A movement without pronouns and leaders is challenging Thailand all the way to the top

I once tried to do something radical in Thai. Let me spoil the ending–I failed completely. 

I’m half-Thai half-American, and though I was born and raised in Bangkok, for the last ten years I’ve made my home in California. One day a new khao man gai (chicken rice) restaurant opened near me, so I took myself to lunch.

The owner said hello. I answered in Thai. 

Now, Thai is a hierarchical language. To eat, you can daek, kin, thaan, chan or sawoe, though the last two are used by monastics and royalty. As soon as you speak, you place yourself and the person you address in a hierarchy relative to each other. This is more nuanced than the formal/informal address of Romance languages. There are five rungs on the ladder– and two ladders. In Thai, you’re forced to judge relative status immediately, status as determined by age, wealth, gender, perceived power. 

At the restaurant, I began to calculate our pronouns: the owner was older and male, but I was a customer. I could use the formal address for myself, which would make me a grown-up, or I could be cute and call him an older brother. This would imply that I was humble, but I’d also be giving him deference for being male. 

For whatever reason that day, I didn’t want any of it. I didn’t want to play the game I’d watched my mother play when she went against her informal nature to put on expensive jewelry so she’d be better treated by the wait staff. The game that made you decide just how much battle armor you wanted to adorn as you tried to claw some status to yourself. I tried something I’d never done before. I spoke to the owner of the restaurant entirely without pronouns. I had to, because to use a pronoun was to give away what I thought of him and myself. 

Our talk sounded something like this: 

“Hi, how are you (formal polite address)? What can I get for you (formal polite) today?” 

“Is the chicken delicious?”

“Yes, our chicken is wonderful.”

“The chicken it will be.” 

At this point, the owner was shooting me suspicious looks, because although I have a native Thai accent, my herky-jerky speaking made me sound crazy. He hurried away, and I laughed.

This is all to say that Thailand is a deeply hierarchical society. Look at the language. In such a system, it’s hard to refuse to participate in the hierarchy. It’s hard to claim power if you’re trying to assert yourself over someone older than you. We’re deeply patriarchal and are taught from birth to revere the King as our father. Obedience is key. 

Within this solidity, the pro-democracy movement have come blasting through, with their leaderless structure and radical cooperation. Tens of thousands of mostly high school and college students have gathered to demand the resignation of Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, a redrafted constitution, and reform of the monarchy.

If you thought it was hard to get Trump to release his tax returns, try persuading your fellow citizens to reckon with the world’s wealthiest monarch when saying anything that could be deemed an insult carries a sentence of 15 years in jail.

Their demands are as serious as they get, but are also accompanied by trademark Thai humor and play. Witness the hand-signaling undulating smoothly across the crowd, choreography so careful it makes you want to weep. Notice the slang, how food cart vendors are “the CIA” for their ability to materialize at protest sites.

To this guerilla joust, the Prayuth government response has been flat-footed. They lock up leaders. They blast peaceful protestors with water cannons laced with Methylene Blue, a chemical agent that irritates the eyes and stains skin for days. Now, the government has lifted the State of Emergency, mostly, it looks like, so that counter-protests could assemble legally and balance the visual spectacle created by the kids. 

As the activist bell hooks says, “no education is politically neutral.”

Thai public education is one of the main tools to mold such a conservative society. Most classrooms still recreate systems of dominance. This is one of the things young people are protesting. Older folks, having gone through the same system, are probably thinking: if I survived it, why can’t you? They must also be wanting the respect they feel they deserve since they’ve been paying up for so long. It’s nice to sit on top of the pile.

When you’re steeped in such a conservative outlook, what the youth are doing seems not just reckless, but incomprehensible. Take the fact that the movement is leaderless. The Prayuth government clearly disbelieves that. It goes about arresting leaders anyway, for how could a movement be without hierarchy when it has come from a society of such rigid tiers? Perhaps the Prayut government did not pay attention when the students said they were like the heads of the Hydra. Perhaps a better metaphor for what the students are doing is that they’re being bamboo: the more you chop back, the thicker it will grow.

It took me six years to write my first novel, A Good True Thai. The book is all about the country’s attempt to upend hierarchy in the 1970s. Thailand is a small country. If a revolution is to succeed, those on the top social tiers will need to make room for others. But why would they, when everything works in their favor? Idealism is one answer. Love is another. The recklessness of youth, perhaps. And maybe living our values– living out, for once, the promise of a Buddhist country, which allows a dignified life for everyone in it. 

In America, I teach English. Lately, I’ve been diving into the work of William Faulkner, whose place in the Canon is now up for questioning because of his racist statements. There are so many things about the American South that remind me of Thailand: the famous hospitality, the ornate forms of politeness and praise, the deep vein of violence against those who step out of line. 

Faulkner once made the argument to go slow, saying that the integration of schools in the South was too much change for a volatile people. Note the veiled threat in that genteel caution. I hear the Thai establishment saying much the same thing. Go slow, or we don’t know what will happen. It’s a willful denial of the real reasons that the young people march. 

What the students are asking for is almost impossible for the establishment to understand. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. Thailand today is conservative, patriarchal, and backward-looking. It is trying to uphold a dream of the past, when people were obedient, and worshipped a myth. 

I hear the students trying to speak without pronouns. Right now, their radical moves may hurt the ears, but language changes. It bends to accommodate the new ways it’s being used. Maybe one day there will be a Thai that doesn’t force me to put myself up or you down. Maybe we’ll be able to address each other, one human to another. 

The generals should heed the young, who look out and don’t like what they see of the country they will inherit. As James Baldwin said about Faulkner’s claims: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”


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