Tilly Birds onstage Dec. 12, 2020 at Big Mountain Music Festival. Photo: Anuroth Ketlekha / Facebook

NAKHON RATCHASIMA — Health authorities on Monday insist they ordered a popular music festival in Khao Yai to close down early due to concerns over the coronavirus, though government critics suspect politics played a bigger role.

The two-day Big Mountain Music Festival was instructed to shut down by 10pm on Sunday – just hours after its scheduled time of their last performance – by officials who cited a lack of mask-wearing at the venue. But many remain convinced that the festival came under government retaliation for its political messages that reference the ongoing protests.

“They’re not afraid of COVID spreading, but they’re afraid of the spread of democratic ideas that will destroy their dictatorship regime,” Move Forward MP Rangsiman Rome tweeted Sunday night.

Top: A guitarist at Big Mountain wearing a shirt depicting monarchy critic Somsak Jeamteerasakul. 

Big Mountain is one of the biggest music festivals in Thailand, featuring a wide range of bands and genres, from rock to rap to electronica and pop. The annual event has been running since 2010; the venue is typically chosen close to Khao Yai National Park in Korat.

This year’s festival saw several artists showing their solidarity with the pro-democracy protests that have been rocking Bangkok since July.

For instance, at a their Saturday night concert by alternative rock band Tilly Birds, lead singer Anuroth “Third” Ketlekha said: “Don’t let a horrible system define Thailand. Raise up three fingers!”

“Down with dictatorship. Long live the people!” Anurot went on, using a popular chant adopted by the protesters.

Sweet Mullet band also brought an effigy depicting a bloodied corpse onstage, a gesture interpreted by the crowd as reference to anti-monarchy dissidents abducted and murdered in recent years.

Soon after photos and videos of the stunts went viral online, health officials threatened actions against the music festival for failure to comply with coronavirus prevention measures.

“Although most attendees wore masks, a lot of people also did not,” health minister Anutin Charnvirakul wrote online Saturday. “Social distancing was also not practiced since there were so many people.”

Anutin also said he had ordered provincial health authorities to carry out necessary measures at the Big Mountain festival.

In an order issued at 2pm on Sunday, Nakhon Ratchasima deputy governor Wichien Chantharanothai instructed festival organizers to cease all activities by 10pm that same night. The last performance was scheduled to take place at 2am.

Big Mountain’s top organizer Yutthana Boonaom said he complied with the order. “Sorry that this is the most I can do,” he later wrote on his Facebook.

When reached for comments on Monday, managers of Sweet Mullet and Tilly Birds refused to speak about the incident. But discussions on social media continued, with many suspecting that politics were the real cause for the early shutdown.

Other concerts were also held in Nakhon Ratchasima the same weekend without intervention from the authorities, while the health minister himself attended a packed concert organized by the Red Cross in Ayutthaya province.

“Cancelling #BigMountain2020 while using COVID as an excuse is understandable, but citizens are wondering why Red Cross Fairs in many provinces, such as the one in Ayutthaya inaugurated by Anutin, also had a lot of people,” Move Forward MP Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn tweeted. “That event should have been cancelled too.”

As of Monday, Thailand recorded a total of 4,209 coronavirus infections – most of them having already recovered – and at least 60 fatalities.