 coup of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra – a rural favorite — has recently exploded into street protests both for and against the exiled premier. In the past 12 months, various political mobs have seized Bangkok’s airports, hijacked public buses and helped topple Thaksin-allied prime ministers.
Despite its hip veneer, MoSo is the latest in a long of military propaganda campaigns. During turbulent points in Thailand’s development, the internal security command has always promoted images of a united Thailand. (The MoSo campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)
Formed with American aid during the Vietnam War, the division was originally devoted solely to suppressing communists. Even then, the command promoted a strong Thai identity to discourage sympathy with communist guerillas hiding in the jungle.
Back then, and now with MoSo, the ads use quasi-Buddhist concepts of “sufficiency” and “moderation” to discourage political extremism. Thailand’s royal family has long championed a “sufficiency economy” that promotes self-reliance and discourages overindulgence.
If Thais would live within their means and behave moderately, so the teachings go, the country would achieve greater harmony. Joining mass protests, MoSo explains, is not behaving moderately. Some MoSo ads even depict screaming protesters as a disease that has infected society.
But several academics have deemed the MoSo campaign patronizing and dismissive of the class resentment that sparks mass protests.
Anti-establishment protesters known as “red shirts” draw heavily from the poor northeast. And few imagine this demographic will relate to Moso’s urban flair — or its backing by Bangkok-centric military leadership, especially after the army was called in to quell their April riots in parts of Bangkok.
“I don’t think this kind of campaign is going to work,” said Pasuk Phongpaichit, author and economics professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “The campaign doesn’t tell the people who are agitating, who are feeling unhappy, what they’re going to get out of these campaigns. To love Thailand and so what? Are we going to get a better deal from loving Thailand? Are we going to get a better deal from being moderate or MoSo?”
Though MoSo ads started appearing months ago, few teenagers lolling about one of Bangkok’s after-school haunts said they felt inspired by the campaign.
“I think people my age all have their own ideas already,” said Petch Bornbracis, an 18-year-old college student. “My generation? We know what’s going on. People have already picked their side.”
Two other college students confessed they’d never even heard of MoSo. Aside from parents nagging them to stay indoors when protests grow too intense, they admitted they were mostly happy to ignore Thailand’s political strife and focus on their studies.
“A campaign like that might work if they reinforced it more,” said Atima Yasadatt, 18, clutching textbooks under her arm. “I don’t know. Like, maybe if they made a song for it or something?”