By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer
BANGKOK — A junta sales representative has been ringing me up for a cup of coffee-cum-meeting for months now. We will finally meet Wednesday. Unlike those military men who “abducted,” verbally abused and allegedly lightly assault pro-democracy student activist Sirawith “Ja New” Seritiwat before dumping him off at a police station earlier this month, my military contact is effusively polite.
The last time I met Lt. Cholapat Pluengphai was last September when I was summoned by the junta, known formally as the National Council for Peace and Order, or NCPO, for six hours of interrogation and three days of detention without charge.
The slim and soft-spoken Cholapat was among the half dozen or so who interrogated me. He appeared to be more sympathetic, and before I was blindfolded by other uniformed officers, he and his direct superior asked me if there was anything I might like to have. I said newspapers – any newspapers. On the third and last day of my detention, some papers were delivered into my room which had no vista to the outside world because all the three solid-wooden windows in that small cell were shut.
Over a month after I was “asked” to resign from The Nation newspaper, Cholapat called to insist the junta played no role in my departure from the paper where I’d worked 23 years. He also informed me that his direct superior, a lieutenant colonel in charge of “overseeing” junta security in Bangkok’s Bang Kapi district, where my household registration is listed, had been reassigned.
An introduction to his new boss for a “meet and greet” would thus be appreciated, he explained. And after months of subsequent phone calls, I reluctantly set the date and venue for a meeting next week, knowing that such encounters cannot indefinitely be postponed without repercussion.
I referred to Cholapat as a sales representative instead of just a junta’s army officer, because he’s among those tasked with convincing me that we’re living under a benign dictatorship of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, supreme leader of the NCPO. This is in contrast to the men who hooded and abducted Sirawith earlier this month in the middle of the night, or who blindfolded me and made sure I didn’t escape from a cell.
Cholapat is in a way like all the junta’s spokesmen: polite, seemingly considerate and able to say – without an iota of irony or shame – they respect human rights and treat their opponents with dignity, no matter the reality of the day. Part of Cholapat’s job is to monitor what I post on Twitter or Facebook on a daily basis. I know this because he’s been able to recount specific tweets of mine by heart, and in December he phoned to relay his boss’ displeasure with one of the more recent. He politely asked me to remove it; I politely refused.
While I feel relatively more comfortable with people like Cholapat, I am also aware they are part of the current, repressive military regime. They seem to exist in contrast to those who abducted Sirawith or do other “dirty job” to opponents of the regime, but they’re very much part of the whole package.
They may be a more agreeable side of the military regime, but in the end, they’re also part of the oppressive regime. No matter how polite, friendly or sincere they may appeared to be, they operate under the dictator’s order. (I am also reminded of a colonel who dropped me off by car at the nearest BTS station after I was released from the second detention in September and apologized, saying he has nothing personal against me and was merely acting on order and playing the role he was required to.)
These sales reps are just acting under orders to perform a specific task, and in the case of Cholapat, to be a carrot instead of a stick. Some of these men in uniforms deal with junta’s critics and opponents politely in an attempt to make military rule more agreeable and civilize.
Nevertheless, a polite phone call from an officer working for the junta asking for a meeting is more than just a request – it’s an order. Due to the unequal power relationship, a soldier calling me for a cup of coffee is a form of coercion because “invitees” such as myself have no choice but to accept the “invitation,” if not flee, or risk being arrested for defying junta’s dictatorial and illegitimate order. The same goes with the numerous “courtesy calls” made in person by men in military fatigues to homes of those who happened to visibly disagree with the junta. Coercion disguised as “courtesy” is just another form of repression, albeit less readily perceptible.
No amount of sugar-coating or verbal pleasantry, sincere or not, can camouflage the fact that coercion, on top of repression, is an indivisible part of the daily reality of those who disagree or oppose the military junta. No matter how nice or polite, being “requested” to have a coffee with the junta is definitely a form of coffee coercion.
I meet Lt. Cholapat at 11am four days from now at a coffee house somewhere downtown, and it’s sure to be a sweet reunion. Now, if you don’t hear from me afterward, then something unexpectedly soured.
Again, I wouldn’t blame Cholapat if that’s the case. It’s not personal. He’s just following orders.
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