By Phatarawadee Phataranawik
The Nation Weekend
The last thing voters expect to witness in the lead-up to this month’s election is a face-to-face confrontation between Prayut Cha-o-cha and Thaksin Shinawatra, but you can actually see it right now.
And they’re playing a fierce hand of poker.
It’s just fantasy, of course, an imaginative installation that provocative street-artist Headache Stencil has included in his exhibition “Thailand Casino” currently on view at Bangkok’s WTF Gallery.
Headache (Mr Stencil?) told The Nation Weekend that he sees the coming election as being akin to “a dirty game in a casino”.
“I’m recording political history coming up to the election and showing the structures of control under the junta government,” he said.
The artist is not known for subtlety. He depicts Thaksin, the self-exiled former premier who still wields influence in Thai politics, holding a straight flush. But his nemesis Prayut, the coup leader and incumbent premier hoping to continue in the role as a civilian, holds a royal straight flush and his pockets are bulging with extra cards.
As if the message weren’t clear enough, Headache spells it out for you, adding the word “cheat” to the wall behind Prayut. Behind Thaksin is a calendar with February 8 marked on it, emphasis added by an enormous lightning bolt. That was the day the Thaksin-affiliated Thai Raksa Chart Party put Princess Uboratana’s name forward as its prime ministerial candidate.
It was indeed a bolt of lightning, but it fizzled later the same day when His Majesty the King put a stop to any member of the Royal Family venturing into politics.
Thaksin and Prayut are rendered as half-length sculptures perched on a card table of green baize. Other figures with starring roles in the election are depicted in pop-art paintings and, in the case of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit of the anti-junta Future Forward Party, in a Banksy-style stencil-print.
Chatchart Sitthiphan of Pheu Thai and Army chief General Apirat Kongsompong are wearing boxing gloves, each looking for the knockout. Newin Chidchob of Bhumjaithai is puffing on marijuana as per his party’s endorsement of legalising cannabis for medicinal purposes.
Keeping an eye on the “dirty game” is Seripisut Temiyavet, leader of the Seri Ruam Thai Party, who happens to be a police general.
Army chief Apirat got involved when Pheu Thai, Future Forward and Seri Ruam Thai candidates started suggesting the military and its budget both needed to lose weight. He tried to silence the criticism by playing the ultra-patriotic, anticommunist 1975 song “Nak Paendin” (“Worthless”) often and loud.
The tune barked its epithets from 160 Army radio stations several times every day before even the ruling junta found it excessive. The lyrics describe anyone who challenges royal or military status quo as a “burden to the country” and an “enemy of the nation” in need of elimination.
It gave Headache Stencil a headache.
“The Army chief should remain neutral,” he said. “Politicians have the right to propose policies and the general has no business interfering. His action poisoned the atmosphere ahead of an election that will bring democracy back to the Kingdom again.”
This is the artist who tore a strip off Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan over his mysterious collection of expensive wristwatches with a head-spinning piece of wall art featuring Prawit’s portrait on an alarm clock, intended as sort of a wake-up call to citizens.
Headache came in for some official harassment and his stencilled statement was quickly scrubbed away.
He made his dangerous debut last year with a show called “Welcome to the Dark Side” at Voice Space, located in the Voice TV compound on Vibhavadhi Rangsit Road. It took caustic aim at the 2014 coup and military rule.
Prawit, co-leader of the coup, doesn’t escape notice in the current WTF exhibition. He’s a piggy bank now, etched with the words “Military Fund”, in case anyone wants to donate towards the purchase of tanks and submarines.
A painting titled “250:1” alludes to the 250 junta-appointed senators whose duty in the next government will be to make sure the Army gets whatever it wants.
“They will vote alongside the elected MPs to choose the next prime minister after the March 24 election,” Headache noted. “Critics expect them to naturally throw their support behind General Prayut.”
The more politics heats up, Headache said, the more paint he expects to spray on walls.
That should keep him busy throughout the campaign – the exhibition ends on Election Day – but probably beyond that too.
“Unlike doing graffiti out on the street where the junta can remove my art, here in the gallery I have more freedom of expression to record the dark side of Thai politics.”