Thailand’s fearless youth stands up to the military and monarchy
Marwaan Macan-Markar, Asia regional correspondent/ Asia Review
The government struggles to reach a generation no longer cowed by authority
Just as dusk spread across Bangkok on a recent Sunday evening, the mood in a cavernous warehouse near a busy traffic intersection was electric. The crowd chanted anti-establishment slogans in response to the provocative hip-hop blasting out from the stage, as headliners Rap Against Dictatorship built up to their signature song “Prathet Ku Mee” — “What My Country’s Got.”
The song, an angry denunciation of the Thai government, has become an anthem for young people frustrated with years of political and economic chaos. Its lyrics call the capital of Bangkok a “killing field” and declare the junta-controlled parliament a “playground for soldiers.” Released in October 2018, the music video for the song was watched 17 million times in its first week online, and has now reached more than 77 million views.
Nutthapong “Liberate P” Srimuong, one of RAD’s frontmen, still shakes his head with disbelief at the song’s success. “We touched young Thais in a way we never knew,” he told the Nikkei Asian Review after the concert. “If you see the online media, you can see their frustration. And we echo that frustration.”
Prathet Ku Mee’s success is totemic of a rising discontent among young Thais, who have come of age in an era of near-unending political crises. Those born in the 1990s have lived through the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, two coups, sweeping constitutional change — and now a wave of authoritarianism and conservatism that has swelled since the military took power in 2014. Rather than stay quiet, young people in Thailand are starting to raise their voices, online and at events like RAD’s.
“If you don’t criticize openly, you are out of fashion now; it is cool for young Thais to be outraged, angry and frustrated at what is happening in the country,” said Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok-based think tank.
The government, headed by former coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has struggled to contain this growing discontent. Instead, it has turned to classic authoritarian tactics, such as trying to delegitimize a youth-focused political party and building new political apparatus for monitoring dissent. But while previous generations have been cowed by such moves, this time is different, said Kan. “After years of silence, the young generations have reached a threshold, a trigger point.”
On a recent Friday evening, Chotiros Naksut left her office in Bangkok’s Pathumwan business district wearing a T-shirt that read, in bold English lettering: “F— Prayuth and if you like Prayuth f— you too.”
Such open provocation is not without risks. The junta that Prayuth led, and the elected government that followed, have used authoritarian tactics to stay in power. Political activities and public assembly were restricted. Critics were summoned to military compounds for “attitude adjustment” sessions. Social media was censored, and citizens leaving critical comments on social media platforms were hit with charges of sedition. Pro-democracy activists have been attacked in broad daylight. The perpetrators are rarely brought to justice, creating a sense of impunity.
Chotiros has lost friends because of her political views, and is on constant guard against a public backlash. “I was scared initially, and had to deal with critics who insulted me for being a woman and for my sexuality,” she said, adjusting the bangs of her purple-tinted hair.
“But not anymore. Harsh language conveys our frustration about where our country has ended up.”
Her own political awakening came before the junta took over. The 28-year-old said that as far back as high school she was infuriated by Thailand’s retrograde gender politics. “I wanted to break the silence in our society that girls are supposed to remain quiet on many things — sex, politics, religion.”
Her rebellion comes in the form of erotic fiction, using sex as a way to explore social and cultural issues. Her debut collection, “Black Cherry,” was published in Thailand last April, and she has built a substantial following online, with more than 21,000 followers on Facebook.
“We should be able to challenge the conservative culture and what the authorities say about Thailand — that it is a land of smiles and happy people, which is a myth and propaganda of Thailand’s tourism ministry,” she said.