Gen. Prayuth: Respect is Earned, Not Coerced (Opinion)

A file photo of junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Re•tention: Pravit RojanaphrukJunta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha is climbing his way up Maslow’s pyramid, or so it seems. Four years after illegitimately seizing power and attaining absolute power, his needs have moved up the hierarchy from basic survival to desiring respect and honor.

Earlier this month, news photographers covering him as prime minister were told to bow before and after snapping photos and maintain a distance of at least five meters.

Then on Tuesday, old regulations were brought back into force, banning journalists covering the Government House from wearing jeans and round-neck T-shirts. Such rules haven’t been enforced for over a decade since 2006, when Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in an earlier coup.

Sitting next to the top of Maslow’s five-level triangle is “esteem,” and Prayuth and his men probably hope that the enforcement of respect can boost Prayuth’s esteem.

Respect cannot be forced but must be earned, however. Forcing journalists to comply only produces compliance, not respect. You have to win their hearts, and it can’t be done through coercion.

It’s understandable now that Prayuth has almost everything, including absolute power and some people telling him to become PM for life, he now may want to have respect and honor too.

Forcing journalists to act as if they respect the dictator can only produce a mirage of respect if not laughter, however. This is because some journalists may have to comply against their wishes. In fact, these journalists may end up becoming more disgruntled and disillusioned.

Some who used to hand Prayuth a blank check and defend the coup has over the past four years have become disillusioned by his repeated postponement of promised elections. Those who thought Prayuth was good news for press freedom have realized that press freedom itself is more restricted if not threatened under the junta. And now Prayuth, or at least his men, wants journalists at the Government House to act as if they all respect him.

To be fair, I am of a sartorial opinion that jeans and collarless T-shirts are not that polite. But neither is staging a coup and making oneself PM a polite or respectful thing to do.

What is it about the bowing before and taking of pictures? What does it say about Prayuth? Is Prayuth suffering from respect-deficiency syndrome? Why the need for news photographers to bow and wear proper attire?

Is it possible that, deep down, Prayuth is still aware that he is an illegitimate ruler and that despite four years of trying to normalize military rule, he feels that something is amiss as there are people who continue to regard him as illegitimate and not worthy of respect? It’s a junta-leader complex.

Forcing people to display respect never works. Respect is earned, it cannot be forced, be it through a military coup or other coercive means.

Respect is a two-way street. If you don’t respect the people, how can you expect the people to respect you in return?

As much as we may need rules on appropriate dress codes and behavior for journalists covering the prime minister, we also need rules on how army generals should conduct themselves and respect civilian supremacy over the military.

While journalists at the Government House are banned from wearing jeans and Tees to show respect to the prime minister, junta leader Prayuth is still not banned from being prime minister to show respect to the people.

As long as the military respect for civilian supremacy is an elusive dream in Juntaland, Prayuth should not expect to accrue any genuine respect any time soon from those who simply cannot provide it for him.