Thailand and the American Myth of the Protester

Thailand and the American Myth of the Protester


But why can’t all world problems fit neatly into our preconceived narrative?

Americans love a protester.  It harkens back to the dawn of our country and the stories we’ve told ourselves about the Revolution.  We look at protestors in the Ukraine and we see the Boston Massacre.  We look at the Arab Spring and see the stirrings of our own birth, waiting to be play out across the world stage again.  And sympathy for pro-democratic protestors against an autocratic regime is a storyline that plays well in our psyches.  But the problem is not every protest around the world fits that handy outline, and to try to force them to fit our traditional protest narrative spreads dangerous misinformation and trivializes the actual issues at play.

Enter, then, Thailand.  Thailand has been in a state of protests for several months now, although that really only describes the current round of protests.  It is safer to say Thailand has been in a state of off and on protests since 2006.  This latest round has been especially vicious and noticeable, especially since they have come at a time when other countries like Ukraine and Venezuela are going through similar struggles.  It has thus been popping up in lists trying to explain this wave of protests, as if they’re all over the same issues.  And it’s worth knowing why the protests in Thailand are nothing like those other protests.


Thailand has never had a particularly easy political history.  Since absolute monarchy was removed in the 1932 revolution (a few years after which the country was also renamed from Siam to Thailand) they have had 16 constitutions and charters and 25 coups, coup attempts, rebellions, and popular uprisings.  In that time there has only been one Prime Minister to serve out his full term and only one to be re-elected to a second term: Thaksin Shinawatra.  This would be a notable achievement if he had not later been removed in a military coup and found guilty of embezzling roughly two billion dollars from the government.

Thaksin Shinawatra, former Prime Minister.  Like mint jelly.

Thaksin Shinawatra, former Prime Minister. Like mint jelly, he’s on the lam.

And that’s where the last 8 years of difficulty come from.  The military removed Thaksin because it claimed he was corrupt, but Thaksin had ridden to power on the backs of a populist movement he used quite adeptly.  He was a former police Colonel from Thailand’s second city of Chiang Mai, and was popular both for his populist policies (universal health care and student loan funding, among many others) and the fact that he was outside the traditional Bangkok power structure (referred to as the amatya, meaning oligarchy or elites).  Of course he was equally hated for his populist policies and for being outside the amatya, as well as his alleged corruption and penchant for extra judicial executions of drug smugglers.

He was removed in 2006 with a coup that happened while he was at the Olympics, which has to lead to an awkward call in the hotel room.  He has stayed out of the country since then, because of the warrant for his arrest initially and then because of the trial and guilty verdict in absentia.  Thailand was ruled for a military junta for a year before they stepped down, and Thaksin’s party was promptly elected again.  That Prime Minister, Samak Sundaravej, was removed by the Constitutional Court in 2008 and he was replaced by Somchai Wongsawat.  Samak was removed, and this is the absolute truth, for hosting a cooking show while Prime Minister.  Somchai was removed by the Constitutional Court in 2008 as well, making it the Year of Four Prime Ministers (after the military PM Surayud Chulanont, Samak, and Somchai) when Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party (the other party) was elected.  This marked the first time since 2001 the Democrats had been in power, and it was largely because the People Power Party (what had been Thaksin’s Tai Rak Thai party) was dissolved.

Abhsit Vejjajiva, Former PM. Posh Etonian tosser.

Abhsit Vejjajiva, Former PM. Posh Etonian tosser.

During this time, there were internecine protests.  Anti-Thaksin supporters of the Democrats, wearing yellow shirts, seized Suvarnabhumi Airport in late 2008.  In April of 2009 and several months of 2010 there were large scale pro-Thaksin protests by protesters wearing red shirts that crippled parts of Bangkok, and in 2010 resulted in violence and deaths.

In 2011 Abhisit was beaten in an election, since the Democrats are really horrible at winning those, and was replaced with Yingluck Shinawatra.  If that name sounds familiar it is because she is Thaksin’s sister, and the third member of the family to be Prime Minister, since Somchai was also his brother-in-law.  The protests which have been going on since late 2013 accuse her of corruption and being a puppet for her brother to rule from a distance.  They took to the streets when an amnesty bill was proposed in late 2013 that might have pardoned Thaksin and let him return to the country.

Yingluck Shinawatra, former PM.  Probably a tool.

Yingluck Shinawatra, former PM. Probably a tool.

No Good Guys

That sets up what could be a fairly straightforward set of protests.  And if it was just that a group of people, disturbed with the possible amnesty, took to the streets to protest it then there would be no issue.  But the amnesty bill was soon taken off the table, and the protesters stayed.  The government dissolved to hold new elections, and they stayed.  New elections were held, and they boycotted them.  The problem is the leaders behind the protests are not any better.

Suthep, former deputy PM.  Christ, what an ***hole.

Suthep, former deputy PM. Christ, what an ***hole.

The head of these protests is one Suthep Thaugsuban, former MP and also former deputy PM under Abhisit.  A member of parliament from 1979 to 2009, he has been implicated in a corruption scandal involving land sales lasting from 1995 to now, resigned from parliament to avoid being kicked out in 2009 so he could remain deputy PM, and was charged with murder in connection to his role as deputy PM during the 2010 protests.  He is the founder and Secretary General of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the amusingly named organization leading the protests.

It’s amusingly named because the demand that Suthep continues to press is no less than the dissolution of the Thai government and its replacement with an unelected “People’s Council” to oversee a Constitutional reform, before a new government would be elected (presumably).  This unelected council would be overseen temporarily by a royally appointed caretaker Prime Minister (an idea supported by the increasingly ludicrously named Democrat Party), would have 300 representatives from different professions chosen by the members of that profession somehow…but would also include 100 PDRC members involved of course.  What could be more Democratic than a body with 100 “non-political” political appointees along with 300 other appointees dictating government changes to a people who had no hand in their selection.  Incidentally this is not the first time the protest group backed by the Democrat party has called for a royally appointed Prime Minister, as they did so in 2006 before the coup as well, and it is believed by many in country they attempt to disenfranchise as many rural voters as possible.

Battle Lines

So those are the people fighting for the future of our closest ally in Southeast Asia.  On the one side you have the sister of an exiled former Prime Minister who may well be in on the corruption, but leading a party that has decisively won every election since 2001.  And on the other you have protesters lead by a man whose group has the word democracy in it but who is calling for an essentially fascist party appointed by his group to reform the government the way he wants and who is supported by the perennial election losers from Parliament, but who is nonetheless bringing some legitimate points about the influence of the Shinawatra family on politics.

One side is filled with the members of one family and their cronies who want to hold on to power and have abused that power frequently.  The other side is populated by people who desperately want to be in power, and have abused it when they had it—it’s worth pointing out to me that to many the issue with Thaksin was not that he bought votes, but how blatant he was about it.  And one side is filled with people who subvert democracy for their own benefit, while the other is filled with people who increasingly seem to have no idea what the word democracy means.

There are no heroes or villains in the protests in Thailand, and there is no easy narrative that we can lay over it.  To do so removes legitimate grievances and glosses over insane demands.  It is not like other protests in the world right now, where the snipers are on one side or the deposed President immediately asks a bellicose neighbor to invade when he’s thrown out.  There is no universal truth to the current season of protests, and anyone who says there is has an ideology to sell.  The only truth is that the people suffering the most are the Thai people who just want a functional government, and that once you’ve taken a hit of the heady drug of Thai politics the weak American equivalent will never be satisfying.

Thai flag

Boys Will Be Bullshit

(Trigger warning.  The original article discusses rape and sexual harassment, and so does my article.  I’ll spoil the article by saying I’m anti, but I don’t want to cause any surprises for anyone who may have triggers).

Go read this article.  No, really:

There’s a lot there, and a lot of it is completely messed up. Let me jump right ahead and say this: If you think that was an appropriate presentation for the Principal to give, then I think you’re flat wrong. There are a couple of reasons why that I’m going to go into, but that’s the most basic answer I have for you: It puts the emphasis on all the wrong things, makes horrible things the victim’s fault, and is insulting not just to women but to men as well.

Modest is Hottest?

This is something that’s been going around a lot, on Facebook and apparently also real life.  Which is sad, because I frequently hope that real life isn’t as stupid as the internet. On Facebook you see it as a picture of a woman in a niqab, with a caption saying something like “Even though you can only see her eyes, she is hotter than most of the half-dressed women out there.”  And fathers of daughters like this and share it, and it passes around the internet.  And apparently gets used by high school principals.  (And incidentally she still has a lot of makeup on those eyes, so her natural beauty wasn’t enough either.  Huzzah for layered nonsense).

I want you to think about that image for a moment, a bunch of people looking at a woman in a niqab and saying to themselves “I wish my daughter would dress more like that.”  That’s…a thing.

Ignoring the fact that most of the people sharing this and/or looking at their daughters speculatively would not be thrilled if they announced they were converting to ultra-conservative Islam (and ignoring the fact that the majority of Muslim women don’t wear a niqab or burka), this is the exact opposite of what we should be telling women.

Our modern culture has a serious issue with how we portray women.  We present women in media most frequently in ways that shows their highest value as being their body, hyper-sexualize them and shame them if they don’t fit in with how super models look and dress.  And that is a major problem, and the fact that it leads to increasingly sexualized teens at younger and younger ages is a pretty messed up symptom of it—as is Toddlers and Tiaras.

But the opposite of that is not telling them they’re more attractive when they dress modestly, or “Modest is Hottest”.  That’s like saying the solution to people being killed with hatchets is to emphasize the virtue of baseball bats.  People are still gonna get killed, it’s just going to be a different box on the coroner’s report.  Telling women they’re more beautiful when they dress modestly and shaming women that dress immodestly (but in line with media displays…) still sends the same message: That their worth is tied to their beauty.  It’s not a different message then they see every day, it just has the dial turned to the other side.

What we need to be saying to our young women is that what’s hot is not how you dress, and what matters isn’t how you dress.  What matters is who you are and your comfort with that.  What is of value is who you are as a person and what you choose to do with your life.  Not what you choose to wear, who you choose to love, or whether you wear a birqa or a bikini.  Or a burqini.

Also, no high school principal should ever use the words “Hottest” or “hot”, except if they are saying “It sure is hot today.  I think it might be the hottest day all year!”

School Dress Codes

This is a bit of a diversion, but there is a great deal that I don’t like about school dress codes.  I understand that if you give them the opportunity many high school students would come in their underwear, but it’s the focus of most dress codes that bothers me.  I seem to recall when I was in school that the dress code was to reduce distraction, and then most of the restrictions were aimed at female students.  Yes I couldn’t sag or wear gang colors and was asked to stop wearing my duster (which I wish I’d had the GPA to feel I could risk a fight).  But the majority of the restrictions only marginally impacted male students, like the no stomach and the skirt length rules.  And when combined with the justification of “no distractions”, it became relatively clear: Female students had to dress a certain way so the male students didn’t get distracted.  Now the opposite was also true, the men can’t dress in a way that won’t distract women, but there were far fewer restrictions on me then on them.  And that means, implicitly, that there are more ways for boys to get distracted then women.

It bothers me.  I’m not a big fan of dress codes to begin with, because I feel like in a lot of ways they can be misguided.  But I know that we have to have something.  But why not, as my roommate suggested, change the focus away from any issue of gender and make it about a valuable skill?  The dress code should not be based on any specific gender’s garment, but what would be acceptable in the loosest office environment.  Make it based on what will be the absolute minimum students will need to be comfortable wearing in most jobs they will get after school, whether they go to college or not.

Boys Will Be Boys

Let me start by saying straight out: I ****ing hate this sentiment, as applied to anything sexual or harass-y.

Are there things that can just be written off as boys grow up?  Sure, same as there are that girls grow up.  A boy getting in a shoving match on the playground doesn’t make him a violent person and shouldn’t result in a huge punishment (I hate zero tolerance), but the boy still needs to be talked to about what it means to be a man and why violence isn’t what it means to be a man (see a future post about how we shape our boys, too).  But the same is also true for girls.  There is a lot that can be said for “Children will be children,” when it comes to minor violations of the rules as they learn what boundaries are.

But that is never an excuse for anything sexually harassing, and never should be.  It should never be acceptable for a boy to harass a girl and have it written off as “boys will be boys”.  It should never be acceptable for a man to be rude to women and have it be written off.

This ties in for me to one of the issues I have with how we treat rape victims, which is blaming the victim.  Things like “You shouldn’t have been dressed like that” or “Why were you walking through a bad area if you didn’t want it to happen” are completely messed up for two reasons.  Firstly for the main reason and the one that people keep trying to get society to understand.  No one should be made responsible for an action taken by another against them, or made to feel like a crime that was committed against them is their fault. Victim shaming puts the priorities in exactly the wrong order, blames the wrong people, and makes it less likely that people will report rapes.

But there’s another thing wrong with it, and wrong with the whole spiel that the principal in the article gave.  It’s something that bothers me immensely.  Blaming women for getting raped takes the blame off of the rapist.  Saying it was their clothing, or where they were walking, means that there was a man there who only needed a dark alley or a piece of revealing clothing to become a rapist.  If women cannot wear revealing clothing because they are in danger of being raped, then men are constantly in danger of becoming rapists.

**** that.  Really hard.  There is no circumstance or combination of dark alleys or provocative clothing that would make me a rapist, nor the men I know.  This bull**** says that all men are uncontrolled bundles of hormones looking for a fleshy expression of our animal desires, restrained only by a scrap of fabric covering a woman’s stomach or thighs.  It says that my brothers and I, actual and spiritual brothers, are beasts and that we can’t be blamed for what we do because there is nothing we can do to stop it.

I am more than a barely controlled rapist waiting for an excuse, as are most men.  Someone who commits rape makes that choice, or may be out of control due to mental illness or imbalance—but that doesn’t mean that everyone of their gender is. That goes both ways, incidentally, since there are thousands of cases of rape where the perpetrator is a woman and the victim a male in addition to same-sex rape.  No subset of human is an uncontrollable monster, save for that subset of humans which are uncontrollable monsters (mostly Slytherins).

So let’s make it very clear: Modest is not hottest but another way of tying of worth to beauty, principals should not be coming up with ways to make students hotter in any case, and victim shaming further victimizes victims while turning their attackers into blameless uncontrollable beasts (and their whole gender with them).  And it’s all bullshit