Ever since I started my undergraduate degree in the school of Political Science, people always look at me with either wonder or suspicion.
Whenever some news or events occurs involving politics, friends from other fields of studies or even people at work would come straight to me and ask ‘Hey, what happened?’ or ‘Hey, can you explain event Y and then why X is doing this and what Z is going to do next?’
There have been many times where I have had to decline as I did not know the answer and many more times where I wanted to retort, ‘you probably know as much as I do!’
Because in my experience, the majority of people are very well informed, reinforced by technology and spread with a touch of gossip.
I asked many of them why they needed to come to me when they already have all the details and their answers are generally along the lines of, ‘Well, politics is not my thing but you studied PolSci! You should know more!’ (logically, I gotta agree with that) or more popularly, “I am too unsophisticated to discuss politics.”
Therein lies the first problem when talking about politics in Thailand.
This perception that politics belongs in the realm of ‘state-business’, and is discussed using a ‘different language’ can be dangerous and is a legacy of Thailand’s propensity to teach non-confrontational group think.
There is a propensity for Thai media and Thai news to discuss politics using vocabulary that is not accessible to the Thai people. Not only does this segregate political discussion to the learned, it also relegates those without access to higher education to the periphery, incapable of becoming informed to make better decisions about their future.
Language made complicated is real and problematic. It is further reinforced at the university level for students studying all issues related to governance where high-strung vocabulary substitutes real issues and builds a facade for real complex problems.
As students of the social sciences, the obligations should thus fall upon us as sons, daughters, friends and family to deconstruct complex issues and try to have open discussions with those around us to build better dialogue.
Politically active = Radical?
In other instances, in my experience, people understand politics very well but prefer to remain in the dark. The reason being ‘I do not want to come across as radical, you know?’
Here is how the history and social context kicks in.
In general, public opinion towards students or people in the political field has always been somewhat negative.
The media, especially Thai mainstream media, is guilty of relegating politics to the realm of ‘the other’ whether in headlines and misleading image of radicalism that has been repeated since 1973 movement (which was hardly radical).
That is not to mention the deep-rooted values imposed on the youth to be polite and obedient. Those who do not fit into this mold can be categorised as ‘bad’ and end up shunned by adult and ostracized by society.
‘ข้อ 4 วาจานั้นต้องสุภาพอ่อนหวาน (Rule number 4: is to speak in a polite and respectful manner)’ – part of Thai traditional ballads ‘The duties of the Young’
When society expects the young to be their new hope, to be progressive, yet in a respectful manner, it creates conditions.
These conditions, if challenged, could result in our being spurned or shunned. So naturally, many of us choose to be silent or keep it really low-key because we do not want to come across as aggressive (แรง) or radical.
This may not be easy to change without causing minor generation warfare.
But it is worth highlighting how cultural values have, in some way, encouraged the young to practice ‘self-censoring’ just to avoid social pressures and disharmony (a Thai cardinal sin).
That is why I am so inspired and happy when scrolling through my feed and seeing generous amounts of tweets from the minors, especially high schoolers, voicing their opinions with absolute genuineness.
It is also sad to see that online platforms seem to be the only safe haven for voicing an opinion.
Perhaps the elders in our society will finally understand that the reason the student protests have become so widespread and so popular is because of the way they’ve built up Thai society.
Because popular protest is the probably the manifestation of the repressive way that we are forced to think about politics and that the natural conclusion of being told all your life not to be overtly political is to be overtly political.
Proud Naruepai is a graduate of Thammasat University’s Political Science Faculty.