October 17, Berlin. A day after police clashes with unarmed protestors at Rajprasong, Bangkok.
The performers walk out in single file, wearing white shirts sprayed with red numbers. They are led by a performer clad in all-black, meant to represent a soldier, while other all-black soldiers guard the scene. The innocent tune of the nursery rhyme “เด็กเอ๋ยเด็กดี” or “Good Kid” plays – the white-shirted performers sing along, as they put together some nondescript structure.
They begin to chant “Nation, Religion, Monarchy” after one of the soldiers. The chanting quickens, approaching fever pitch until – ‘No!’ one of the girls cries out. She is quickly forced behind the structure she was just building, which turns out to be a jail cell. All others are soon forced into the jail cell with her.
This was the opening scene of a performance put on by the THAI Democratic People in Germany (TDPG) at Brandenburg Gate. The performance was led by a collective of Thai students and artists based in Berlin. They had organized a September 19 protest in the city, but after some feedback from participants, wanted to reimagine the traditional protest format of giving and listening to speeches. In addition to the speeches, they also decided to put on a performance.
“In many ways, it was a collective autobiographical reflection of our experiences growing up in Thailand,” says Irene Laochaisri, one of the performers and a longtime Thai resident in Berlin.
“We grew up being taught to believe certain things about the institutions that govern our country. What we tried to explore was, what is the cost of pushing back against what we were taught.”
For Passion Asasu, a key organizer of the performance piece, the work reflected directly on her experience in the Thai education system. “We were taught to believe in three things: Nation, Religion, Monarchy. We were taught to believe in these things before we learned about our human rights, our identity, our freedom of speech. So, Nation, Religion and Monarchy became the value system for life – if you want to be a good person and a good kid, you need to believe in these three things, you need to follow the rules and follow the system.”
Breaking from the system, however, leads to harmful consequences. Already, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, over eighty protest leaders have been jailed, and eleven still remain in prison without bail or in detention under investigation.
“If you want to talk, you have to be behind the cage,” says Passion. “Otherwise, you can be killed or disappeared. But you cannot talk outside.”
The second act brings this horror into play with the hope offered by protestors.
Performers walk out again to the triumphant sound of trumpets – this time in twos, so the audience can see that the red-painted numbers on their shirts actually stand for years. Two people represent 1973. Another two, 1976. Then, 2010. Finally, 2020. However, a soldier approaches them and all fall to the ground – save 2020, who remains standing. The students approach the soldier and give him a white ribbon. “If this time…the state chooses to stand on the side of the people,” says a voice over the loudspeaker. The soldier walks away to the famous Les Miserables song, “Do You Hear The People Sing.”
“We felt a great responsibility,” Irene reflected, “to contextualize what is happening in Thailand right now to what’s happening in our history – it’s not a one-off group of protestors who are naïve in their political demands.”
“Everyone who’s in the street, every step that they take: they’re all happening in the context of all the pro-democracy protests that happened before this.”
Passion asserts: “To me, it’s very simple. If you cannot learn from history, you cannot move forward. If the government, or higher powers, can open their hearts and minds and learn from history, 2020 might be different.”
Protests at main sites across Thailand have been dominated by speeches. But as protest leaders have been arrested, some protests have become mass gatherings for people to sing and shout in solidarity.
Performance art of the type seen at Brandenburg Gate has been understandably rare. However, it is a refreshing and thoughtful reflection on the way authoritarianism has shaped Thai life. Nation, Religion and King is still the slogan carried by the Thai flag. Its dominant stripe shows where power truly lies in the Kingdom.
Germany is a politically significant space for the performance.
The performance, however, is only one small snippet of a broader activist movement in the country. Thai political refugees live there in exile, some actively working to campaign the EU and the German government to hold the Thai government accountable for its actions against the protestors on October 16.
For both Passion and Irene, the struggle has just begun. “These protests will carry on again and again,” Passion predicts. “Eventually the government needs to work for its people. The main problem right now is that the constitution is not written for us.”
As for this group of Thai performers in Germany, their work has also just begun. A slack group was recently set up to formalize group action, and they are due to meet again soon.
“I think we’ll stick together for a while, but I can’t say what will happen next,” says Passion. “We are definitely playing the long game here,” Irene reiterates.
It remains to be seen if Thailand’s military government really can learn from history and if 2020 really will be different. But for now, the protestors are still standing. For now, the white ribbon flies high.