Is Asia’s cosmopolitan elite so entrenched with American ‘global culture’ that it fails to see problems at home?

When George Floyd died with a police officer’s knee on his neck, it set America alight in protest. But it was not just in America that the words “I can’t breathe” were plastered across protest signs and Instagram stories. In Thailand, too, Zoom protests were held for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and all manner of Thai celebrities posted black squares on their Instagram feeds (BLM organizers decried the black squares as performative – of course, Thai celebrities have not been known for much more than performativity).

On June 4, the words “I can’t breathe” took on horrifying resonance in Thailand, as the breathy last words of exiled activist Wanchalerm Satsaksit before he was forcibly abducted.

There are few similarities between the cases of Wanchalerm and Floyd.

The former is a political refugee and the victim of a targeted campaign of state-sponsored abduction, the latter a casualty of a racist system that gives white policemen the power to literally kill black men with qualified immunity.

But the timing of the incidents and the apparent equivalence between their last words – both seemingly gesturing at the broader oppression of the state – sparked a conversation among the Thai left on the asymmetries of political activism between the global and the local.

“You’re silent about the injustices in your own country, but when it comes to things outside your country, you post so much,” wrote John Winyu in a viral tweet. Doing so was “dat jarid” or ‘pretentious,’ he declared. Within days, Thai internet users bombarded ‘Pu’ Praya Lundberg’s Instagram page, calling her out for posting about BLM and not advocating for Wanchalerm, even as she held the title of goodwill ambassador for the UNHCR.

Centering American pain

The exasperation captured by Winyu is part of the age-old tension of situating political struggle in global context, one that’s been had by Third World (inter)nationalists like Rabindranath Tagore, Edward Said and Franz Fanon.

In a book titled ‘Third World Protest: Between Home and the World’, Rahul Rao writes: “It [seems] as if the stories told by voices of both power and resistance [are] informed by highly selective geographies and histories of culpability.”

While black voices aren’t centered in the American conversation, American voices are firmly centered in the geography of global activism.

American subjectivity has become ‘global’ culture, through the internationalization of American sport and pop culture (a culture which prominently features black faces even as it refuses to value black lives). We grow up recognizing the intrigues of American high school cafeterias and the heartbreak of American teen life, before we even have real consciousness of the political community that surrounds us at home.

Western subjectivity is more broadly inculcated through Thai elite education, where wealthy students are sent to America or the United Kingdom for university. In that way, BLM can feel incredibly close to home for some – it is the movement of their favorite celebrities, authors, and college friends.

But our false proximity to BLM gives rise to imperfect analogies to the Thai context. In the rush of June, as Winyu and others agonized over Wanchalerm, much political capital was also being spent contextualizing BLM in Thailand. Anti-blackness in Thailand is very real, and our beauty standards are very white. Our international schools preach a false culture of racial equality which exemplifies the sort of colorblindness and blindness to injustice now associated with #AllLivesMatter.

But by centering the conversation on beauty standards and the highly specific context of international schools, it strips away what is most urgent about BLM in the United States: the deeply entrenched nature of systemic racism that goes far, far beyond individual prejudice or specific schooling systems. That the American policing system was born from slave patrols. That black mass incarceration today is the New Jim Crow. That black women encounter systemic discrimination in the medical system, that their babies die two times more than those of any other race. Structural racism is embedded in American society, in its institutions, and is an outcome of a specific history of slavery and sustained racism. To equate this to Thailand’s anti-blackness is to dilute the immense stakes of America’s BLM movement.

It also misses what is unique about the Thai context, and fails to highlight the kinds of systemic injustices that do structure the Thai daily experience. Slavery did exist in Thailand! The slaves were Thailand’s poor. The Thai system never truly graduated from the feudalism that was built on this slavery, land ownership is still restricted to a select few and inherited through royal patronage, monopoly capital continues to structure Thailand’s ‘free market.’ The poor remain shut out of political conversation. Meanwhile, the lines between old money and government are so blurred as to make the ‘corruption’ charge unfalsifiable – it is everywhere, in every government, in every institution.

Comparison comes at an analytical cost. Solidarity for BLM should recognize the fullness of American activists’ demands and the specificity of that context. And if anything, it should serve as inspiration to find and uproot our own structural inequalities.

Why calling it “Dat Jarid” is also unhelpful

But the critique targeted at the cosmopolitanism of Thailand’s BLM protest – that it is “dat jarid” – is also imperfect. It ignores the role that a cosmopolitan worldview can play in support of Thai activism.

In the most immediate sense, BLM’s energy and methods have diffused into the Thai political atmosphere. The slogan “Thailand Can’t Breathe”, in support of Wanchalerm, brought about the first protest since Covid-19. And Thai activism has leveraged technologies popularized during BLM: the use of carrd (to aggregate links for raising awareness / petitions / fundraising) with the freedomforthai.carrd, mass emailing, learning not to donate through change.org but directly to organizations on the ground, sharing information widely through Instagram stories.

Part of the annoyance that Winyu and others display stems from an attitude of “หมั่นไส้” (mansai) – that unique Thai combination of dislike and irritation. This, too, is what sits behind the virality of the article criticizing international school students for their misplaced activism. And this mansai comes from the conflation of cosmopolitanism with privilege.

At its heart is the notion that worldly advocacy comes most readily to elites who can afford to be worldly thanks to their credit cards, expensive visas and even more expensive schooling. Their material privileges distort their sensitivity to global pain in very particular ways, blunting them to the local urgencies of activism.

But, as Rao writes, the actual origins of cosmopolitanism are very different. Diogenes the Cynic is credited with inventing cosmopolitanism with his phrase ‘I am a citizen of the whole world.’ To embody that, he was a nomad, caring little for where he lived and sleeping outdoors even in cold weather. 

To him, as to contemporary cosmopolitans like Edward Said, a view from the outside makes us sensitive to the injustices faced by people as people rather than as citizens. It also makes us aware of the spatially dispersed nature of threats to freedom: the global dimension of hunger and starvation across an insufficient food supply chain, the legacies of imperialism, the present realities of economic conditionality – first to the IMF, now to China.

In this view, refugees, exiles, illegal aliens are the world’s most cosmopolitan citizens. Wanchalerm, too, was a member of this ‘diasphoric public sphere,’ and the fact that he was arrested in Cambodia should not be lost on us. Wanchalerm was not only a symptom of Thailand’s particular brand of authoritarianism. As shown in an earlier Thai Enquirer op-ed, there is much to be gained by situating his abduction within the wider context of forced disappearance in nations governed by the Southeast Asian dictators club.

Wanchalerm’s disappearance and ‘Pu’ Praya’s inadequacy as a UNHCR ambassador should also be an opportunity to center the conversation on refugees, and how such institutions have been failing the world’s most vulnerable cosmopolitans for years. The viral post by actor Sakda Kaewbuadee on UNHCR’s failings is informed by his direct experience of working with Pakistani Christians in Thailand’s infamous detention centers. To date, Thailand’s detention centers house hundreds of Pakistani Christians, Rohingya refugees and South Sudanese migrants – in conditions that, among other things, left them most vulnerable to Covid-19. Black lives matter in Thailand’s detention centers, too.    

A cosmopolitan vision should not be automatically considered “dat jarid.” Moreover, the leftist demands made of Thailand’s newly minted activists – that they are hosting BLM zoom protests but aren’t doing the same for Wanchalerm – seems excessively narrow-minded and dangerously nationalist.

Cosmopolitanism can be used to productively situate national concerns in broader context. At the same time, activists should take note of the selective geographies of social resistance – which subjectivities are continually centered, and what is gained and lost in transferring global protest to local soil.

The tension between the global and the local must be constantly navigated but never simplified.

Calling people out for caring about the ‘wrong thing’ is easy and satisfying, but perhaps not useful. We must not lose sight of the fact that apathy – more so than misplaced activism – has always been the main adversary to activism. Rather, finding new ways to converse across the global and the local can bring important momentum to urgent causes, while broadening our own perspectives on political priorities.  

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