Like Everyone Else
From the Series: The Wheel of Crisis in Thailand
In December of 2008, some three or four turns back on the wheel of crisis, I attended a Red Shirt rally at the National Stadium in Bangkok. Just outside the entry gates, a young man delivered a scorching monologue. Ad libbing “Hyde Park-style,” as many Thai activists call it, he denounced the ongoing threats to democracy posed by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), who had only recently ended their occupation of Suvarnabhumi Airport. He wore a red shirt that said, “No one hired me. I came by my goddamn self!” (mai tong jang gu ma eng).1 The speaker challenged the characterization of the Red Shirts as shills paid to support the powerful former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. “They say only the poor support Thaksin. Well, I am not poor and I support him. My parents are from Korat. They are not poor and they support him! We support him because he made things better. Look, I have a credit card [holding up the card up for the crowd]. This is not something that poor people have. We support him because he was here to improve things for everyone!”
The speaker brought Thailand’s teetering hierarchy into relief by martialing specific language and symbols that sought to demonstrate the protestors’ competency as citizens. In so doing, he proposed a radical reordering of the national hierarchy, asserting the Red Shirts’ economic, moral, and political commensurability with other Thais, revealing the increasingly untenable basis of many conservative claims to political authority. These notions of political authority (see Streckfuss, this series) are rooted in a developmental understanding of citizenship that marks the poor, the rural, and the ethnically different as “not yet properly Thai” and thus, not yet capable to rule and be ruled. Instead, these groups were characterized as, at best, honorable collective villagers who, with some moral education, local organization, and economic development might eventually become citizens with a legitimate claim to individual political conscience. At worst, these groups were seen as either distinctly non-human—ignorant buffalo (khwai)—or dangerous invaders (phubukruk) whose out-of-place claims to politics and desires to participate in consumer modernity threatened the security of the nation (see also Mills, this collection). In either case, the hierarchy itself restricted politics to a specific but amorphous sphere of commensurate “good people” with legitimate claims to making political decisions by dint of class, ethnicity, education, or simply high birth.
Since 2008, Red Shirt activists have challenged these notions of citizenship and, more deeply, their own subordinate place in the national hierarchy. They have mobilized the language of “double standards” (song mathrahan), both specifically to speak to the Thai judiciary’s uneven treatment of activists from the various protest camps, and, more broadly, to evoke the many forms of injustice and inequality that animate many parts of Thai society. They have branded themselves as phrai (serfs/commoners/plebians/subjects) to emphasize the way the current arrangement of Thai society mirrors the feudal order of the ancien régime. They have used the language, symbolism, and music of the French Revolution to underscore their claims to citizenship.
And yet, the recent coup underscores the ways in which this question of commensurability—who is marked as an equivalent moral being with whom and, therefore, who has a legitimate claim to politics—remains. The Red Shirts and their efforts were simply not enough to transform these deeply rooted attitudes about the proper admixture of morality, class, ethnicity, and education required to be seen as ready to rule and be ruled. The resurgence of the military has thus widened the already deep fissure within the Thai body politic around the issue of who belongs where in the national order.
A recent (April 2014) visit to my field sites—railway squatter settlements located in the northeastern Thai capital of Khon Kaen—highlighted the experience of this stunted social transformation. Although some residents along the tracks are very poor, many have nascent claims to middle-class belonging. Over the course of my research, I have documented the various ways residents struggle to assert their equal belonging in the growing provincial capital. They have organized savings groups, made aesthetic and infrastructural improvements to their homes and communities, and protested vigorously (if often unsuccessfully) for land rights. In the process, many residents have embraced politics itself as a necessary practice for solving their problems. Indeed, engaging in contentious disagreements with state agencies, NGO activists, and each other became a crucial way that they asserted their equality as residents of the city and the legitimacy of their claims to the good life.
These sorts of experiences alongside growing but unequally distributed prosperity, shifting practices of consumption, broadening engagements with electoral democracy, and deepening urban transformations have destabilized Thailand’s embedded hierarchies. As developmental notions of citizenship become dislodged from within, the expectations and aspirations of many citizens, including those living along the tracks, have changed in equal measure. Although such aspirations are complex, residents often phrase them simply, claiming that they want to “be like everyone else” (pen tawthriam kap khon eun).
Even before the coup, these modest hopes had already begun to curdle. When I visited Khon Kaen this April, Mae Horm, a leader of one of the city’s local slum networks, put it his way: “This is what they don’t understand: We are changing. We are improving ourselves. They always see this place and say, ‘Mae Horm, these people living here aren’t poor anymore.’ What does that mean? That means we cannot ever raise ourselves up to become equal. They won’t let us. We have to stay poor or we are just invaders.”
In this way, the return of the military not only decimated institutional forms of democracy but also demonstrated the lingering potency of these old categories and their related hierarchies. More than this, though, the military’s radical restriction on political action itself eliminates the fundamental practice through which many poor citizens had begun to assert themselves in the first place. Thus, the military and its supporters have created a paradox for those Thais who seek to be seen as legitimate political actors but who now cannot legitimately engage in politics as a means of demonstrating their claims to belonging. As that paradox deepens, the pent-up frustration in Bangkok and beyond grows, providing new momentum to spin Thailand’s wheel of crisis ever forward.
1. See Tausig 2013 for a deeper discussion of the Gu Ma Eng ethos.
Tausig, Benjamin. 2013. Bangkok is Ringing. Ph.D. Dissertation. New York University.