I thought our leader must really love music and singing, as he recently released the seventh single for citizen which he had claimed to genially write the lyric by himself as usual though someone always said that he was hiring a professional composer to do the job instead. The new release was called ‘Diamond Heart’—telling the bravery stories of soldiers protecting our country from the mischief threat and simultaneously salutes our military government which sacrifices their comforted life to work for everyone. Still, my all-time favorite was the first single—‘Give Back Civilized Happiness’—Uncle Udom had released one week after the coup. The most pleasant thing was the government broadcasts every song regularly every week in their own TV program—‘Freshen Country up 4.0’—on Friday evening; Now, I hoped Diamond Heart would be aired frequently in this program, so I could memorize and sing along perfectly in every verse and chorus like previous songs.
My mother adored this show; I could say her was the big fan; on the contrary, Uncle Chan despised it. I called him ‘uncle’ although we didn’t relate by blood. Practically, he would be my stepfather if only Mom has married him. However, we lived in the same house and he normally took care of me so I respected him as the father. But there also another uncle that I had respected too, Uncle Udom, our present leader. I watched him on TV every Friday during my leisure time. Besides, it was the only program my mom approved. I couldn’t watch cartoons because Mom had thought they were nonsense and could turn me to a bad kid, but I’d always had Uncle Udom.
I had been learning a lot from his program: our culture (It was preciously valuable and better than any place in the world.), our regulations (Everyone should strictly follow the government rule.), our suitable manner (Youngers respected the elders, Uncle Udom and his comrades took care every citizen like parents had a responsibility to their kids.), etc. Uncle Udom told us completely everything about how to behave as a good citizen. No harm would happen if we followed his path as Mom had said to me. My grandmother cherished the show too. She praised Uncle Udom as the greatest leader Thailand ever had so far. I agreed. Basically, because I just turned ten last month, the only leader I had known was him. That was too bad I had never met him personally; the closest I had ever got, taking the picture with a life-sized cardboard cutout of himself on Children’s Day.
“Why have you still obsessed with this shit show? It keeps brainwashing people, especially children. I’m sure they plan to turn them to be their future slave,” shouted from uncle Chan, making me averted from the program.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Chan. And sit down. You make Nid scare,” Grandmother warned him sulkily.
“It’s all propaganda. Don’t you guys ever noticing?” he angrily grumbled and shook his head.
“Shut your mouth! Or else you will be caught to ‘attitude adjusted’ at the military base for sure. The leader is better than all those politicians; he was the general, the brave warrior, so he won’t lie. He’s a decent man.”
“Decent! Listen to yourself. This ‘decent’ leader of yours has framed many people and thrown them in jail, used the military court to dictatorially punish, just because they choose to stand up against him and all his corrupted government. One of my friends has been accused of arranging the satirical play they don’t like. After the armies raided his house, he has disappeared into thin air, no idea he still lives or dies. Is this the act of a decent man?”
“That’s because your friend disrespected him and betrayed our country. Enough. I won’t listen to this crap anymore.” Grandmother banished him, but left the room by herself instead. Uncle Chan turned to me and asked,
“Nid, you won’t believe all of his lies, will you?”
“Is it a lie?” I replied lightly with a question, completely confused. Mom and Grandma had said Uncle Udom always told us the truth, but Uncle Chan said the opposite. Who should I believe then?
Maybe, my indecision had made Uncle Chan frustrated; he looked disappointed and left without saying anything. Sometimes I thought he was jealous that I seemed to favor Uncle Udom more than a family member like him. Oh! Uncle Chan, you shouldn’t compare yourself with a celebrity like our leader.
Next day, I heard Uncle Chan told our neighbor, his friend—whom he had mentioned to us yesterday—was dead: drawn in the river not far from our village. His corpse didn’t look good I heard some details about the wound in his stomach which had been cut open and stuffed with concrete and tied to make it sink. I didn’t see with my own eyes because Mom would never allow me to do such a thing. But, listening to adult’s gossip was enough for me; it sounded really scary.
Did I tell you Uncle Chan worked as a journalist? He was. And I thought not a good one. I always heard the argument by Mom that he should find a new job. This one was not paying all our bills and foods. Grandma said he had been working for the disrespect media and should be ashamed. I questioned them in that evening, could it possible that Uncle Udom murdered that guy? Absolutely not, they answered, added the guy was bad to the bone as the villain in the movies. He deserved to die, it was just karma.
“Like everybody said on Freshen Country up 4.0, if you’re not supporting the leader, then you better get out of the country. The land will be higher without the weight of traitors holding us back,” Grandmother reviled.
On the same week, Uncle Chan criticized our leader about a rude manner: Uncle Udom had just thrown a banana peel to the group of journalists that asking aggressive questions about his policies at the parliament. No one with a civilized mind would behave like that, he claimed. Surely, Grandma disagreed; said Uncle Udom was just genuine, not pretentious as all the politicians. Nevertheless, they deserved it, asking dumb questions like that, she added.
I still enjoyed the show, which seemingly, a big hit. They extended the air time, added specifically contents about children and pre-teen. Uncle Chan was apparently grumping as usual. He thought Uncle Udom was elaborately trying to hypnotize children. This’s pop-culture juggernaut in bed with tyranny. What they do is boosting the dictatorship’s image, he murmured irritably. Although, this time I didn’t definitely listen to him, in my opinion, it was better; catchier; and funnier; there were a lot of teen stars and celebrities appearing as a guest on the show. Even Prangcher, captain of the famous girl group I had idolized, also came and worked as the temporary host, promoting government education policy so it would definitely good. No way, Uncle Chan could be right.
One day, Grandmother and I went to the local market in the late afternoon. We met Aunt Jit, she was not my real aunt also, but in here, we called every familiar face like this—as the same family: Uncle or aunt, brother or sister, regardless of we weren’t biological relatives.
Anyway, Aunt Jit told Grandma she had hoped her son—Brother Joe—to become one of military force, explained that this was the brightest career path: big salary and a chance to be a minister in the future. There was no other career better than this. Although I didn’t know thoroughly, I thought the uniform was the coolest.
Unfortunately, Aunt Jit hadn’t a chance to tell us whether Brother Joe had gotten the job in military force because a month later, the fresh market had surprisingly gone out of business. The day I and Grandma acknowledged what was happening, she had disappeared left only the empty stall. I thought, as the owner of a vegetable vendor, she was necessarily to pack everything before closing. We were forced to switch to the other fresh market, making us wandered around for a little longer, hearing many sellers mumbled the economic hadn’t been in good shape. No buyers meant no sellers. So every day the vendor in every market seemed to be close down one by one.
Uncle Chan insisted the unfortunate incident had happened because the military government, each day our leader and his comrades were richer and richer while civilians were facing the recession and hard life.
“Damn you, democrat lunatic. I preferred the leader Udom more than any politicians so either you get out of my house or shut your withered mouth!” yelled impatiently Grandma.
A few months later, Uncle Chan’s journal was apparently closed down also. He was suddenly unemployed and was gradually grumpier as time went by, criticizing Uncle Udom every chance he could find someone listens to him, which rarely, stoked his hatred. Of course, Grandma stood at the opposite side, defended our leader would do whatever he can to protect the nation; his military government was like a country’s strong fence.
“Then why they aren’t deployed at the border when the terrorists attacked the villagers? Why did they choose to situate themselves in the parliament instead? I have told you they’ve lied. The submarine, the tank, the corrupted money, that all they care, not citizens like us.”
Grandma didn’t believe Uncle Chan, as usual. Until she went to the hospital and the doctor informed that she must pay for pills and treatment by herself soon.
“But, why I couldn’t use a healthcare benefit anymore?” She asked faintly.
“It’s the new regulation from the government. From next month onwards, patients must pay for their treatment. No more medical supports.” The doctor informed.
“If you ask me. It must have been the new expensive submarines and the tanks the military just brought. The government has cut the national budget for health care supports then adding to the Ministry of Defense instead.”
This time Grandma didn’t defend Uncle Udom. She was quiet all the way home. Finally, I heard she mumbled to herself.
“He must have had a good reason. Yes, it must be.”
Uncle Chan’s new job was an online journalist. He said it practically the same only change from print platform to online, adapting for surviving. All the people who had shared the exact ideology invited him to work with them, surely, he accepted. At least, now, he wasn’t a grumpy, unemployed man so I guessed everyone was happy, including Mom.
One day, I was back from school and noticed a strange vibe. Uncle Chan was alone in the house and acted differently than any day. It occurred to me he looks serious and sad than usual. Ultimately, he said he wants to discuss something to me—like an adult.
“Listen to me, Nid; you shouldn’t believe any words the authorities have said, okay?”
“What do you mean, Uncle Chan?”
“They’re not a good man. Unlike your mother and grandmother, I know the truth. Actually, they might know it either but stubborn then chose to deny it.” I didn’t understand but I keep my mouth shut, didn’t want to upset him. “The military has taken advantage of political chaos to control us, spread the lies, although they are the real villain.”
“Then why Mom and Grandma loved Uncle Udom?”
“They had been hypnotized by propaganda: making them hold a grudge against the politicians, the democracy, even the concept of using their right to vote. These things used to be good and normal in this country, but after the coup, they have forced dictatorial to be the new normal, promoted it as the way to bring peace. The leader and his force made sure it would have been like that because they could control everything, every way even neutralize the opponents”
“Uncle Chan, I don’t understand.”
“You’re a child, Nid, still have a chance. Promise me one thing, when you grow up, run as fast as you can away from this place. There are future and hope, just not in here,” his voice was trembling made me scare.
No, I didn’t afraid of the dystopian he had described. At the precise moment, I didn’t believe for a bit. In Uncle Udom’s TV program, our leader assured the government had a 20-year national strategic plan ahead—the future is here—not anywhere else. Grandma told me the only thing I must do was being a good kid, obeyed the elder, and we would be fine. Uncle Udom dedicated himself to us; he couldn’t be a bad guy like Uncle Chan tried to accuse him.
One week later, Uncle Chan was arrested by the military. They came to our house in the late evening. I confused and scared, crying. Mom comforted me; said Uncle Chan had violated the law; something about violations of the Computer Crimes against the government. He wouldn’t come back for at least three years or maybe more for slander. Anyway, while hugging my mom very tight, I momentarily felt relieved.
Grandma was right all along. Uncle Chan was the real villain. I felt sorry for him; it was like the twist ending in a movie: sometimes bad guy conceals themselves near us.
But our country and our family would be better without the one with a bad attitude like that, Grandma said.
Thinking of Uncle Chan, I decided to forgive his foolish. Trying to look on the bright side, after this entire incident, I might have a chance to meet Uncle Udom one day because in the end every villain would be slain by the hero.
Based in Bangkok Thailand, Pongwut Rujirachakorn is a Chinese-Thai fiction writer who published novels, short story collections, and numerous anthologies. He received several literary awards from his home country including the Thailand National Book Award and PEN Thailand Center Award. Some of his works had been translated into other languages. Currently, writing his English novel along with short stories to introduce the sense of Thai literary scene and mirroring the cruelty of junta government to an international readership.