OPINION: Why the Future Forward Party dissolution may actually strengthen Thai democracy

“So this is how liberty dies,” Senator Padme Adimala says when Palpatine declares himself absolute monarch, “with thunderous applause.” 

Deep anger and disillusionment rippled across Thai social media today, as the quote was shared across the Thai twitterverse and Line groups in the wake of the Future Forward Party’s dissolution.  

The hashtag #Saveอนาคตใหม่ (#SaveFutureForward) had been trending since this morning, but as the dissolution was announced at 3:00pm in Bangkok, tweets jumped from 250K to 350K in a span of half an hour.

Many of them were from Future Forward supporters who took to the internet to express their frustration. “Welcome to the Democratic People’s Republic of Thailand,” one wrote. 

Meme democracy

On the surface, the Constitutional Court’s dissolution of yet another popular party seems to toll the death knell of democracy. News organizations, from Khao Sod to Reuters to Bloomberg to Al Jazeera have narrated the dissolution as the final fall in the saga between the upstart Future Forward Party and the Thai political establishment. 

Yet, a look at the pop culture references that are ripping across Thai social media, shared by Future Forward supporters, tell a different story.

Thai Twitter is known for its use of pop culture references and metaphors to convey political meaning, a product of a culture of censorship that has sharpened political discussion into witty, sarcastic and oblique critique. 

The images being shared most widely across Thai social media express more than just hopelessness: they express the rebellious anger of Les Misérables’ ‘Do You Hear The People Sing’, and the resigned resilience of The Hunger Games’ Three-finger Salute. 

“If not now, then when?” writes one Tweet, atop a picture of the Les Mis lyrics, “Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men?” The lyrics have been shared widely, alongside many other stills and gifs from the 2012 Les Misérables movie.

The defiant lyrics of the Les Misérables track has resonated in protest culture across the world. The song captures the simmering anger of 1832 Paris, when protestors tried to overthrow the establishment, inspired by the death of a general. It was sung in Hong Kong during the protests against the extradition bill. More recently, it has surfaced across Chinese social media in connection with death of Dr. Li Wenliang, the censored Chinese doctor who first warned the public about coronavirus. 

Meanwhile, the Three-finger Salute has surfaced in Thailand before as a symbol of opposition to the 2014 May coup. It was deemed so seditious that it was banned by the junta, back when Article 44 was still at Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s disposal. When asked, some protestors linked the salute to the French Revolution’s trinity of values: liberty, equality and fraternity.

It remains to be seen whether this revolutionary anger will be taken from social media to Thailand’s streets. Twitter is to Thais what kitchens once were to Soviets: rare, safe spaces for biting political discussion in the face of totalitarianism. Yet, the Soviet regime was not brought down by its people. The Thai establishment itself has weathered multiple onslaughts of online critiques of late, from the popularity of the Rap Against Dictatorship YouTube video ประเทศกูมี to the trending Twitter hashtag #รัฐบาลเฮงซวย (#crappygovernment).

The dissolution is most definitely a blow to the party, but onlookers should not be so quick to dismiss the anger that this has wrought. This time, Future Forward supporters have a clear martyr in Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, an online community created by Future Forward’s digital savvy, and the recognition that they represent at least 6 million of all Thai voters. Now that the party is dissolved, the people are singing, loudly and angrily. 

Of feminist icons who are being quoted, Senator Adimala is not the only one. Other Future Forward supporters, retweeting the Les Mis lyrics and the Three-finger Salute, are also sharing a quote from Katniss Everdeen: “If we burn, you burn with us.” 

Perhaps this is how liberty is born, as in Paris in 1832: through dissolution, death and martyrdom.

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