Why do Thailand’s conservatives like some protest leaders more than others? It has more to do with presentation than content

When 25-year-old protest leader Patsaravalee “Mind” Tanakitvibulpon faced off against Palang Pracharat MP Pareena Kraikupt on Thairath TV’s popular show ‘Straight Talking with Jomquan’, it was, as they say, ‘a cultural reset.’ 

Within hours, the show’s name was trending on Twitter, with viral clips circulating: of host Jomquan Laopetch pressuring Pareena into admitting that the Senate was unelected and that Prime Minister Prayut Chan O-Cha played a key role in approving the pro-police, pro-military makeup of the 250 senators. 

Interestingly, Mind’s speaking parts did not make the highlight reels on Twitter, nor Khaosod English’s recap of the event

Yet, overnight Mind’s follower count grew to thousands, with pictures of her with her signature white-ribbon circulated around LINE chat rooms and social media. 

Her behavior, according to Thai liberals and conservatives alike, was endearing and leader-like. Wearing a “Love Cat, Hate Coup” shirt, the protest leader had her hair tied up in a ponytail and sat there with her back straight, speech composed, whilst calmly responding to Pareena’s incessant interruptions with a sweet smile.

Patsaravalee “Mind” Tanakitvibulpon (right) debating against Palang Pracharat MP Pareena Kraikupt (left) on Straight Talking with Jomquan

Within the next few days, Nong Mind’s fandom took center stage, with many from both sides complimenting her manners and good looks.

Mind is preceded by protest leaders who have been more vocal, confrontational, direct, and more visible than her, but few have gained so many fans among the urban middle class. Mind’s newfound popularity as the deserving leader and face of the pro-democracy movement has been unprecedented.

In stark contrast, Parit ‘Penguin’ Chiwarak has been accused of fomenting hate speech. His mother was fired from her work, because of her son’s “disloyal” attitude to the nation (“ไม่จงรักภักดี”). Panusaya ‘Rung’ Sithijirawattanakul’s speech on the monarchy was labeled by former constitutional court judge Chai-Anan Samudavanija as “inappropriate.” Pavin Chachavalpongpun was recently called out by 1988 Miss Universe Porntip ‘Bui Simon’ Nakhirunkanok on his demeaning comments regarding both her and Rama IX. 

“If you want positive changes,” Bui countered Pavin, “then why not do so respectfully?”

“I don’t disagree with calls to reform the monarchy,” wrote one comment on Bui Simon’s post. “But the rude attitude and aggressive nature of some of these rebels will make them lose unnecessary allies.” 

Meanwhile, a comment on the Jomquan talk show read: “Because Mind is polite, the content gets carried to the audience.”

In fact, similar sentiments have been expressed in conversations among friends and family, as an elder government official pointed out in private: “the one that can harmonize and lead this movement is not a bully or unreasonable. He or she should respect Thailand and its ancestors, not be rude and aggressive, and listen to both sides.”

The question of how one ‘behaves’ is central to urban middle-class Thai politics. Yet, behavior – and how closely it conforms with the norms of elite society – has also been central to judging the demands of other marginalized communities throughout history, in the name of respectability politics. 

Pro-democracy student protest leader Parit ‘Penguin’ Chiwarak. Photo Courtesy of James Wilson for Thai Enquirer

Respectability Politics

‘Respectability politics’ is defined as the philosophy that in order to receive better treatment from the group in power, marginalized groups must first individually uplift themselves by behaving ‘better’ to get there, namely, in accordance with what is considered respectful within the status quo. 

The concept was devised by black elites in the late 19th century, as an important way for Black citizens in the United States to integrate into society post-emancipation. Over time, however, structural barriers – Jim Crow laws, the practice of redlining, hiring discrimination across elite institutions – made it apparent that there were other forces limiting their advancement. 

Yet, some black individuals who managed to succeed ‘within the system’ continued to advocate compliance with white, middle-class cultural norms as a path to success. 

Thai-style Respectability Politics

The Thai culture and way of life is rooted in respect.

In Thailand, the status quo is shaped by the urban elite, with Bangkok at its cultural core. 

Since the 19th century, under the pressure of colonialism, the Siamese elite developed local notions of civilization or ‘siwilai’.

As Thongchai Winichakul tells in his historical study of Siamese nation-building, ‘Siwilai’ was framed in accordance with Western standards, but also in opposition to the ‘others’ within, like ‘chao pa’ (jungle people) or ‘chao baan nok’ (villagers). 

Genteel, sophisticated, and educated elites of the city were juxtaposed against the uneducated, unrefined, ‘unrespectable’ folks of the countryside. Siam, and now Thailand, maintained this internal hierarchy differentiated by different levels of respectability. Only those who were ‘respectable’ were therefore deemed worth listening to.

But what does a polished, respectful Thai look like? ‘Thainess’ was expressed in the refinement of speech — trailing off with a ka or krub at almost the end of every sentence. Proper behavior was marked with courteousness; one could never be too direct or confrontational. One should show love and respect to their elders — by greeting them with a wai, never talking over or interrupting them, and speaking to them in a manner that is quiet and respectful in tone, and formal and polite in language.

A refined, true Thai should not be boisterous or disruptive in any way. Questioning the norm, not being hospitable, or worse, expressing anger and being confrontational toward their senior counterparts are signs of degenerate behavior.

Thai students greeting their teacher with a bow and wai as a show of respect. Photo Courtesy of Richard Barrow via www.thai-blogs.com

The assessment of ‘respectability’ is also highly gendered. SOAS Professor Rachel Harrison’s study of utopian / dystopian femininity in Thailand highlights the privileging of the ‘good’ Thai woman – “a model of sexual propriety, demure physicality and aesthetic perfection” – located against ‘dystopian’ visions of the forthright, rough-edged rural woman. 

In a Thai twist on the ‘Madonna / Whore’ dichotomy, Thai literature and media is structured around the ‘Elite / Maid’ contrast, with the fair-skinned, soft-spoken elite woman juxtaposed against the loud, gossipping lower-class maid. In this view, there are clear scripts of female behavior that make a woman worth listening to – scripts that Mind, with her polite smile, fulfill. 

With respect to protest leaders, respectability politics is articulated around an artificial divide between ‘hate speech’ and valid critique. 

While Penguin and Pavin are criticized for ‘hate speech’ due to their inability to ‘behave well’ or conform to Thai notions of ‘siwilai’, Mind and lawyer Anon Numpa are said to offer valid critique – even as both groups make similar arguments about Thai institutions. To the conservative middle-class, this is the difference between the outspoken Pannika ‘Chor’ Wanich and the more soft-spoken, intellectual Piyabutr Saengkanokkul. It was the difference between Jatuporn Prompan and Abhisit Vejjajiva. 

Pro-democracy student protest leader Panusaya ‘Rung’ Sithijirawattanakul. Photo Courtesy of James Wilson for Thai Enquirer

The real problem

In an era of rising inequality and declining social mobility for most Thais, the politics of respectability accommodates the deeply unequal status quo. 

Respectability among the pro-democracy protesters — or lack thereof — has become the central argument as to why change and reform cannot happen in Thailand.

The message and demands behind every speech — from Mind, Anon, Mike, Penguin, to Rung — are essentially the same. The way they are delivered, however, is not. To some, that is the issue.

But the emphasis most Thai elites, conservatives, and members of the urban middle class have placed on respectability and common decency have neglected the very reason why protesters took to the streets in the first place: the real structural barriers and enormous challenges they have faced since the Prayut administration came into power through a military coup. As Fredrick C. Harris, professor of political science at Columbia University points out about respectability politics for Black Americans, “the politics of respectability has been portrayed as an emancipatory strategy to the neglect of discussions about structural forces that hinder the mobility of the black poor and working class.”

The same applies to the structural barriers to Thai democracy.

And that in itself may be the real problem — that respectability politics have been used by those in power to privilege form over content in order to maintain the status quo. Thai conservatives and elites are calling for young pro-democracy protesters to be refined and respectful in order to win their approval and earn a seat at the table, even as the state has harassed, arrested, and physically injured scores of protest leaders.

Mind’s ‘good behavior’ is highlighted, even as the content of her politics is glossed over.  

Pro-democracy student protest leader Patsaravalee “Mind” Tanakitvibulpon. Photo Courtesy of Erich Parpart for Thai Enquirer

In turn, the “disrespectful children” are dismissed, condemned, and steered away from making demands that would uplift the majority of Thais who have been exploited and undermined by the status quo.

Respectability may win over more allies. But it is worth questioning whether these are truly the allies needed in the fight to change the status quo. For the first time, the stakes have been raised by protesters such that all institutions are in question. 

Returning to the pragmatic accommodation of Thailand’s past democratic politics will be a step backward, even if it sounds more ‘polite’.

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