One fascinating aspect of recent political conflict in Thailand is the emergence of what I am calling “narrative sedition”. Despite heavy-handed legal action by the Thai government, there is an active subculture of seditious story-telling, much of it taking place on the internet.
The best example that I want to talk about toady is Hi S Tales. Spelt H I S, Tales. Or His Tales. They are available in the form of a long series of Facebook posts.
So far, the Hi S Tales comprise 192 episodes. The main characters are the owners of a canned fish factory–Uncle and Aunty–along with their four children, their spouses, and a number of their grandchildren. The main themes in the Tales include the good image of Uncle’s family, how his family tries to maintain control over the factory’s affairs, power struggles among different factions in the management team, and negotiation between management and the workers. The stories are full of jealousy, revenge, hatred and conspiracy among the main players who attempt to overcome those who block their paths to power. At the same time the stories emphasise the attempts of the factory’s owners to maintain their good image so that the workers will forever pledge their support and loyalty.
The Tales started out in late 2009 as a report on the illness of a certain XXX (later referred to by other names including Somchai and Uncle). In the beginning, the Tales focus on XXX’s health and the unpleasant background of some of his family members. There are concerns about XXX being poisoned, his wife’s involvement in some dubious activities, his son’s extramarital affairs and his son’s desire to take XXX’s position. The son’s new wife–and her colourful background–also feature prominently.
After about 10 or so episodes the Tales focus on the canned fish factory. There are many stories about conflict in the factory and the workers’ uprising to call for equal rights. The stories became tensely dramatic in 2010. The stories present the view that Uncle and his wife were behind the expulsion of the factory’s previous manager and wanted to maintain their absolute management power and position of respect within the factory. The author writes that Uncle and Aunty manipulated the situation by backing the new management team, and their security guards, against the factory workers.
The tales tell of conflict between Uncle, Aunty, and their son over the issue of the factory’s next chairman. Given Uncle’s fragile health and advanced age, everyone at the factory is concerned about who should be the next chairman. Aunty used to support her son but has realised that he may not be a good choice to maintain the family’s wealth and power in the longer term. Now she wants to control the factory herself. However, Uncle does not seem happy with either option and may try to hold power as long as he can and possibly change the factory’s rules to facilitate the promotion of his second daughter.
Enough of a summary; you can read more for yourself. Why do I call this narrative sedition?
I don’t think it is sedition in the commonly understood sense of “incitement of resistance to -or insurrection against – lawful authority,” though it would be unsurprising if some in Thailand interpreted works of fiction like this in those terms. From my perspective what is important about Hi S tales is that it subversively challenges what might be called a dominant narrative in Thai public life. For my purpose, narratives are simplified stories that shape a shared way of apprehending the world. Their simplifications generate assumptions and judgements that provide basic terms for analysis, debates, agreements and disagreements. In other words narratives matter.
Of course, the narratives that these stories challenge are powerful narratives associated with Thailand’s royal family. Readers of the Hi S tales are left with little doubt that that the family that manages the canned fish factory resembles Thailand’s royal family in all sort of ways. The family structure, the biographical details and the nicknames (some of them not particularly flattering) make this perfectly clear. The tales’ interest in current affairs also makes the royal references abundantly clear – in a recent episode Uncle Somchai’s son has his plane seized in Europe, and in another the family is arguing bitterly about inheritance following the death of an affluent relative.
This is not particularly subtle, but the narrative device is not without its cleverness as anyone making the charge of lese majeste would be acknowledging that the royal family is clearly apparent in a tale which describes a group of people who appear very unpleasant indeed. Why would anyone associate such ruthless scheming and manipulation with the queen or the crown prince?
Let me briefly spell out what I see as seditious about these tales. It may be obvious, but it is worth exploring, just a little. Thailand’s official, and relatively dominant, royal narrative relies heavily on the imagery of familial virtue – this extends from the king’s own family, via a series of very public acts of personal sacrifice, to the nation as a whole. In Thai political culture the imagery of personal sacrifice is particularly important because it is seen as drawing a person’s energies and resources away from the private domain of family and household to the public domain of common enterprise. Thailand’s king is widely portrayed as epitomising this sacrifice, regularly travelling beyond his palaces into the wider nation where through his own hard work and sweat he supports to the national population. He is the nation’s father.
The canned fish factory is a useful device for challenging this imagery, quite apart from its connotations of sensory unpleasantness. By embedding the family in a rather tawdry looking corporation, the focus is shifted from sacrificial enterprise for the public good to self-interested enterprise that is well and truly private. The narrative device of collapsing the nation into a factory, replaces familial benevolence with self-interested exploitation. Community, morality and sacrifice are replaced by class, managerialism and profit.
This dominant motif of self interest is evident in the treatment of some of the major characters. From what I have read, Uncle Somchai, the head of the family, is dealt with relatively sympathetically. The early episodes of the tales report that his illness was partly brought about by worries about his only son’s bad behaviour. He often comes across as a victim of the outrageous behaviour of the family members around him.
Aunty is treated much more unkindly. The Tales suggest that there are differences between Uncle and Aunty on how to manage the factory. Uncle Somchai prefers a gradual and consensual approach which he has successfully used since becoming chairman about 60 years ago. However Aunty prefers a more forceful approach. As the story develops it becomes clear that Aunty wants to seize absolute control of the factory and the workers. She is able to manipulate the appointment of members of the management group so they can serve her ends. There are stories about her close relationship with a leader of a faction of the workers who opposed the former factory manager.
The children are also portrayed as pursuing self interested agendas. The Tales make much of the son, his mistresses, his involvement in dubious activities and the enormous lengths he goes to in an attempt to preserve his declining health. Although many in the factory think the second daughter is rather passive, the Tales suggest that she is, in fact, involved in a plan with senior management to construct the next management structure in a way that is beneficial to her position.
In brief, the alternative narrative created here is one of a family that is divided, dysfunctional and, most importantly, in which its members are primarily interested in personal benefit. Hi S tales provides a no holds barred story of conflict, jealousy, rivalry, infidelity, murder, and disease. Of course it is over the top, but it introduces colourful detail that inevitably promptsreflection on some of the simplifications that underpin the dominant royal narrative.
Many would argue that this sort of material merely illustrates the propensity of the internet to produce and disseminate low-value material. We all know that the internet is full of meaningless gossip, innuendo and outright fabrication, a great deal of it with no particular social or political significance. But to dismiss Thailand’s recent narrative sedition in these terms would be a mistake and, more importantly, a missed opportunity. There are three reasons why I think material like Hi S tales is significant for the development of Thai democracy.
First, this sort of narrative is what might be called democratically hybrid. While it gives the impression of being written by someone who has excellent access, it also picks up on, and in a sense crystallises, the vast subaltern world of popular story-telling about Thailand’s royals. Sometimes the author directly responds to questions from readers about aspects of the family’s affairs on which more information is sought. Despite the authority of the author, there is no clear master narrative here, rather the story is characterised by patches of information, implausible inventions, sudden diversions, fragments of common knowledge and spontaneous engagements with contemporary events. Hi S Tales is a long way from being great literature, but in its rather shambolic story-telling mode it sometimes reminds me of a modern day Khun Chang, Khun Phaen.
Second, I think work likes this presents an authentically Thai view about the nature of power for which, again, Khun Chang, Khun Phaen is a wonderful guide. Farang who discuss the monarchy are often accused of not understanding Thai culture, but I would suggest that such dismissals are made on the basis of a rather narrow perspective in which cultural complexity has been replaced by simplified narratives. The simplified royal narrative has created an image of legitimate power being associated with virtue. But popular Thai approaches to power are much more pragmatic. Legitimate power is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad, it all depends on how it is used and, more importantly, on whether or not it can be channelled or domesticated in a way which generates benefits. There is no better illustration of this than Thai dealings with the spirit world. Spirits are notoriously capricious – they can cause great harm as well as providing profound protection. Even volatile princes, and of course here I am talking about supernatural princes, can be induced to behave in useful ways if they are plied with food, alcohol, tobacco, betel nut and dancing women. As we know, princes are very attached to their modes of conveyance and in northern Thailand even the tethering posts for the prince’s horses and elephants are supplicated with offerings. My point here is to highlight the diversity and multiplicity of power in the Thai cosmos. In this sense, the sedition in the Hi S tales is not so much directed at royal power itself, rather it is directed at the vastly over-simplified narrative that binds royal power to goodness. Power is subject to pragmatic evaluation and this is exactly what seditious tales encourage.
My third point follows on from this. There is common recognition that Thailand’s democratic institutions are weak. There are many reasons for this. I want to consider one cultural issue. Put simply Thailand has over-invested in the monarchy as a source of political stability and conflict resolution. One symptom of this is the regularity with which royally-referenced calls are made for national unity in times of political turmoil. But what Thailand needs is not a fanciful quest for political unity, but the consolidation of institutions that can peacefully manage difference. Thailand’s simplified royal narrative is a barrier to this consolidation, not just because of its shallow appeal to unity, but because the image of royal virtue is regularly used to undermine democratic institutions. Protection of the monarchy’s virtue is a standard component in the armoury of coup-makers. The royal narrative is closely bound up with the idea that national leadership is best provided by good men who are chosen by wise officials rather than elected by a unsophisticated electorate. But Thai politics, or politics in any country, would be simple if it only involved good men. Thailand’s primary political challenge is not to mobilise more of them, but to develop strong democratic institutions and a critical democratic culture that can cope with the machinations of the good, the bad and the ugly.
This, I suggest, is the primary significance of narrative sedition. Of course it is scurrilous, but it contributes to a reformed public culture in which more realistic appraisals can be made of royal power and its role in the political system. With the reign of King Vajarilongkorn approaching, Thailand is going to have to be adaptive and innovative in its attempts to have a civil conversation about the appropriate role of the monarch. Narrative sedition can be one element of this expansion of Thai public culture into very difficult terrain.