During the past year, the protest movement in Thailand has drawn the attention of international media to the kingdom and the people’s struggle for democracy. However, the majority of this coverage has been focused on the liberal People’s Party (Khana Ratsadon) group, who are primarily middle-class people from Bangkok and central Thailand. All the while a more radical coalition of groups from Isaan, the poorest and most rural region of the country, has been growing in size and influence, drawing huge crowds of supporters into the streets.
Isaan is the poorest and least industrialised region of the country, many Isaan’ers suffer in financial procarity and rural poverty. Historically the region has been a hotbed of anti-Bangkok sentiment, notably hosting the Communist insurgency, which ran from the 1960’s into the 80’s and providing much of the muscle behind the Red Shirt movement, which brought Bangkok to a standstill on numerous occasions in the 00’s.
Today’s coalition is made up of much younger, but nonetheless, highly experienced members, centred around Dao Din, a leftist protest group born out of Khon Kaen University. From Dao Din, a number of other groups have emerged, including the political party The Commoners, the Anarchist education group UNME Of Anarchy and the Thalufah activism group. Elsewhere in Isaan other radical groups have sprung up, such as Maha Sarakham University Democracy Front and Khob Plerng. Recently, a new umbrella alliance has been formalised in the Ratsadon Khong Shi Moon group, which is attempting to institutionalise these Isaan based groups under one banner.
We spoke to a Dao Din activist, Pang, about these groups, the character of Isaan and the protest movement.
Could you tell us a bit about your background and how you got involved with Dao Din?
I’m from Sakon Nakhon in Isaan and went to study law at Khon Kaen University. I got involved with Dao Din as a freshman, they had a camp and invited us to join. They brought us to learn about various social and political issues in Isaan, much of it revolved around agriculture and human rights.
How did Dao Din get started before you joined?
Dao Din started 17 years ago, as a group of just 4 or 5 people, who were against GMO plants that would harm Isaan agriculture and farmers. But the protest group really started 7 years ago around the time of the last coup. They began to get involved in political organisation and make the connection between politics and agriculture. Then they also got involved with local issues, usually regarding the environment and land rights, fighting for local farmers and rural people, joining and helping to organise protests and things like that.
A lot of activist groups have come out of Khon Kaen University in recent years, why is that?
Khon Kaen is the biggest city in Isaan and has the main university. The university and the city have a lot of spaces for activism. Baan Dao Din (Dao Din House) is one of the main places. It’s a home we use to centre the organising. We hang out, cook, talk and live together there, a lot of people who spent time there were inspired to start their own groups. Really it all started there. You can stay with Dao Din and be involved in as many other groups as you like. There are specific groups focused on specific issues, for example, homelessness, the environment, green agriculture and democracy.
What are the beliefs and ideals of Dao Din members?
We’re a big group, we have a lot of different beliefs, but we have some core ones that unite us, it’s something we’re constantly discussing. Firstly we believe in real equality and equal rights. Most people believe in Marxism, Anarchism, very left wing ideals.
Can you tell us a bit about the other groups like UNME and The Commoner Party?
To start with UNME, it was founded by Pai (Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, the current leader of Dao Din). Dao Din is more focussed on ecology, but UNME is a broader political education and protest group. The point was to have a group with a specific focus on theory and politics, rather than doing everything through Dao Din.
As for The Commoner Party, it was started around 7 years ago, our friends wanted to have a voice in the mainstream political sphere. This was around the time of the last coup, but political parties were banned from forming at the time, so it only became official 3 years ago. Really it’s a tool to raise our voice politically. Most Commoner Party people come from local NGO’s and community groups as well as the Dao Din related groups.
There are many groups that surround The Commoner Party, and they’re not just active in Isaan. It’s about localised politics, local issues. It’s an attempt to make real democracy, allowing people to make their own governing decisions. It’s about bottom up politics, rather than centralised top down power from Bangkok.
Is there a tactical approach to having all these different allied groups?
So The Commoner Party are like the ‘democracy approach’, while Dao Din is the activist approach and UNME is focused on education, although Dao Din does education too. They’re all working in unison. We all live and learn together, developing tactics in unison.
There’s a long history of left-wing activism in Isaan, including the defeated communist insurgency which ran from the 60’s to 80’s. Is that an inspiration to activists today?
Of course we’re influenced by the past. There are lots of older people who teach us about our history and inspire us. Although about the Communist Insurgency it’s a bit more complicated, a lot of people don’t talk about it. We aren’t taught about it in school, the state doesn’t want to teach it. So I didn’t even know that much about it, but we’re trying to change that for the future and I should know more, I’m trying to learn more.
Even recently, I only learned 2 years ago that my grandfather was a communist who was disappeared by the state, but my parents didn’t even tell me. They’re still afraid of people being disappeared again.
What’s the relationship between Dao Din and the other protest groups in Bangkok and the rest of the country?
We join almost every protest we can, we’ll join with any pro-democracy event, sending people from Isaan, or organising events in Khon Kaen to coincide with it. When they have something we can help with, we’ll help and we have meetings with the other leaders who we know from the Student Union. In the future we have to continue to organise our umbrella group, we need these groups in each region, not just Isaan, Northern Thailand, The South, Central Thailand. We have friends all over the country, but we don’t have any Dao Din cells in other regions of the country, it’s just an Isaan thing right now.
I think generally we have quite a lot of unity with the other groups, but the way we work is very different. We focus on social and ecological issues that affect specific communities and really get involved with them, joining their struggles, while The People’s Party doesn’t focus on the local issues, they talk about democracy very broadly.
Right now we have tactical unity, but of course there are things we disagree with, so we’re allied over democracy, so if there’s anything we disagree with, we won’t join in with that. We just want to have control over our own lives, Dao Din is constantly talking with local people in Isaan, and what they all say is that they want decentralisation. They want to decide for themselves, decentralisation and direct democracy.
Khong Shi Moon is the new umbrella group for the Isaan region. Do you plan to expand it outside of Isaan in the future?
There are many people across the country, we’re friends with, we talk together, we exchange ideas of how to unify the four regions, but we’re focused on Isaan right now. The plan for the future is difficult because of the new rise of Covid cases, plus the government has been very aggressive with arrests lately. So we’re going to try and connect more people into a larger coalition and find some Covid safe activities for them to join us with.
We also have relationships with the old redshirt uncles and aunties. When we have activities red shirts always join us, when we go on tours and stuff to different provinces they’re always asking how they can help us and how to get involved. What we’re trying to do is build a large coalition in the name of Isaan and involve and develop ideas with as many people as we can.
In the 1930s, Thailand began a project of mass homogeneity based on western Euro-Fascism. This project was refined by the monarchy in the 1950s, leading to a reactionary consensus lasting a half-century. However, many elements in the recent protest movement, so far, fail to recognise their own deep-seated Euro-fascist tendencies when challenging the contemporary Thai state.
In 1938, European style fascism bloomed in Thailand. The dictator Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun) had risen to power. It was on this wave of supposed modernisation, that Phibun spent the next six years reshaping Thailand in his image. Phibun had been educated at a military academy in France, where he was a great admirer of the new fascist powers emerging in Europe. He was particularly fond of Mussolini and supposedly kept a portrait of the Italian fascist leader on his desk when governing Thailand.
Phibun was born in central Siam in 1897 to a farm owning family, he enrolled in the military officer’s academy, and after graduation was sent to France to study artillery tactics. During his time in post-WWI Europe, fascism was seen as a ‘progressive’ force, one that would modernise and strengthen countries, removing the old feudal order and creating a homogeneous ethnonationalist culture with authoritarian top-down rule. It was around this time that Ataturk in Turkey and Mussolini in Italy were at the peak of their respectability. It was this idea and these idols that endeared a young Phibun.
The Thailand (then named Siam) that he returned to in the late ’20s was a far cry from his imagined republican fascistic utopia. The country, which had escaped the ravages of colonisation by western powers, was extremely diverse, wild in parts, due largely to the geographic conditions which made governing large swathes of the land near impossible, particularly the lowlands in the rainy season and the highlands all year round.
However, European colonisation had a large impact on the shape of the country’s borders, due to French colonies to the east and British colonies to the west and south. Siam did not define its own borders, rather they were imposed on them by colonial powers, and whatever populations ended up landing in those borders, despite escaping European rule, would have the Siamese state to contend with.
After narrowly escaping colonisation the Siamese feudal system had undergone huge liberal reforms decades earlier, there had been efforts at modernisation, in the hopes of keeping up with the western powers that surrounded it. However the state was relatively weak and was yet to undergo any major industrialisation, a huge majority of the population lived rurally and it still took weeks, sometimes even months, to reach some of the fringes of the kingdom from the capital Bangkok.
This allowed many localised communities and ethnic or regional identities to exist across the country without much interference from the state. However, these freedoms of expression or local governance practices were not given benevolently, rather they existed due to the state’s incapability to interfere and the lack of an aggressively homogeneous-nationalist ideological structure at the time.
This made Siam an incredibly diverse country, with a huge array of localised languages, cultures, practices and governing institutions. Today these diversities still very much remain, there are still around 60 indigenous languages spoken in Thailand and an uncountable number of dialects, historically there were likely far more.
Joining a clique of like-minded military officers who allied with progressives from the civil society, known as Khana Ratsadon (The People’s Party), Phibhun took part in the 1932 coup, which ousted the monarchy, allowing the institution to essentially remain in name only. After six chaotic years, where the progressive factions were essentially banished, Phibhun finally rose to become the de-facto dictator of Siam in 1938, renaming the nation Thailand the next year, in a clear display of his ethnonationalist intent.
Brass plaque placed to commemorate the 1932 coup
During Phibun’s tenure, there were many other hallmarks of fascist regimes. He declared his birthday to be a national holiday, and later extended the same decree to his wife and child. These holidays were typically militaristic, with military parades in the larger cities. He also strongly encouraged everyday people to hang his portrait in their homes. This is ironically the same practise established and continued by Thai monarchs. A militaristic youth wing was also founded, not unlike the Hitler Youth. Generally Phibun was attempting to build a cult of personality, much like his fascist compatriots in Europe. This also included seizing and heavily monitoring media and the cultural sphere.
Phibun era propaganda poster
Phibuns program of Thai’ification or The Thai Cultural Revolution, was an attempt to codify and enforce what he perceived Thai’ness to be. His definition of Thai’ness would draw entirely from central Thailand, with an emphasis on the Bangkok military elites’ culture, which for decades had been heavily influenced by the west.
12 enforced cultural mandates were issued, these included a western-style dress code, a standardized Thai language, a banning of declaring regional identity and even codifying how many hours sleep one should have. These mandates, despite their at times bizarre nature, were genuinely enforced whenever possible. The aim was to create a clear, well defined, definition of Thainess and spread it to every corner of the nation.
This, of course, led to the mass decline of regional identities, particularly among Buddhists in the central plains, while many Muslims, particularly the ethnic Jawi-Malay in the deep south, suffered at the hands of the new policies. Madrasas were forced to close and Muslims were banned from wearing Islamic attire. The Jawi community would later form an armed rebellion against the state, which is ongoing to this day.
The effects of these mandates were also strongly felt in Isaan. This vast Northeastern region of Thailand was populated mostly by Lao people, the descents of a mass forced population transfer a century earlier. Isaan people were, and still are, yet to fully assimilate into the state, as well as a sizable Vietnamese minority population in the area. To this day Isaan is the poorest area of the country and known for its distinct local culture, its restive populace and its distaste for Bangkok governance.
Isaan dress pre-Thaification
The purpose of such assimilation policies was not purely cultural, the program intended to make use of subjects who, prior to assimilation, were not adequately benefiting the imperial core. By capturing them and integrating them into Thai society they were put to use for state-building, conscription and taxation, growing the imperial core.
However, during this period, despite attempts at industrialisation, the same geographic conditions still existed in many areas, with huge populations living almost entirely untouched by the state, particularly the ethnic minority ‘mountain people’ living in the hills around the borderlands. These include The Karen, Lisu, Akha and Hmong— just to name some of the larger groups. These groups are all completely distinct from Thai people, speaking their own language and practicing their own culture, religion and social institutions.
Expansionism & War
In 1940, Phibun saw an opportunity to flex his fascistic muscles in classic form with an expansionist war. During border treaty negotiations under the previous Siamese feudal regime the Kingdom had ceded land to French Indochina in what is today Laos and Cambodia and when mainland France fell to the Axis powers in WWII, Phibun decided to invade the territories and reclaim them for Thailand.
This kind of expansionism through war was a hallmark of Phibun’s fascistic counterparts in Europe, particularly Nazi Germany. He was likely inspired by their aggressive actions to carry out his own hostile expansionism. Indeed, Phibun described Hitler and the Nazi Party as “intellectual allies”.
The war itself was widely popular in Bangkok, with Thai forces initially making huge gains against a weakened French colonial force, that had been cut off from its imperial core since the Nazi invasion.
However, Imperial Japan, which had been rapidly expanding westwards into Indochina intervened, pressuring the two sides to sign an armistice which weighed heavily in Thailand’s favour, setting the stage for the (nearly) bloodless Japanese invasion of Thailand which would take place later that year, resulting with Thailand joining the Axis powers as an ally.
After the armistice with France, Phibun declared victory and constructed the Victory Monument roundabout in central Bangkok, in the style of classic fascist architecture. To this day the monument is an important site in Bangkok.
Thailand’s alliance with the imperial Japanese allowed Phibun to remain in power during the Japanese occupation. However, towards the end of the war, Phibun was ousted by military men who were secretly loyal to the Allies, as they saw the tide was turning in the war.
Due to US pressure, post-war, the nation was not considered to be an Axis ally by the west, this was because the west saw Thailand as a useful ally against rising communist sentiment in Southeast Asia.
Return of the King
Phibhun’s regime had spent its time in power trying to malign the royal family, both those abroad (which included the king) and those remaining in Thailand, many of whom were imprisoned. He slashed the royal budget and promoted a Buddhist theology that overlooked the spiritual role of the monarch, which had of course been a staple of the previously feudal society.
On the other side of the world, however, in central Europe, a plan was underway to wrestle the nation out of the clutches of the republicans. After a decade on the fringes of Thai politics, the monarchy was formulating a plan to reassert its control over the still-kingdom from de-facto exile in Europe. Post Phibun they saw an opportunity, when a number of prominent royals were released from prison and King Ananda, just 20 years old, and his younger brother Prince Bhumibol, returned to Bangkok to a royal palace which now stood in the shadows of the militaristic fascist state.
The turbulent post-WWII years saw shrewd manoeuvring by the royal household. In 1946 the progressive democrat Pridi Banomyong took office. Pridi sought to assert his control over the country by cosying up to the newly returned young royals.
During this brief period, efforts by the royal household, particularly those of Prince Rangsit, were greatly successful in promoting the monarchy and the young King was widely popular. The royalists were able to successfully synthesise Phibun’s Thai nationalism with adoration to the royal family, particularly through religious clout, intrinsically linking the monarchy to ‘Thai’ness’.
However, just four months into Pridi’s tenure, King Ananda was dead. He supposedly shot himself at home while playing with a pistol (though many conspiracies surrounding the death remain to this day). With rumours abound in Bangkok, Pridi ultimately took the blame for the king’s death, resigning shortly after, while Prince Bhumibol was crowned King.
In November of 1947, another coup led to Phibun regaining his premiership. However, this tenure would be markedly different to the last, as he now had the monarchy to contend with. Phibun was never able to assert full control of the Kingdom, as he had to walk a fine line between appeasing the newly empowered monarchy and his republican former allies. This led to a number of attempted coups, including a dramatic hostage-taking, where Phibun was captured on a warship by mutinying Thai navy officers, resulting in him having to swim back to land to escape.
The Bhumibol Consensus and Royal Realism
Phibuns second tenure, which lasted a decade, saw numerous power plays and realpolitik maneuvers by both the civil government, the military and the royal household. Publicly these efforts were focused around Thai’ness and who supposedly best represented ‘The Thai People’.
Ultimately though the monarchy came out on top when an ardent royalist general, Sarit Thanarat, ousted Phibun in a coup in 1957, setting the stage for this new blend of Thai nationalism, which placed upholding the monarchy as an elemental ingredient of Thai’ness, with King Bhumibol as the head of state.
This is the beginning of what has been dubbed ‘The Bhumibol Consensus’ era, wherein any republican sentiments were considered heresy and ‘anti-Thai’. Old Les Majeste laws, which forbid any insult to the monarchy, began to be utilised against political dissidents and the royal household started a huge public relations push, initially targeting Thai subjects, but gradually focussing on those remote minority groups who had been living on the fringes of the imperial core for centuries.
The Bhumibol Consensus era lasted right until the king’s death in 2016. During his 60 year tenure, there were never any real challengers to Bhumibol’s authority and at no point was the monarch at all threatened in any real way.
We’ve previously written extensively on this phenomenon in Royalist Realism & Les Majeste.
During this era, despite the change in leadership, the Thai imperial core continued its process of expansion and Thai’ification, only with the face of King Bhumibol as the figurehead. To put it bluntly, regarding policy, there was not a whole lot of difference between Phibun and the newly empowered monarchy. Both were militaristic, expansionist, nationalists who enforced central Thai hegemony. The 12 cultural mandates policy was even explicitly revived in name with the ‘Thai Niyom’ policies of 2018, after the death of King Bhumibol, now called the 12 Core Values.
The New Era
While there are many groups, mentioned earlier, that have been hostile to the state for centuries, in recent years there has been an increase in resistance from within the imperial core. Since the death of King Bhumibol in 2016, there has been a growing hostility towards the Thai state among Thai people, particularly the younger generations.
Pro-democracy/republican leaning protests have ignited in the past year and many of those taking part in the movement are finally rejecting Thai’ness as defined in the Bhumibol consensus era. Indeed royalists often accuse the protestors of “Not being Thai”.
Many have already been jailed for Lese Majeste and for organising the protest movement, the aim of which is to reign in the power of the monarchy and the overtly militaristic state, and bring a semblance of democracy to the country.
Notably one of the largest factions of the current protest movement has named itself Khana Ratsadon (The People’s Party) in reference to the group that initially overthrew the monarchy in 1932, of which Phibun was a key member and later leader.
This goes to show that even within the supposedly progressive protest movement, it still harbours elements of deeply reactionary and even fascistic tendencies. Indeed, rather than challenging these pathologies, they’ve been quietly embraced by the overt worship of Phibun. One popular Twitter hashtag even read “We are the children of Phibun”. Certain factions in the movement would rather look backwards, adoringly, to a time where reactionary fascism was rampant and unchallenged in the kingdom, simply because it reinforces their republican agenda, rather than attempting to forge a new progressive path forward.
Brass plaque placed to commemorate the 2020 protest movement
The roots of Eurofascism run deep in Thailand. For decades it was disguised by its Thai characteristics of Theravada Buddhism and adoration of the monarchy, but these foundations still very much remain in the kingdom, from their origins in 1920’s Europe to Thailand a century later, be they royalist of republican.
Writer and Illustration: Karuna Tilapaynat
A: “No skytrain back at your hometown, huh? …Took y’all here to see it. Like it?”
B: “Yes, sir.”
A: “Would you come again?”
B: “If it’s an order, yes, sir.”
Above was a disdainful conversation disguised as a light-hearted tease between the Police Chief Commander and an officer from outside of Bangkok, which took place right after the crackdown on the mass protest at Patumwan intersection. Contrasting with the rage of the pro-democracy protesters, such a tone-deaf conversation eventually lead to the viral joke online: “Don’t you have a skytrain at home?”
This is just one example that demonstrates Thailand’s issue with inequality, a result from the state’s heavy emphasis on centralisation, both in terms of power and the economics. If I were to mention all the consequential problems, this article could perhaps be endless.
When the centralisation of power is so concentrated in the capital that we question the state itself, what can we do to decentralise such power? Move the capital to a new city? But moving is just transferring the power to another centre! My friend once asked me:
“Given the news that Bangkok will drown in our lifetime, if we were to move the capital city, where would it be?”
“Can’t all cities be the capital?”
My answer may sound fanciful, even impossible. It seems like an ideal, a utopia, as opposed to the popular and current governance we all know. But instead I found the question very interesting because it spoke to a time back when there was no country, no state, no capital.
To imagine a governance without the capital may seem impossible in reality. However, many countries are characterized by the lack of the capital city, from small countries that are city-states like Singapore, the Vatican, and Monaco, to countries with no cities due to the small number of population like Nauru, and Tuvalu. The aforementioned countries are of specific qualities, whether that be the size of the country or the population. Nevertheless, Switzerland has no official capital city. Switzerland distinguishes itself from the other aforementioned examples as it has a relatively large size and population.
“Abolish the capital” may sound dubious. Why abolish it? For what? To what end? To be honest, I don’t know where the answer to this question will lead, but I’m interested in testing the bounds of what’s common sense, normal or possible, so as to spark conversations on both the problems and the benefits, amidst this current moment in Thailand where so many are advocating for a better future.
“For people to be equal, cities must also be treated equally.”
Writer: Pathompong Kwangtong
Today, a writer submitted the above short article to Din Deng. The writer said himself that there is no concrete answer to the question he raised at the end. Nevertheless, I still think the article did answer the question, at least partly.
If you follow us online (and speak Thai) you would have seen our post with a picture of a huge sign: “Abolish the Capital.” Such was the boldness of this slogan, so new to our discourse, that the police didn’t even know how to handle the situation. It was unlike when there were discussions around the monarchy. Then, the government did not allow any dissent. What was different about this message was perhaps that because people had never even thought of such a topic, let alone its consequences. Between the topics of “abolish the capital” and “a communal society,” while both seem to be impossible, the latter had already failed miserably in the 20th century. The former was never mentioned.
At least, in our beautiful country of Thailand, the “Republic of Thailand” is a topic deemed intolerable to the ruling class who enjoys the benefits of this centralised unitary state, as the question challenges the sanctity of the central power, established towards the end of the absolute monarchy, and solidified, almost absolutely, during the anti-communist civil war. The republic is a common form of governance. As such, it doesn’t use too many of the ruling class’s brain cells to imagine its practice and possible consequences, resulting in fear, panic, and an urgent need to control.
However, the call to abolish the capital is different. It is not a phenomenon, demand, or a mainstream movement. Unlike the change in the form of governance or secession, the call to abolish the capital is to radically question how we might live collectively in a large society, rather than to present itself as a political project that is obvious and immediately possible. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the writer’s tone does not sound like a mobilization; nor is it confident in its proposals to work with the issue promptly. To abolish the capital may sound absurd or even compromising.
But then again, I do not think what the writer proposes is completely impossible. Instead, as someone who admires the collective life of the Rojava, I find this proposal compelling, albeit still skeletons of structure, in need of flesh and organs. It could be a transitional project towards other forms of societies. Or it could be a political project aiming to gently liberate all of us, alleviating the pain derived from the state’s centralisation, and functions as a channel to discuss novel forms of society in which the state could not silence us with its wrongful might.
Finally, I would like to amplify the writer’s invitation. Whether you agree or disagree, contemplate, share, talk about it online or offline with your friends, and demonstrate the power of the people to the ruling class, who can never draw all the blood and sweat of our labour only to fuel the skytrain close to their home.
An examination of the implications of the mass uprising and Civil Disobedience Movement in Burma/Myanmar on the much maligned Rohingya people (many of whom are joining the campaign against the military government, standing in solidarity with the protesters).
In the aftermath of Myanmar’s military coup on 1 February 2021, hundreds of thousands of people from almost every ethnic group, including people from the Rohingya community, have marched in the streets nationwide in opposition to the military’s power grab. Some activists hope that the protests present a turning point for the persecuted Rohingya minority, given that some Burmese seem to be changing their views of their Muslim countrymen, who they considered to be illegal migrants before. But reinstating a democratic system will not automatically turn the situation in favour of the Rohingya. The reason for this? Buddhist Nationalism.
For decades, Myanmar ethnic minorities, who speak their own languages and have distinct cultures, have faced persecution at the hands of the military. The state has also continuously waged military campaigns against some groups, most notably the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority group indigenous to Rakhine State. More than 750,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh since 2017, when the military’s brutal campaign against the group led to the burning of villages, mass-murder, and rampant sexual violence. A United Nations human rights report concluded that the campaign was conducted with “genocidal intent.”
Following the military’s campaign, Aung San Suu Kyi boosted her own image as the protector of the Bamar—the dominant majority ethnic group—before the domestic audience by defending the Tatmadaw against charges of genocide at the International Courts of Justice. Ultimately, neither the military nor the National League for Democracy defended the Muslim Rohingya minority in this Buddhist-majority country.
On February 8, the third day of the general strikes, I entered into a group of protesters with a placard that read “Rohingya stand for Democracy.” I walked together with them around Tamwe and Mingalar Taung Nyunt townships, singing slogans for almost one hour. The reaction I got was neutral. When, the next day, we—myself and a group of Rohingya youth—went on to protest next to Sule Pagoda with vinyl placards bearing demands such as “reject the military coup” and “abolish the 2008 constitution,” we received a similar reaction. We received no particular attention from the crowd, although we used the term “Rohingya,” which has, in the past, been incredibly controversial in Myanmar. We were not met with criticism or threats because of the unity that the military coup had inspired. It now binds together the many different factions that oppose military rule.
The day became a significant turning point for the Rohingya community in Yangon. Before, we had been too concerned to openly identify as Rohingya. But, in the aftermath of the coup, there was a need for solidarity and a show of unity amongst all people in Myanmar. This is what led us to overcome our fear of harassment. The initiative of a few protesters openly identifying as Rohingya encouraged others to join too. On the ground, our feelings of tension were palpable—this was a rare moment of equality, but one mixed with nervousness. The forthcoming support those first few protesters received online, however, helped inspire even more members of our community to come forward and step out of the shadow of persecution. Once more, we showed the degree of our commitment to the land of Myanmar, and that we stand together in the struggle for our country’s future.
Nascent Solidarity with Rohingya
Despite the importance of opposing the coup, the fate of the Rohingya remains uncertain, especially as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya continue to live in squalid conditions. The question is whether current debates around democracy can also change the public’s perception of the Rohingya issue. In other words, now that people across the country are demanding an inclusive government and federal democracy, will their demands include all minorities—even the Rohingya?
Although it is too early to answer this question, the street protests have given us valuable insights. In the streets, a small group of protesters, mainly student groups such as the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) and others in their circle, as well as ethnic minorities, are rooting for the abolishment of the 2008 Constitution and the removal of authoritarian structures once and for all. These groups call for the establishment of a new and inclusive political system.
The demands of the majority of protesters, however, are different. They campaign for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, chairman of National League for Democracy, other political leaders, and the implementation of 2020 general election results under the 2008 constitution. Aung San Suu Kyi has used tactics with ‘ethno-racial characteristics’ and ignored democratic values and minority rights abuses in the last five years, while she led the civilian government. In a twisted turn of history, Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy, and most protesters have become protectors of the constitution they once opposed. The majority of the protesters coming to the streets to oppose the coup do so because they feel denied the government they voted for, not because they stand opposed to the grave human rights abuses that have been committed in Myanmar for decades.
Yet, there is hope that the current wave of protests will be a critical juncture that might inspire ethnic majority Bamar to take a more humane approach towards Rohingya. The Bamar themselves are experiencing feelings of being oppressed in their own country, emotions similar to those that have long weighed on the Rohingya. The ongoing uprising has also brought together a diverse mix of Myanmar’s more than fifty million people. It is not the first diverse uprising, however. The 1988 Uprising and the 2007 Saffron Revolution which were quelled through brutal crackdowns at the armed forces’ hands included members of the different religions, ethnicities, and age groups. They took place in hundreds of villages, towns, and cities in Myanmar. Most members of the National League for Democracy cabinet were victims of military abuse and political prisoners. Yet, this experience did not translate into social cohesion nor strong alliances between Bamar and ethnic minorities once the NLD was in power. Generation Z, primarily credited with organising the protests today, is also inspired by the past’s protest events. But will they draw different conclusions from their time in the streets?
Some protesters calling for justice today show regrets over their treatment of the Rohingya in the past. Some have posted apologies to Yanghee Lee, the former UN Special Rapporteur who was hailed by the human rights community as a “champion of justice for Rohingyas,” though widely vilified in Myanmar. Open demonstrations of solidarity with Rohingya joining the anti-coup protests and public apologies for past actions are powerful symbols. Some posts have been shared widely on social media and have been taken up by foreign journalists to signal protesters’ commitment to democratic rights.
Equality is still an Uphill Battle
But there is another side that is visible within Myanmar, but which has received little attention abroad. On February 11, a group of monks protested against the coup alongside the public in Hlegu Township, Yangon, holding a placard saying, “we don’t want a military government that will repatriate the Bengalis.” This referred to the speech made by General Min Aung Hlaing, chairman of the State Administration Council, after the coup. A popular post on Facebook asked, “Do you know why the Rohingya issue is world-famous? They are extremely talented in acting as if torture and injustice are being done to them in front of the camera. We have to adopt the same tactics, such as breast/chest-beating and crying and making grieving faces. You have to make faces in the pictures that portray the country as in the dark. Unless there is this trend, going on the streets will be useless. Are we all together for this trend when taking photos? So, let’s do dramas.”
Some of these posts received more than a thousand likes and shares within a few hours. These demonstrate that the fate of Rohingya will not be overturned within days by a single event, although the Rohingya community is showing solidarity with the majority at this moment. The hatred against them has been planted for generations and it is essential not to forget here the influence of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar. The country itself is built upon this rhetoric, and its history goes back to its colonial past. Notably, while the Rohingya have shown immense support for the democratic movement, people of the Rakhine Buddhist community have been ambiguous. Protests against the coup were held in just a few townships with small numbers of people.
Rakhine politicians and armed group leaders show clear support for the military government. While the entire country was banging pots and pans at 8 pm every night to protest the military coup, on Twitter, Dr. Nyo Twan Awng, vice commander in chief of the Arakan Army (AA), called for a cheers campaign among the Rakhine community. He deleted the tweet later on. Ironically, this is the same armed group that has been fighting for the self-determination of Rakhine State, to adopt the “Way of Rakhita (ethnic Rakhine).” It is unclear whether the AA is aligning with Tatmadaw or has its own strategy. In any case, the Rohingya’s bold stance for democracy is not only a stance against the military, but it is one that also contradicts the position of powerful armed groups. This likely increases the threat to the future livelihood of the Rohingya in Rakhine.
For the protesters to be successful, they need to stand united against the military. This unity needs to be built on a shared belief in democracy and human rights rather than on ethnicity or religion. But whether the protests will be successful or not, those protesting for democracy in Yangon, Mandalay, and all over central Myanmar should remember the ethnic minorities that stood with them. For minorities like the Rohingya, who have their home in a state where many support the military, the consequences of supporting democracy will likely be severe. And even if the protests are successful in establishing a democratic government under a democratic constitution, achieving a future that recognizes the Rohingya as citizens and ensures equality for all citizens of Myanmar will remain an uphill battle.
Myo Min is a Rohingya activist who has been organising as a part of the Civil Disobedience Movement in Yangon.
This article was originally posted by Tea Circle Oxford – A forum for new perspectives on Burma/Myanmar. This is a repost with the authors permission.
Image Source: Malaysiakini
A preliminary examination of communal and capitalist realism in Malaysia, and the forces that reproduce it. ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of Malaysia than the end of communalism (or racialism) in Malaysia.’
See glossary below.
“There is No Alternative.”
This phrase — used by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to articulate that market capitalism isn’t and will never be going anywhere — epitomises clearly the feeling of living in Malaysia at times. For many of us, the victory of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition in the 2018 General Election was the first time it seemed that a rupture had occurred. The then-ruling regime led by UMNO – the Malay nationalist party most widely associated with our independence struggle – was defeated after more than 60 years in government.
That perceived rupture, however, then quickly collapsed in on itself. Even before the disintegration of the Pakatan Harapan government in the now infamous ‘Sheraton Move’, the consolidation of Malay nationalism in UMNO’s alliance with the hard-line Islamist party, PAS, the multiple defeats of PH in subsequent by-elections, and the slow and middling reforms that were brought about in those brief twenty-one months, all signalled that the rupture could be short-lived, and yet, even that didn’t last. It seems like we are back to square one, tumbling toward the return of UMNO as a dominant force in politics and society.
In describing this long-standing social reality, a useful concept that is worth borrowing is the notion of “capitalist realism” expanded on by Mark Fisher, best explained through a quote he uses, “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” This notion of realism as an always-present and seemingly undefeatable social force appears suited to help explore the nature of Malaysia’s political economy and the formidable ideological superstructure it has built for itself. In this essay, I attempt to analyse the ‘realisms’ that define Malaysian society and what it may feel like to live in it. Namely, the ‘communal realism’ that we cannot seem to escape, and the capitalist realism that lies beneath it.
Communal (or Racial) Realism
Race and ethnicity have come to define the terms of almost every discourse in Malaysian society. This can seem rather obvious to restate but even as the squabbles over the spoils of state between UMNO and BERSATU play out in the press, this fact appears increasingly inescapable. Lee Hwok Aun’s recent article on what he conceives of as “seemingly impossible futures” when picturing the end of Bumiputera policies, acutely captures the ‘racial’ realism that very much permeates our public discourse.
Underpinning the all-pervading nature of this ethnic perspective are the unspoken terms of public discourse. The unquestionable sanctity of Article 153; the constant spectre of backlash from the conservative rural heartlands – often wrongly painted as conservative and altogether homogenous in their fealty to UMNO; the patronising notion that Malays will always need a protector; the knee-jerk demonisation of left-wing and communist movements. All these ideas serve to reinforce the notion that Malaysia’s social contract cannot and will never be rewritten, radically limiting the space for imagining alternatives.
Even the ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ discourse is trapped within the framework of seeking the bringing together of individuals from different ethnic origins rather than universal subjects that are identified with the nation on explicitly non-racial terms. All the talk of multiculturalism, from both sides of the political aisle, does not necessarily serve as an escape from communal realism but in turn, might reinforce it through the very articulation of the need for a multicultural peace between the races. The notion of Malaysian society being race-blind — whatever you may think of its morality or efficacy — seems out of reach.
Capitalist Realism with Malaysia Characteristics
Beneath the communal realism in Malaysia is capitalist realism which we have absorbed so fully in the pursuit of economic growth and supposed prosperity for all. While Fisher depicts capitalist realism through a variety of cultural and psychoanalytic examples, it may be easier to look at the language and framing used with discussing economic issues in the Malaysian sphere, and how it trickled down into the public’s imagination.
The pursuit of GDP at the unseen expense of greater human suffering; the repeated need to tailor policies to court investors and not scare away foreign direct investments (FDI); the implicit belief that markets do better than other actors like the state and civil society at producing economic growth; the constant call for the youth to gain skills for the market rather than for their personal development or well-being; the public recoil at the idea of the central bank actively intervening in the economy. These ideas are cultivated within the society through a combination of import from advanced capitalist countries as well as propagation by local elites educated in these very countries. One clear example is the austerity agenda of the Pakatan Harapan government that reflected the economic conservatism of the allegedly progressive political class. Just like their communal counterpart, these ideas continue to constrain the economic reality we live in, even though there have been mountains of evidence to the contrary.
There are, however, some minor modifications to be made to capitalist realism — usually framed in the hegemonic Western context — to fit a Malaysian context where communalism is interwoven into our economic structure. The massive and complex network of government-linked companies (GLCs), statutory bodies, politically affiliated tycoons, middlemen that are reliant on affirmative action policies, state-backed monopolies and the list goes on and on. The thought of disentangling the state and its New Economic Policy (NEP) roots from the economic system can be doubly impossible given the intersection of these two realisms.
Who Created the Two ‘Realisms’ and How are They Maintained?
This naturally leads to the question of who put this in place and how is it maintained. A plausible candidate for what drives both Malaysian realisms would be Malay nationalism in its modern right-wing incarnations and the accompanying capitalist structure it built for itself. UMNO and its partners in BN were able to set up institutions that inject these ideological framings into the wider society through their domination of the state apparatus for more than half a century. Once a whole host of societal institutions are ‘infected’ with communal and capitalist realism, they then, in turn, serve to enforce and reproduce the ideas associated with them.
The political class across the entire spectrum acknowledge and reiterate that Malay nationalist parties will always be needed to win elections, and the demographic projection that Malays will make up 70% of the population by 2040 reinforces this notion even further. State institutions carry out affirmative action policies with undue reverence for UMNO and its allies. The education system actively erases any trace of a past that could have been different or better, and only holds up a history of the present that was inevitable. Businesses, both big and small, accept the corruption-ridden and one-sided state of play within the economy, repeating cynically that “this is how business is (always) done.”
These realisms, however, do not exist purely in the realm of thought and ideas. People internalise these ideas and then act in the world as though it is and will always be this way. And how can people blame them? Ordinary Malaysians see their manifestations reinforced in the institutions around them, in newspaper articles, in conversations with friends and family, and most directly, in the capitalist market and workplaces.
When and How Does This End?
Capitalism and capitalist realism are still here with us, and it has even been able to reassert itself globally even after the 2007-8 Great Financial Crisis. Malaysian capitalism has not seen a mass delegitimation or anything resembling a crisis of confidence. Failures in the economy are often able to be deflected to individuals or specific companies. The 1MDB scandal was pinned on a handful of individuals and the poster boy for it remains the former prime minister Najib Razak, rather than any structural critique of the underlying systems that allowed it to happen.
Communalism and Malay nationalism, on the other hand, has had crises both internally and outwardly. The many splits in UMNO and the weakness of the BN component parties have offered glimmers of hope for a time. Yet, these crises have never been able to destabilise Malay nationalism or communal realism to the point of annihilation.
Fisher attempts to offer the hope that if the Left is able to present genuinely viable alternatives in an atmosphere of suffocating impossibility, it has the potential to create ruptures and in time possibly vanquish capitalist realism. The task at hand is to develop a concrete understanding of Malaysia’s social forces in order that any praxis developed is able to pierce the veil of both communal and capitalist realism.
This short essay cannot hope to do justice to the vast network of social systems and institutions that sustain Malaysia’s communal and capitalist realism, let alone present the aforementioned viable alternatives, but I will be expanding on it in future essays and articles. All the same, it is worth ending on this positive note about changing the world in the midst of Malaysia’s communal and capitalist realism.
“the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” ― David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy
Note: This article was inspired by an article in a Thai publication, Din Deng.
The 1MDB scandal – This refers to a 2015 scandal in which then-Prime Minister, Najib Razak, was accused of channelling over RM 2.67 billion from 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a government-run strategic development company, to his personal bank accounts.
Article 153 of the Malaysian constitution grants the King the responsibility for safeguarding the special position of the ‘Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities. Most often seen as the legal justification for affirmative action policies.
Bangsa Malaysia – A policy introduced by the fourth Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, to foster a more inclusive national identity rather than the individual ethnic identities.
BERSATU (The word for united in Malay) –The Malaysian United Indigenous Party is a component party of the ruling coalition, with its current leader, Muhyiddin Yassin serving as the current and eighth Prime Minister. This party was founded by Mahathir Mohamad who is no longer with the party and a splinter party of UMNO.
BN (Barisan Nasional) – This is the primary ruling coalition that has ruled Malaysia from independence till 2018, historically consisting of UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress. A variety of other parties have since joined BN from the 70s onwards.
Communalism – A politics in which the primacy of a specific ethnic, cultural or religious identity becomes the central organising principle. Distinct from the communalism of Murray Bookchin, the libertarian socialist, which advocates for a confederation of highly independent communes/associations.
GE14 – Malaysia’s fourteenth general election was a historic election in which the toppling of the BN government for the first time since independence took place on 9 May 2018.
New Economic Policy (NEP) – A slate of affirmative action policies that were implemented post the 1969 racial riots, focused on poverty alleviation, reorganising of the economy away from the colonial era segmentation of sectors (Malay’s in subsistence agriculture, Chinese in mining and Indians in the plantations), improving Malay incomes and ownership of equity.
PAS – The Malaysian Islamic Party an Islamist political party, current in government with the present coalition. This party is also a splinter party of UMNO from the 1950s, prior to independence.
Pakatan Harapan – The coalition of parties that won the fourteenth general election, consisting of BERSATU (prior to their leaving the coalition in 2020 in the Sheraton Move), PKR (another UMNO splinter party led by Anwar Ibrahim), DAP (a centre-left party) and Amanah (a splinter party of PAS).
Sheraton Move – The events that took place in late February 2020 that resulted in the toppling of the Pakatan Harapan government, the defection of BERSATU from that government, and the formation of a new government, mainly consisting of BERSATU, UMNO and PAS, with Muhyiddin Yassin as Prime Minister.
UMNO – The United Malays National Organisation, founded in 1946, is the leading member of the BN coalition that has dominated Malaysian politics since independence. Most of its leadership occupied a majority of cabinets during their rule over the administration of Malaysia’s first six prime ministers, all of which came from UMNO.
A Rebuttal On An Unscientific Outlook On History
Dion de Mandaroon
This article was written in response to Panarat Anamwathana’s opinion piece published on February 3rd, 2021 in the Nikkei Asian Review.
George Orwell once said “Whoever controls the present controls the past and whoever controls the past controls the future”. Keeping in mind Orwell’s contribution to oppression in Colonial Burma, this often misquoted aphorism represents the unexamined ideological dimension when the study of history is undertaken from an idealist perspective. In this arena, history, an organic struggle for hermeneutics, for interpretations, becomes a vulgar contest of narratives.
This “narrative” narrative is especially problematic when championed by professional historians who, for some reason, avoid at all cost a materialist analysis of living history. In February 2021 Panarat Anamwathana, a lecturer in economic history at Thammasat University, wrote an article to this effect concerning the tactics used by the Thai protesters for democracy and those of the royalist military regime. She writes: “Both sides of the Thai political conflict have engaged in destroying or creating historical materials that suit their vision of Thailand.” referring to the back and forth between the protesters’ rehabilitation of the “revolutionary” People’s Party and the junta’s attempts to erase said party from the national consciousness.
Two assumptions rear their ugly heads from Panarat’s reading of current events: First, the “narrative” narrative equalizes, in the final instance, each narrative through retroactive legitimization by academic dictates. It completely ignores the power relation to the present struggle, and effectively equates the protesters as capable of the same degree of destruction as the monarchy and its agents. Second, it assumes that history is being driven by some “vision of Thailand”, a new narrative that would emerge at the next rupture in the current political continuity as a result of, in her words later in the article, the ‘”material” battle bleeding into the ideological’.
In fact, the battle she refers to is both material and ideological only in a very limited sense. When Panarat equates the tactic of national-building through historical objects to material history itself, she is articulating her understanding exclusively in the framework of mechanistic materialism, a metaphysics that regards the world as composed of matter (the “material”) and ultimately unchangeable in essence, which has nothing to do with material (socioeconomic) conditions of history.
When she speaks of the contest between the reformists and the royalists – the idealist factions within both of whom affirm without agreement the legitimacy of formal democracy – she means of course the contest between definitional ideologies with discernible traditional objects of belief. The truth of the matter is that the battle has only been waged at the symbolic level and the protesters, lacking a clear substantial ideology, are incapable of escalating the conflict to the material level, of articulating their movement beyond the hysteric’s discourse.
The state has so far been successful in containing the people’s interpretations of their living conditions in the country: You are homeless, but you ought to be grateful that the Chakri dynasty has resisted western imperialism (In case the reader has any doubt: In my opinion, no, they have not.) and preserved a country of our own in which you can be homeless to your heart’s content. Your son has committed suicide because he failed to register for the government’s COVID relief scam in time, but the monarch cares about us as if we were his children. And so on.
Hermeneutics consists in this struggle for weak interpretations under the state’s strong imposition of definitions by legal and other forms of violence. We the people voice our everyday material reality within a society prefigured by the ruling classes’ hegemonic reality, one in which economic exploitation is maintained in the name of nationalistic peace and order, a geopolitical category that does not correspond to the internal contradictions of Thailand. In light of this imbalance of actual power, Panarat’s “narrative” narrative falls apart and, if we still cannot do away with binary opposition, should be reconstituted as a struggle between hegemony and counterhegemony, invariably strong and weak respectively.
‘Monarchy and democracy are not mutually exclusive by nature,’ concludes Panarat, harking back to a similar statement made last year by lawyer Anon Nampa who now sits in prison indefinitely with countless others on lese majeste charges. Of what nature are we speaking, when materialist historians have pointed out that democracy consists of distinct formal and substantial components? Which of these components can abide or be abided by monarchy? But the more pertinent question here is whether such a statement should be taken as tactical or strategic, that is, whether it is being framed this way for the sole purpose of countering the royalists’ accusations against “traitors to the nation” thereby securing for the reformists a more favorable position for their next initiatives, or because its enunciator truly believes, like an ideologue, that monarchy and democracy can actually coexist.
After all, Panarat’s assumption, based without a doubt on certain precedents in which the monarch has survived through parliamentarian concessions, can be as readily turned on its head when we instead look to and take for our preference countries where the people have brought their national liberation movement to its logical conclusion. Nepal, China, and the USSR, to name but a few examples. In which case we can pronounce with confidence, backed by a universal legacy, that Thailand’s monarchy cannot coexist with democracy in the present and can only survive as a social institution that perpetuates alongside capitalism as an even more ancient socio-economic relation.