Two nights ago (20th April) I was fascinated by an image on Thai television of a middle-aged, weather-beaten man receiving an envelope containing cash from the Thai King and Queen to help pay for costs following the loss of his son in the fracas in Bangkok on April 10th. The man was very grateful to their majesties for the help. What was so arresting about the image, however, was that the man was flanked to the right by another son, and to the left by a daughter wearing a red shirt on which was printed ‘phrai’ – the pre-modern term for bonded peasants popularised by the red shirts to dramatise the oppression of the poor. In the context one couldn’t help thinking that a word was missing, ‘luang’, i.e. ‘phrai luang’ – but this addition, no doubt, would prompt someone somewhere to bring a lèse majeste suit against the girl.
What I couldn’t help wondering about, however, was the degree to which father and daughter shared a world-view or not, or partially. Was she as grateful as her father? Would it even occur to her to add the word ‘luang’ to her t-shirt? And so on.
Many, maybe most, red shirts are firm admirers of the Thai King. When it comes to politics he is bracketed out by a psychological mechanism that places him apart from the mundane world. This type of compartmentalisation is common. Some people claim that this bracketing of the King is a direct product of royal propaganda, and it certainly must have an effect. But how much? Is it equally as much a product of how most people in Thai culture to date think about the sacred and the profane? I noticed one NM contributor’s frustration with his Thai girlfriend because she just couldn’t understand his objection to the lèse majeste law and moreover was quite happy to see people prosecuted for breaking it. He was at his wits end.This compartmentalisation can be seen among Thaksin’s supporters too. Supporters of him from Isaan, Vientiane, or Bangkok look at me with genuine puzzlement when I raise with them, for example, the fiasco that Thaksin’s administration created in the south. No-one says anything in reply, but the look in their eyes is, ‘what on earth are you raising this for?’ This, and tax evasion, etc. is all irrelevant. It is the good things – health policy, for e.g. – that they highlight.
One could argue that what politicians and propagandists try to do to gain followers is to get them to connect the dots in ways they have never done before. And, clearly something like this is happening in Thailand today.
But it is still fascinating to watch which dots do and do not get connected, and by whom.
Mark Askew recently wrote an excellent piece for New Mandala on the dangerous situation developing in Bangkok. He also drew attention to the escalating rhetoric there as the red demonstration has continued. In this regard I was shocked one afternoon when I was watching the red channel (some weeks back, of course!) when I thought I had accidentally switched it to one of the propaganda programmes on Lao TV because even in its form it was so like old style communist propaganda. Indeed, it was more ‘marxist’ than the type of propaganda one gets on Lao TV these days. The programme was a documentary history of the struggle of the ‘phrai’ against the ‘amart’ – the latter glossed these days as the aristocracy, the army and the bureaucracy. It was old style Maoist Communist Party of Thailand propaganda, except, (and this is important), that it avoids mentioning the current king. But, of course, the whole logic of the programme leads one to a denunciation of the monarchy today. The dots were not explicitly connected, but for people looking for such connections they no doubt made them. Current right-wing royalist hysteria about the anti-monarchist aims of the reds are not total fantasy, but as I said above, most reds (including Thaksin) seem to be genuine supporters of the monarchy.
But like the missing ‘luang’ on the t-shirt it is remarkable how little commentary or analysis has been done of what seems to be a growing republican sentiment among reds; while among others there appears to be a growing indifference to the long-term maintenance of the monarchy as a result of the ongoing political crisis.
That people are beginning to connect the dots in different ways perhaps prompted the palace to gingerly step into the fray and offer compensation to all who were injured or killed on April 10th, and thereby suggest they are non-partisan. Just maybe they too are starting to connect the dots in different ways.