CHIANG RAI – In an effort to unite Thais with a jaunty campaign song ahead of a key referendum vote has backfired after northerners bristled over â€œinsulting lyricsâ€ about their rural region, which has long felt looked down upon by the Bangkok-based elite.
The song is sponsored by Thailandâ€™s election authorities, who are preparing for an August vote on a controversial constitution drafted by a military junta that seized power two years ago.
The catchy ditty, with the somewhat less catchy title â€œAugust 7 Referendum, Come Together for a Stable Democracyâ€, addresses each of Thailandâ€™s geographical regions, which are split along the political divisions that have driven a decade of turmoil.
Coup supporters tend to dominate in Bangkok and the south, while backers of the ousted government are concentrated in the poorer north and northeast.
The referendum tune, sung by a cast of country singers, singles out northern and northeastern Thais with calls to not â€œlet anyone dictateâ€ their votes.
In contrast southerners are given no such guidance and are simply described as people who â€œlove democracy and freedomâ€.
The lyrics jar because of long-running accusations that poor northern rice farmers have been manipulated by populist ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra â€” the billionaire whose powerful family has poured money into the region and drawn on its support to win every poll in the past decade.
Northeastern Thais in particular, who speak their own dialect and are ethnically close to their neighbours in Laos, are often dismissed in Bangkok and the south as ill-educated country bumpkins or â€œbuffalosâ€ â€” a Thai idiom for stupid people.
â€œThe lyrics for the north and northeast regions hint that the people are like cattle and allow others to lead them,â€ Somkid Chuakong, a former politician from northeastern Thailand.
â€œVillagers sent me a clip of the song after they heard it and asked why they wrote a song that insults people,â€ he added.
Thailandâ€™s election body waved off calls to amend the lyrics today.
â€œWe will continue to use this campaign song,â€ election commissioner Prawit Rattanapien told Channel 3.
The song is unlikely to face any competition, as the junta has banned any non state-sanctioned campaigning ahead of the vote with up to 10 years in prison.
The law is only the latest restriction on free speech from the military government, which critics say have overwhelmingly targeted Shinawatra supporters.
It is not the first time the Thai junta has relied on music to spread its message.
A song composed after the 2014 coup by junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha himself â€” called â€œReturn Happiness to the Peopleâ€ â€” is still frequently played on radio and television.
He released another song in December as a new year gift for the Thai people.