Opinion: Reconciling Thailand’s political generation gap

On July 19, in one corner of Thai Twitter, a question was posed. “Do your family members have differing political perspectives? And if so, how do you live together?” 

Never mention politics at the Thanksgiving dinner; so goes the timeless American wisdom.

It appears that many young Thais follow the same advice. “All my family members are salim,” one complained, “except for me and my sibling. We don’t talk about politics because we don’t want to fight.”

Another said, “I tried to explain my political views to my parents until they understood, but it didn’t work as we just ended up fighting. They said, ‘what would children know’?” 

Families refusing to talk about politics is likely a widespread phenomenon. The political generational gap is not just a figment of the imagination, or a hasty conclusion drawn from too small a sample size. Indeed, age may not be, to an even deeper extent than region or class, a dividing political factor.  

Research by Brighman Young University political science professor Joel Selway, for example, showed that 41% of Thais aged 18-29 preferred Future Forward, compared to just 9.91% of those above 55. In every region, Future Forward’s popularity among younger voters is higher than the national average, showing that this cut through regional divisions. Progressivism is in vogue among the younger electorate in a way that simply does not exist among those older.  

And now, with renewed protests against the Prayut government erupting, this generational gap is once again coming to the fore. It is the colliding of the worlds of young and old, each with their own set of facts and views.

Why is the generational gap so stark? The following are broad stereotypes, to be sure, but they are all sentiments that I have seen expressed in good faith, and I would imagine they capture well the clashing of minds happening at dinner tables in Thailand. 

On one side, we have the student activists, the young people sick and tired of a status quo that no longer works. “Sovereignty belongs to the people,” they chant, both at rallies and on social media. Extremely online, they can immediately make an anti-government hashtag trend. Thailand has waited long enough, they say, to achieve true democracy so that the nation can progress. It is time to demand constitutional change and an end to a sham democracy under military tutelage. What kind of national disgrace is it that democracy still hasn’t been achieved after almost nine decades, anyway? Hai mun job tee roon rao, as the slogan goes: “let it end in our generation.” 

On the other side, the older generation — or, to be specific, one particular subset of them that are disillusioned with democracy. Less keen on sweeping social change, they yearn for stability and order. We used to be starry-eyed too, they would explain, but now we know better. “We’ve showered in hot water before,” they would say, a Thai idiom for wisdom gained with experience.

Thaksin Shinawatra is the root of all the evil that plagues Thailand today; better a semi-democracy than the corrupt convict’s regime. Democracy isn’t “edible”, which the younger generation don’t understand. Indeed, how can they call themselves forward-looking when they constantly look back towards 1932? 

Each were shaped by different events: the older by the quickly rising affluence of late 20th century Thailand amid the pertinent threat of communism, the younger by the upheavals of protests and coups amid economic stagnation. Each live within different media ecosystems, with their own echo chambers: one in LINE groups with news of highly doubtful veracity being passed around, the other in Twitter bubbles where everyone seems ready for revolutionary struggle. 

To the old, the youth seem like an “orange guard” who seek a cultural revolution, but incapable of nothing more than mob moong ming: just a cute little protest. To the young, the old are dinosaurs, denying the realities of 21st century Thailand, ignoring the need for democratic change. Both think the other group is utterly brainwashed. 

Two generations, two irreconcilable realities. 

Is this generational gap a danger? Some would argue no. After all, this is normal and hardly specific to Thailand. Just take a look at neighboring Singapore, where in the wake of a humiliating result for the ruling People’s Action Party, a writer called in the Strait Times for Lee Kuan Yew’s book Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going to be required reading in colleges, so that the young are pulled out from their “state of complacency.” 

One would suspect that many in Thailand would agree with prescribing more reading about Thailand’s 20th century struggles for young people to read. 

And time would take care of these natural differences. Every year, a new group of voters who would never vote Palang Pracharath become eligible to cast their ballots; given long enough, old mindsets would simply lose their electoral viability. One core Buddhist concept is that of impermanence; this applies no less to political regimes. 

But would it be right ignore this generational gap completely, to simply try to fight without listening to one another?

It is unlikely to be prove to be a good political strategy. For one. The current regime, for one, ignores the voices of the students at their own peril. This year’s student protests are the largest in decades, and the resentment that they feel against the current system will not dissipate without change. The government’s supporters are fooling themselves when they pretend that the students are being led by shadowy Thaksin-linked forces: much of the anger is genuine. 

They may not present an immediate mortal threat to the government, but the prime minister will likely regret it if he allows such anger to snowball into something more than the current smattering of flash-mobs. Simply creating parliamentary committees to study constitutional change will not be enough to satisfy the desire to see real change. 

But the students would also do well to give greater thought to how to convince and persuade more older voters to be on their side. Some adults have been sanguine about the need to disagree openly with students. They must now step back, they say, because it’s their time now. But others will disagree. Some asked: why must I step back? I am old, but am I not allowed to have a voice? 

To overlook them completely would hardly be democratic. Politics worldwide is littered with examples of youthful movements — Bernie Sanders’ in the United States, Jeremy Corbyn’s in the United Kingdom — where online momentum and mass rallies failed to produce true change.

In Thailand, the anti-regime side have the advantage of actually being able to produce the electoral numbers to win in a fair system. But other Thais who do not live and breathe politics may very well care less about the nature of democracy and more about the concrete results; just take a look at the government’s repeated by-election wins. Persuading them of how democratic reform can lead to better governance and policy can be difficult, but it is necessary. 

But beyond mere political strategy, it is also an unhealthy society indeed where young and old are so starkly divided. 

The old bashing the young, the young bashing the old: this has become fashionable in many countries, as the political stances between the two continue to diverge. Yet, as Ashton Applewrite wrote in the Guardian, “Old v young framing…is shortsighted and ill-informed for countless reasons. Olders are not “them”, they are us: our parents, our neighbors, our friends, and it is grotesque to suggest that our interests are inherently opposed.” 

It would be easier to argue that the generational gap is too stark, the divide too deep, for any bridge to be built. But in the hopes of building a more harmonious society, it is also our duty to listen to the voices of all Thais and to try to forge a consensus for constitutional change, rather than to dismiss the opinions of a group just because of their age. 

At the very least, they would make for more comfortable dinner table conversations all around the country. 

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