Pai & Nice / UNME & DaoDin Interview – Part 2

Pai & Nice / UNME & DaoDin Interview – Part 2

We spoke to two senior Isaan activists, both graduates of the Dao Din student group. Pai from UNME of Anarchy and Nice from Dao Din about their beliefs, influences, tactics and the character of Isaan. 

We previously interviewed another Dao Din activist for some background information on the group. 

From the previous article:

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.

Can you tell us about your background? – Pai

I was born in Khon Kaen and grew up in Chaiyaphum. My dad was a human rights lawyer for rural people, because of that I visited a lot of poor rural communities and saw their problems and conditions. Then I went to study law at Khon Kaen university and joined Dao Din and became involved in activism. 

Could you tell us where you’re from and what you do? – Nice

I’m a senior member of Dao Din, I’m originally from Surin province. My regular job is with the Legal Center for Human Rights in Khon Kaen. Actually the legal centre is kind of like a friend of Dao Din group, the founder was a Dao Din member as well. 

We bring university students from Khon Kaen city to meet rural people to learn about how government policies affect the lives of the locals. We also help these people when they have problems, it’s like a give and take. We give legal advice and aid to them, and our students get to practice and understand law. We also lobby local governments and help organise local protests, if that’s what the people want to do.

People often say you’re the leader of Dao Din is that right? – Pai

No, I’m not at all, actually I’m still like a political freshman, because I grew up in Thailand which is a politically ignorant place. 

How did you become interested in Anarchism? – Pai

Growing up I saw the injustices in society, the structural inequality that we have. When I was a student involved in Dao Din I began reading political topics, like Marxism, Socialism, Anarchism, everything. 

What are the core beliefs and ideology of DaoDin? – Nice

We believe in a society of equals. We want to promote human rights, community rights, anti-hierarchy and political and economic equality. We believe in self determination, people should be choosing their own policies by themselves.

How many groups have come out of Dao Din? – Pai

*Laughing* More than I can count. 

Are you inspired by any particular writers or thinkers? – Nice

There’s no one writer who inspired us, but we read a lot of different stuff. Mostly anarchist, socialist stuff… Marxist books, even I’ve read Machiavelli. 

Are you inspired by any movements from outside of Thailand? – Pai

Of course, I’m inspired by many movements. Like the anti WTO movement. I like the Zapatistas. Marcos, the EZLN movement in Mexico. 

Are you inspired by any movements from outside of Thailand? – Nice

For sure, we’ve been around a long time and like I said we’ve observed a lot of movements and taken bits of their tactics to develop into our own model. For example we studied the organising practices and tactics of both the Chinese Communist Revolution and the Hong Kong protests, studying and adapting for our local context. 

Where do you draw your ideological inspiration from? – Nice

We’ve developed our system step by step. Developing our methods when we meet different challenges. But at our core we run a collective model. We live collectively, cook, eat, make decisions collectively, democratically. We also have regular criticism sessions which help modify our practices. We have no president or anything like that, only coordinators. We bring many different models to our organisation, but at the core it’s democratic and collective. 

You founded the group UNME of Anarchy. Why is Anarchism appropriate for Isaan? – Pai

Actually I’m not like… A theory guy… But I think [anarchism] fits well for our movement… More importantly I don’t want to seize the power of the state, I believe in the power of communities. 

What activities does UNME do? – Pai

Unme is organising and educating people. We also do mutual aid, like during the floods in 2019. We’ve also organised, for example, shutting down a biofuel factory that was harming the local population, and last year we’ve really established ourselves in the political protests in Bangkok and Khon Kaen. Like we made this huge long march from the countryside to Bangkok to protest, because our friends were in jail. We allied with a lot of different groups and had a huge turnout. 

What kind of activism is DaoDin involved in in Isaan? – Nice

Our work is two fold. First is tackling issues of ecology and natural resources, and the second is the protest group. We hold people’s assemblies for rural people, to raise their voices and help build solidarity between disparate overlooked groups and encourage them to work together on these issues. We also organise and bring people to protest, direct action, including in Bangkok.

Can you give an example of how you handle specific cases? – Nice

So, for example, if there’s no clean water in a village, we will go to educate people about what rights they have, like the right to clean water. Then we’ll help to organise people to work together, advise them on which government representatives to target, which laws they should be cautious of and which laws they can use and often support a protest. Basically we lend our expertise, education and bodies to these communities when they need it. For example, we’ve managed to suspend mining in a village in Loei province which was very harmful for the people. We also worked to abolish plans for a Special Economic Zone in Khon Kaen. 

What has been the response of local rural people when you go into a community? – Nice 

There are two responses, a small minority see us as troublemakers, usually they’re the entrenched local powers, like some conservative village leaders. But that’s been happening less and less lately, since the national protest movement has grown. 

Then everyone else is so welcoming to us, they open their houses to us and we live with them, we cook with them, eat, we work together.

There’s no history of Anarchism in Thailand, has that made it hard to introduce Anarchist ideas? – Pai

We use anarchism as a tactical tool, for organising, our work is to emphasise other peoples solutions, and give them tools for fighting. We educate, but in a way of bringing them together, empowering them to communicate, to think and develop their potential to fight in solidarity for changing these oppressive structures. We also have these political education trips, like camping, because in our current era, there are still many people who ignore the political situation, so we go on these camps to open up people’s ideas politically. 

Why is ecology such an important focus for DaoDin? – Nice 

Isaan is an area rich in resources with a very rural population and the government targets our lands for extraction, it’s extremely harmful for local people. We’ve all experienced this when growing up. Everyone in Isaan knows about these problems and how the government oppresses the Isaan people. 

Why is this movement so strong in Isaan? – Nice

It’s because Isaan has historically always been oppressed by Thai regimes, since the inception of Isaan, so we sustain this radical way from our history of oppression.

It seems like Isaan activism has always been in opposition to governance in Bangkok. – Nice

The central Thai government has always tried to make Isaan culture disappear. They’re also always trying to exploit our lands. They use our resources and labour to grow their own wealth in Bangkok and central Thailand. Furthermore they’re racist towards us, they look down on us, they think we’re stupid, uneducated peasants.

Do you see Bangkok as a colonial government towards Isaan? – Nice

Yes exactly. The government in Bangkok is an imperialist one, which has colonised every other province. They just control us and take our resources. They don’t allow us to decide how to run our own lives.

How many times have you been arrested? – Pai

Too many to count

What’s your relationship with the police like? – Pai

They do their job, I do mine. They do their job to protect the security of the state.

Are you a threat to the security of the state? – Pai

*Laughing* It’s more like I threaten the security of state ideas. I think I prefer the security of the people, the security of people’s lives, but the police they’re interested in the security of the state. We want to challenge this meaning of security and for who or what.

What’s your relationship like with the police? – Nice

We have a lot of problems. We’re basically the opposite organisation of the police. There’s always antagonism. The police are always following us, taking pictures, tailing us and a lot of us have been arrested. They don’t harass us personally because they know that would be useless, but they harass our families, our mums and dads, going to our family houses and stuff. 

I’ve been arrested a couple of times, for example, they arrested me for breaking the law against public gatherings after the last coup in 2015, we were doing a small protest against the coup. In jail I was so angry, like these things we were talking about, that we were protesting about, are normal things that we should be free to talk about and protest.

The communist insurgency was very active in Isaan in the 20th century… Were they an inspiration for you? Or have you learnt anything from their movement? – Pai

We have adapted many communist ideas, but you know communism and anarchism don’t always work together, communists have attacked anarchists too in the past. But we’ve learnt ways of organising from them and can use their historical legacy as a tool to listen to local people, help to organise and to analyse the opposition to fight political structures. I’m not content with just the marxist perspective, but there are a lot of important ideas there. Really I think we need a welfare state first, but modify it for our characteristics and use it as a platform to build from. We can dream, but we need to move step by step. 

Do you see yourself as carrying the legacy of the insurgency? Or is it a completely different thing for you? – Pai

As a historical process every progressive group continuously follows the last, which includes us and the communists and all past movements fighting to liberate the people. 

How do you see the road forward for your movement, what do you hope for 10 years from now? – Pai

I think in Thailand we’re politically underdeveloped, we need to have a democratic society first so that we can develop into something else, it’s a process but the people in our groups are very focused on these like anarchist/socialist ideas. But you know we’re still fighting for some very basic things, we don’t even have freedom to criticise the monarch. 

As anarchists, we have established this new Isaan movement, this self determination project, dreaming of a future where people govern themselves and take care of each other. I don’t really think about the future so much because the future is now.

Anything else you want to say? – Pai

Right now in Thailand, many people have utopian visions. But at this moment, we don’t have the basic rights and freedoms to build that utopia on. So we need to fight to bring basic rights into Thailand. Like I said, we’ve very underdeveloped politically. Other countries have gone so far, and we’re still here in the past. So we, anarchists, Marxists and liberals are fighting together for basic freedoms, to fight for a utopian future so we can go further past those basics. 

Anything else you’d like to say? – Nice

I just want to say that we’re an open organisation, you can come visit us at our house (headquarters), our doors are open in Khon Kaen, everyone is welcome. We made the house as a free space for speech, organising, to build a micro version of the society that we want to make a reality. It’s self determined, liberated free Isaan territory and everyone’s welcome!

Note: Both interviews were conducted separately and published here together.

The Rohingya and a New Dawn in Burma

The Rohingya and a New Dawn in Burma

Myo Min

Aung San Suu Kyi and her ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) have established a government in exile known as the “National Unity Government” (NUG).  As well as former members of parliament, this unity government also includes anti-coup protest leaders and representatives of ethnic minority organizations. On March 13th, Mahn Win Khaing Than, the NUG caretaker Prime Minister said “this is the darkest moment of the nation and the moment of dawn is close”. It is, however, unclear whether this dawn would extend to persecuted minorities like the Rohingya since the NUG is yet to formulate a position on the matter. At a time when the Tatmadaw is waging a war against its own people, cooperation and solidarity among Burma’s many ethnic groups is imperative. Cooperation, however, can only be built on trust and the NUG needs to take a firm stance and support the rights of the Rohingya in Burma to build this trust now. 

In 2017, Myanmar’s security forces and nationalist mobs conducted the most shocking brutal atrocities against the Rohingya, but they were not the first. The Burmese government has effectively institutionalised the atrocities against Rohingya for years. The military and Burma’s civilian-led NLD government, under the de facto leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, had previously presented a unified front on the Rohingya issue, with Suu Kyi even appearing on behalf of Myanmar’s delegation before the ICJ

The civilian government overlooked persecution and harsh treatment of the Rohingya population— many of these politicians now play key roles in the NUG. However, since the February coup, large sections of the population (predominantly ethnic Burmese people living distantly from Rakhine State) have started to finally understand, accept, and sympathise with the persecution of the Rohingya people.

Dr Sasa, a minister in the  NUG, has made several statements that indicate the NUG may recognise the plight of the Rohingya and show solidarity with them. During a virtual protest on the 20th of March, he promised justice for the Rohingya in reference to the atrocities committed by the military. However, it is unclear whether Dr Sasa’s stance is shared by all members of the NUG.

After the February coup, The Tatmadaw joined hands with Rakhine nationalist politicians who shared similar hostile objectives regarding the Rohingya. On February 12th, Myanmar’s “Union Day”, the State Administrative Council released Dr Aye Maung, a prominent Rakhine ultra-nationalist who has been involved in serious human rights violations targeted at the Rohingya, as part of a general amnesty together with 23,000 other prisoners. He had been charged with high treason and had been sentenced to 22 years. Dr Aye Maung was the founder and chairman of the Arakan National Party, the most influential party in Rakhine state, but split with the party in 2018 and founded the Arakan Front Party that same year.

Upon his release, the people welcoming him were holding placards saying “long live Sayadaw U Wirathu”, the “Buddhist Bin Laden”. Dr Aye Maung visited another ultra-nationalist monk, Parmaukkha Sayadaw, who has helped peddle a fiery brand of Buddhist ultra-nationalism and Islamophobia in Myanmar. He went on to express his gratitude to the State Administration Council (The Tatmadaw) led by Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing for his release. Thousands of ethnic Rakhine people, a far larger crowd than people protesting against the coup, greeted him at the airport, wearing garlands and chanting “long live Dr. Aye Maung”.

Dr Aye Maung has advocated for the genocide of the Rohingya people and has incited violence and hate speech against Muslims and the Rohingya on numerous occasions. He and the party he led, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), were directly involved in human rights violations against the Rohingya. It was the Arakan National Party (ANP) that urged Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing to segregate Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township. He also openly advocated moving the Rohingya people into concentration camps or deporting them from the region and placing further restrictions on the Muslim population. 

It is important to clarify that the discrimination of The Rohingya is not only top down but also bottom up and that this is what makes addressing it so challenging. It is not solely from the central government that enacts discriminatory policies towards Rohingya people, proposals often come from ethnic Rakhine politicians. Indeed, Rakhine politicians popularized the term “Bengali” to refer to Rohingya as interlopers from Bangladesh. In 2015, The ANP forced President Thein Sein to issue an executive order withdrawing the voting rights for the Rohingya who were previously allowed to vote. 

The alignment of the ANP with the Tatmadaw and the release of Dr. Aye Maung will further increase the animosity towards Rohingya people. This animosity is further exacerbated by the Rohingya’s pro-democracy stance. While the entire country is united in its support of the democracy movement, ethno-nationalism still stands strong in Rakhine state. The remaining Rohingya in Rakhine will be in an unimaginable situation of horror and the repatriation of Rohingya refugees will remain a distant dream while the Tatmadaw remain in power. 

On the other hand, if there were a change in government that accepts the Rohingya as citizens, the main problem will implementation of equal rights. Being citizens is the first and most basic step, it still doesn’t assure equal rights and dignity for Muslims in Burma more specifically in Rakhine state. The best example is the Ethnic Kaman Muslims who have been subjected to the similar discrimination as Rohingya although they are one of the officially recognized ethnic groups.

In order to implement equal rights for the Rohingya, the national Citizenship law needs to be revised to reflect a more democratic conceptualization of its nationhood. The country should embrace the principle of jus soli by abandoning ethnic citizenship system based on jus sanguinis. The existing citizenship system has not only been the source of producing millions of stateless people but also fostered the separation between different groups by privileging some over the others. The use of the jus soli would promote an inclusive citizenship policy, together with the recognition and respect for the rights of minorities, as a means of both integration and conflict prevention.

Secondly, the long-term segregation of the Rohingya from every aspect of social life and their political marginalisation must end. They must have unconditional opportunity to access any job in the civil service, both local and national.

Thirdly, the Myanmar’s electoral system needs to be revised and adopt proportional representation (PR). A PR system would promote more equitable representation of minorities, like the Rohingya, by giving all minorities’ representation and voices in proportion to their vote. It would ensure that minorities like the Rohingya are able to elect candidates that represent their opinions, values, and interests.

Finally, the NUG should make a special effort to increase the representation of minority leaders at the national level, especially of those who have direct experience of living through ethnic conflict that has torn apart their communities. The NUG should involve representatives from the Rohingya community at all stages of the monitoring and implementation process when resolving Rohingya related issues. Rohingya representation has been completely absent from high-level discussions about the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Burma, as well as decisions regarding matters of their everyday life in the country. These measures will ensure effective and sustainable minorities political participation and the allocation of sufficient resources to realize identified objectives.

The NUG has a very difficult task ahead and some feel that the best way forward is to sweep the problems of ethnic minorities in Burma under the rug for the time being. Anyone arguing otherwise is decried as undermining the unity of the Burmese people on social media. However, by now the NLD should know better. When their party came to power it disregarded many long-standing alliances with ethnic minorities and defended the atrocities the military committed against others. Now the next generation of leaders who chair the NUG has a chance to learn from past mistakes, build meaningful relationships and solidarity with ethnic minorities and pledge to work towards the protection of their rights. Supporting the rights of the Rohingya is not only the moral thing to do, it would also be an important sign that the new dawn Mahn Win Khaing Than promised is a new dawn for everyone in Burma.

Dao Din – Interview – Part 1

Dao Din – Interview – Part 1

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. 

 

Euro-Fascism with Thai Characteristics

Euro-Fascism with Thai Characteristics

Gabriel Ernst

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

Thai’ification

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.

Abolish The Capital

Abolish The Capital

Part 1

Writer and Illustration: Karuna Tilapaynat
Translator: W.Where

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.”

Part 2

Writer: Pathompong Kwangtong
Translator: W.Where

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.

The Uprising & The Rohingya

The Uprising & The Rohingya

Myo Min

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.