Review: Sunisa Manning’s ‘A Good True Thai’ is a timely novel

Every few years, it seems, Thailand is convulsed by the throes of protest. People fill the streets with waving flags, witty posters, and vicious slogans – sometimes directed at the powers that be, sometimes directed at fellow citizens.

Each time, the protests feel unique: the 2010 red-yellow shirt protests distinctive in their polarizing effect, the 1992 protests in their bloodiness, the 1973 protests in their unifying, national character, and the 1976 protests in their geopolitical resonance with the global Cold War.

The ‘newness’ of current protests is once again touted by the press: this is the first time we’ve seen open protest of the monarchy! Never before have students so young led protests! No Thai movement has embraced such a progressive agenda!

The protests are pivotal and it is the work of the press to capture what is so topical about them. On the other hand, it is the work of political scientists and novelists to reach for the deeper truths of any particular moment – to put into words the traces of frustrations, anguish, heartbreak, and hope.

Maybe the most remarkable thing about the current protests is not how new they are but just how much they have in common with ghosts of protests past.

In that sense, no book is timelier for the current political moment than Sunisa Manning’s ‘A Good True Thai.’

The book is a vibrant, captivating story about three students navigating the 1973 – 76 protests and brings to life a period that was equally tumultuous and equally pivotal for Thai politics.

Written long before the current protests exploded across the country, Manning paints a vivid portrait of a nation gripped with frustration at the tyranny of military dictatorship, of students unafraid of being deeply critical of the systems that created ‘Thainess’, the cross-generational and cross-class fractures of protest politics and, more than anything, the deeply human struggles that meet those willing to challenge the status quo.

The struggles are animated by the interpersonal tensions between the novel’s three main characters: Det, Lek and Chang. Det comes from a prominent family, his father the Minister of Education, and his mother a royal descendent with the title Mom Rajawongse. On the opposite end of the social spectrum, Chang grew up in the Khlong Toey slums, living with his single mother who is a factory worker in a leather handbag factory. Lek rounds out their trio, a sharp, beautiful Chinese immigrant and scholarship kid with a passion for literature.

Det and Chang become best friends at officer training camp. In Thailand, the military still facilitates the few spaces in Thailand where the rich and poor meet – at ror dor, on draft day. Despite – or because – of this, they are spaces laden with class tension and caste-like privilege. Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s ‘Draft Day’ lays bare the tragedies of being poor in a Thailand where this means all the difference between a two-year conscription sentence and a get-out-of-jail-free card. For Det and Chang, however, the shared experience forges a friendship that forces both outside of their comfort zones. 

Their mutual love interest, Lek, is the driving force of the novel. When the three meet at Chulalongkorn University, they fall in with a revolutionary crowd and eventually find themselves, at Lek’s insistence, in the forests of Thailand’s North training with the communist guerrillas. It is a surreal but useful reminder that over a generation ago, the Thongchai Winichakul’s of Thailand’s protest youth espoused ideologies that were openly critical of the monarchy – this is not an innovation of recent years. In fact, given the god-like status commanded by King Bhumibol Adulyadej during his lifetime, opposing the monarchy was a statement that risked not just political punishment but total social alienation.

Today, dissent against the monarchy doesn’t hold the same social consequences.

However, the novel’s true hero seems to be Chit Phumisak. He is Lek’s idol and one of the reasons she wants to go up North to join the communists in the first place. His songs are weaved throughout the novel, his name constantly invoked as it was during the 1973-76 period. Unsurprisingly, Chit Phumisak has recently re-emerged as the face of current protest ideology, his words resonating in 2020 as they did in the 1950s and in 1973.

In a speech at Chulalongkorn – Chit’s alma mater – on his 90th birthday, Ida Arunwong’s highlighted just how much past protest continues on to the present.

Chit’s questioning of hierarchy, authority, and the education system is reincarnated in the form of today’s high school students in white ribbons rejecting gendered dress codes and serf-like bowing traditions.

Chit’s critiques of the monarchy – so shocking at the time – are reincarnated in the form of the protestors’ plaque, declaring that Thailand ‘belongs to the people’ (#RepublicOfThailand).

More than anything, Chit’s deep embrace of the diversity of Thai life – his willingness to stand shoulder to shoulder with communist prisoners, peasants, and ethnic minorities – has been reincarnated in a new generation of scholars, writers, and activists who are fighting alongside people from all walks of life. Lek is teased by Dao, one of the revolutionaries she meets in a village up North, for not recognizing Chit’s ‘poetry’ as what they are – folk songs.

In highlighting these ghosts of protests past, ‘A Good True Thai’ thoroughly inserts itself into the present. Without giving too much away, the excitement and ultimate tragedy of the novel’s main characters are an important reminder that the status quo does not change peacefully.

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