For Thais that grew up abroad, the protests have felt both alien and at home

Thailand’s protest movement has drawn the attention of the world. Media from across the globe are now well aware of #whatshappeninginthailand. Thai university and high school students are making heard their demands for a democratically elected government and reforms of the country formerly untouchable institutions.

For Thais who have grown up abroad, the protests have been required viewing. Many Thais raised in the diaspora have experienced first hand the liberty that the protesters are demanding; freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of internet activity.

Many are sympathetic.

“I personally did not like the idea that a military general could rise up and take control of the entire country. I thought that should never be able to happen anywhere. That’s absolutely frightening,” said 31-year old Thai-American Keith Baird, referring to the 2014 coup replacing democratically elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Keith, the founder of a marketing agency in Bangkok, has lived in Thailand for 11 years. He grew up in Sacramento, California. Keith is not the only Thai-American to be appalled at Thailand’s lack of democracy.

J, who asked to remain anonymous, another 30-something year old Thai-American, agrees.

“As someone who spent his life growing up in the USA, I believe very firmly in democratic principles, and found it shocking to hear that people strongly believed in the disenfranchisement of the less privileged,” he said.  

“While I may not be a fan of Donald Trump, for example, I nevertheless support the right of Americans to elect him and I cannot support any military coups against his administration.”

Both consider themselves observers of the protests, as opposed to protestors. While Baird moved to Thailand over a decade ago, having not grown up here, and having the privileges that come with dual nationality, both feel as though they are not “one of” the protestors. 

“I consider myself an observer because although I am Thai by nationality, I’m also American by nationality and by heritage,” he said. “I think these issues have been ingrained in the system and society here for decades. And me, I feel privileged having two nationalities. I don’t think I should be out there protesting about these things when I have never been directly affected by these things.”

“I’m also conscious of the fact that while I have Thai blood, I have not suffered like Thais born and raised here,” said J. 

Despite not exactly feeling like one of the protestors, Baird said that attending the protests lifted his spirits. He discussed what he witnessed at the Silom protest on 29 October, and how it feels to stand amongst Thais fighting for freedom of speech and democracy.

“I feel happy, I feel excited,” he said. “It was more like a festival. People were selling stuff everywhere, there was dancing, singing, performing. This is not what I had imagined a protest to be like.”

J said that, while he believes that older Thais don’t truly believe in democracy, the young will lead the country forward.

“I believe that within a few generations, we will see Thailand change, as the young generations will be in power and the current generations in power will be in wheelchairs or nowhere at all.”

Achala, 30, who grew up in the UK, notices how much mainstream Thai society has evolved to question issues that were untouchable just a year ago. As a teacher at a Thai school, Achala witnessed a parent of a student voice support for critical thinking in her school’s curriculum.

“There was this Q & A with parents recently, and one of them said they believed that the children should not be brainwashed by teachers, and this is a chance for their children to express what they’re thinking.”

A student at Achala’s school walked around doing the Hunger Games three-finger salute that has grown to be a trademark of the protest movement. With the exception of a school assembly, Achala did not stop him. 

Like Baird and J, Achala grew up removed from Thai politics, and yet, she can’t help but feel a sense of pride in the protests.

“I think there is a part of me that feels pride that these people are standing up for what they believe in. I think that side of me feels like, ‘yeah, I’m Thai when I watch that.’” 

Keith said that all Thais living abroad in democratic countries with personal freedoms should be aware of Thailand’s situation. 

“If you agree with something, be active and vocal, especially because the people that agree with you in Thailand don’t have that opportunity to do so. You have that opportunity in a foreign country that has freedom of speech, and that’s so powerful.” 

By Tara Abhasakun

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