14th February is Valentine’s Day. On this day for winning hearts, protesters remain in the streets of Bangkok. There has been another push from protester leaders to call the masses into the streets to support their anti-government demonstrations.
In war, politics and love winning the hearts and minds separates the victors from the vanquished. I find significance in the traditional word ordering of the phrase. Start with the heart, and the mind will follow. Straight from Hume and every modern psychologists led by Daniel Kahneman. If you can emotionally involve another person the hard battle is won. The mind simply fills in the justification for the heart’s decision.
The hearts and minds drama is being played out in the streets of Bangkok. It also has a psych ops patterns worth exploring. If one were clever and devious enough, the best line of attack would be to undermine the populist programs of the Government by turning the recipients of the populist programs against the Government.
Let’s talk about Thailand’s rice farmers. Any psych ops that would win the hearts of rice farmers might represent a political turning point. This is an interesting story. A brief summary: The vast bulk of rice farmers live in the Northeast and North of Thailand. They are loyal supporters of the Government. The Government draws support from the Reds. The Red movement is committed to representative democracy and elections. Since the election of Thaksin Shinawattra in 2001, rice farmers have voted in super majorities for members of his political party.
The current political turmoil finds his sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawattra, who led her party to the polls on 2nd February, and who has faced months of unrest led by ex-MPs of the Democrat Party, who resigned and took to the streets to lead protestors to bring down the Government. The protesters have used various means in their struggle—blocked road, cut electricity and water to government offices, blocked polling stations, ‘arrested’ and beat up people, threatened kidnapping of the prime minister’s son, and ten people have been killed and hundreds injured in violent incidents related to the anti-government protests.
The protest leaders have shifted their reason for attacking the Government from an ill-conceived amnesty bill, and the allegedly illegal attempts to amend the Constitution (the Government wanted a fully elected as opposed to a half-elected, half-appointed Senate) and the usual standby—corruption. The leaders have had their bank accounts frozen by a government agency. They have marched around Bangkok gathering ‘donations’ to support their protest.
So far the protesters, looking at the dwindling numbers in the streets (sometimes a handful) are not winning hearts and minds of their fellow Thais. But they have a new idea. Having effectively reduced the authority of the caretaker government, it isn’t surprising problems are arising. Such as payments which are now due to rice farmers under a controversial rice subsidy scheme, which by all accounts is riddled with problems, including allegations of mismanagement and corruption. The protesters having closed down the ability of the Government to pay the farmers, now blames the Government for failing to deliver the payments. The protesters have powerful allies. The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) is expected to bring formal charges against the caretaker Prime Minister for her role in the rice-pledging scheme.
The message is being spread that this heartless Government you voted for is letting you down. They created a bad program. The local English language newspapers, which are heavily anti-government, run stories of rice farmers committing suicide over money worries. They show 500 rice farmers who have come to Bangkok to complain to the government.
The protesters have a new message that goes something along these lines:
Democracy isn’t your friend. Your friends pay you. This Government is a false friend. Voting and democracy are unreliable. They cheat you.
If your heart is in democracy, you will only be disappointed.
Join us. Sing with us. Come to our picnics and nightly concerts. Happy Valentine’s Day, rice farmers, we love you! Wait for the new T-shirts we’ve ordered.
Even though we called you water buffalo and said you were stupid last month, that was last month, forget about that. This month, we are your friend, and your savior.
In fact, the objective appears to be an old fashioned psych ops plan to sow the seeds of discontent and doubt in the hearts of rice farmers. It is a cynical ploy (but brilliant at the same time) and given the track record of Bangkok’s elite caring about the ‘heart’ of rice farmers, the chances are high that it won’t work.
Still the pitch is being made that if the rice farmers would only return to the traditional Thai values, their betters in Bangkok will take care of them. Just like they always have. People in Bangkok had given ten or twenty million baht in cash handouts to the protest leader who then as the ‘big faced man’ gives it to grateful rice farmers. That’s a photo op anyone heading this psycho op will frame and put on his wall.
There are several problems with this approach. It assumes that rice farmers can’t see through the endgame, which is to discredit populist programs, and the Government that sponsors populist programs. At the heart of this Valentine’s Day message from the demonstration in the street is one that the protesters and their allies are the one with a true heart. Given the outstanding amount owed under the rice subsidy scheme is in the billions, and the donations in Bangkok handed to a protest leader are a rounding off error in the larger scheme of this mountain of debt doesn’t matter.
What does matter in this coded message, sent over the head of the democratically elected government to their main rural constituency that continues to return them to office no matter how many times the elites ban their party and leaders, is that democracy lacks the traditional Thai heart. Walk away from democracy like you’d walk away from an abusive lover. That true Thai heart is found in the ancient concept of kreng jai system, where the good people aren’t elected (a concept that can go so very wrong) but are known by their rank, position, name and status. They decide what is right, moral, fair and just. Trust them. Trust their heart—their nam jai, ‘water heart’. They have shown their good intentions by collecting donations for them. Has the government done that?
Here’s their story: Heartless government. Overflowing heart of protesters.
The battle of hearts and minds of Thailand’s rural voters will continue. The idea is these donations to rice farmers will pay several dividends., The rice farmers are then expected to return a respectful wai of gratitude for the handout and more importantly will turn their back on the unreliable Government and democracy. It remains to be seen whether this will happen. I suspect that very few people who labour in the rice fields of the North or Northeast are betting the farm on the protesters looking after their long-term interest. The seeds of democracy have been planted and yielded too many good crops for the supporters to return to the days of waiting for a coin to be dropped in their rice bowl.
Happy Valentine’s Day.