The Lèse-Majesté law, also known as Article 112 in Thailand, forbids any criticism of the monarchy in the kingdom under punishment of imprisonment. Even those far removed from the machinations of Thai politics are vaguely aware of this law. In an era where basic freedom of speech is held as sacrosanct, this law is globally recognised as being bizarre and archaic, and hardly used for anything other than protecting an already seemingly beloved institution”. This law, however, is not simply used to protect the dignity of the monarch against insult. Lèse-Majesté laws are in reality a relatively small mechanism which is part of a larger systematic structure of censorship, used as means of social coercion to manufacture what we can term royalist realism.
Capitalist realism as defined by Mark Fisher is explained in the quote “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” In Thailand switching out the word capitalist with royalist makes for an eerily similar comparison, that is until very recently. For decades, however, Thai society existed under ‘The Bhumiphol Consensus’, a term coined by professor Kasian Techaphira to define the second half of the reign of King Bhumiphol (Rama 9) who was king of Thailand from 1946 until his death in 2016. Such was the adoration of King Bhumiphol that it was considered sacrilegious to express any doubt in the monarch as well as the wider institution of the monarchy. While Thailand was officially a constitutional democracy, it was clear that King Bhumiphol had the final say in all major matters regarding the governance of the kingdom.
This is not to say that there were no opposition voices to the royalty. Whispers were abound in the kingdom but they were relegated to strictly private circles among trusted friends and family. For decades there were virtually no public displays of dissonance whatsoever. Those few who openly spoke out were immediately punished by Lèse-Majesté laws, while those who were lucky enough to escape into exile abroad remain there to this day. Lèse-Majesté laws are the last legal resort for the Thai superstructure, as part of the multi-layered system for manufacturing consent.
Lèse-Majesté Law:It is illegal to defame, insult, or threaten the king, queen, heir-apparent, heir-presumptive, or regent.
The mechanism of Lèse-Majesté has mostly been used during times of political crisis. Ultra-royalist prime minister Sarit Thanarat was the first to utilize the law in the modern era. During Sarit’s premiership, the monarchy was desperately trying to recapture its hold on the kingdom following the coup that transformed Thailand into a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Sarit used the law to silence his own critics who disapproved of the increasing power of the royal palace.
In the decades that followed, the law would often be laid down as a means of making an example of any perceived dissonance. For example, at the height of the student democracy movement in 1976, a man was arrested on charges of lèse-majesté for using a royal village scout scarf to wipe clean a table.
If found guilty perpetrators would typically serve jail sentences between 2-10 years, depending on the severity of the perceived offence. Occasionally sentences of mandatory re-education would be handed out, like in one case in 2014, where a nurse who wore black on King Bhumibol’s birthday was charged with Lèse-Majesté.
There have also been cases where the law has been commandeered by civilians. For example, if two neighbours are having a dispute, one may make a fake social media account in their neighbour’s image and post content that violates Lèse-Majesté so as to have them jailed.
Academia too has been hit hard by the law, one notable case was with the famous scholar Ajarn Sulak who suggested that a legendary 1v1 duel on elephant-back won by a king of Ayutthaya (the kingdom that preceded Thailand) against a Burmese prince 500 years ago may not have happened. This precedent of criminalising insult against, not just the present, but past monarchs, even those from different dynasties, has also been used as a form of censorship for contemporary dissonance. For example, a magazine editor was charged for publishing a satirical cartoon, which depicted a famous statue of 3 former kings wearing face masks, during a bout of severe smog pollution in the northern province of Chiang Mai.
The leftist academic and prominent republican Giles Ji Ungpakorn was also charged with Lèse-Majesté and forced into exile for his book ‘A Coup For The Rich’ in which he criticised King Bhumiphol’s involvement in the coup of 2006. Ungpakorn noted “the lèse-majesté laws are not really designed to protect the institution of the monarchy. In the past, the laws have been used to protect governments and to shield military coups from lawful criticism. This whole [royal] image is created to bolster a conservative elite well beyond the walls of the palace.”
Judges have also said the accuser did not necessarily have to prove the information was factual. One judge famously said, “because if it is true, it is more defamatory, and if it isn’t true, then it’s super-defamatory.”
Despite all of the numerous cases, as mentioned earlier, Lèse-Majesté laws are a relatively small mechanism in the wider manufacturing of consent for the royalist institution and its proponents. Fealty to the monarchy is demanded and constantly reinforced in the kingdom, it’s intertwined through culture, spirituality and any kind of civic duty.
Grandiose portraits of the king and company adorn the streets of the country, while almost every home and business has a portrait of King Bhumiphol or his son, the current king Vajiralongkorn. This is so extreme that it’s considered a small show of dissidence to instead hang a portrait of the reformer king Chulalongkorn, Bhumiphol’s grandfather who died in 1910.
The state school curriculum is heavily focused on Thai exceptionalism, which is constantly linked back to the monarchy. Students learn of the innumerable good deeds done by the royal family, which include protecting them from dangerous outside forces, showering them in charity, and even (to this day) providing the weather conditions for a bountiful harvest. Indeed every morning students line up for the national anthem and flag-raising ceremony which marks the start of the school day.
In Buddhist temples portraits of the monarchy are hung side by side with Buddhist and Hindu gods, embellished by flowers and incense, giving them a god-like aura. It is widely believed even, that the monarch carries so much holy merit that when in his presence some will wash onto you as a blessing. As such, believers flock to public appearances of even relatively minor royals in hopes of catching a modicum of grace.
In the spiralling state bureaucracy of Thailand, sometimes compared to Kafka’s castle, all work is dedicated to not just the state but the monarchy. The act of giving your labour to the state is often perceived as giving yourself to the monarchy as the two are so deeply intertwined. Yellow, the royal colour is worn every Monday, as a show of fealty to the king, as both the late King Bhumibol and the current King Vajiralongkorn, were both born on a Monday. On mondays, Bangkok is awash with yellow shirts, particularly among civil servants, for whom the dress code is mandatory.
For any of those who don’t subscribe to the adoration of the monarchy, life can be made unlivable. As well as the legally codified aspects of fealty the social pressure is immense. Families will disown children should they privately express republican leanings or if they refuse to partake in royalist ceremonies and traditions. Ultra-royalist business owners, which make up the majority of big business owners, will also regularly force employees to take part in or display performative acts of adoration for the monarchy, this can range from wearing a yellow shirt on Mondays, to joining in with royalist religious ceremonies. Those who refuse will likely find themselves out of a job, if not worse, reported for Lèse-Majesté.
This super-structural royalism is so powerful and all-encompassing that certainly during the Bhumiphol Consensus era it was, like capitalist realism, impossible to imagine a world without it. Lèse-Majesté laws were only deemed necessary in the small number of instances of actual dissidence, which were, more often than not, tied to greater political concerns. However, after the death of King Bhumiphol in 2016 and the ascension of King Vajiralongkorn to the throne, this paradigm of royalist realism has finally begun to shift.
A Crack In The Veil
Since becoming king, public adoration for Vajiralongkorn has paled in comparison to his father, while criticisms have grown louder and more vocal. The reasons for this shift can not be explored in this article, lest we find ourselves charged with Lèse-Majesté for naming his perceived transgressions, as so many others have. However, it is fair to say that for a huge number of (mostly younger) Thais, Vajiralongkorn is despised.
In part due to the perceived egregious nature of the new King’s transgressions, and in part due to social media’s ability to anonymise criticism, 2020 saw the near-total collapse of royalist realism. In the summer, after the Covid 19 lockdown, protests that started as a response to the government’s handling of the pandemic quickly spiralled into anti-monarchy demonstrations which not only rocked Bangkok by the sheer number of protestors but by their radical discourse on the monarchy.
Personally, when I first witnessed some of the speeches, signs and performances I was astonished by their boldness and lack of fear over the consequences. I was not the only one, after the tide of anti-monarchism had grown online the floodgates had opened so quickly it caught the majority of the country off guard. Once again, due to Lèse-Majesté laws, we would be putting ourselves at great risk of charges by repeating any specific quotations of this sentiment.
While the protests were at their height the government was uncharacteristically slow to respond. However, since the movement’s momentum has slowed towards the end of 2020 Lèse-Majesté charges have been filed at a rate not only shocking in their quantity, but in their pettiness. While some protestors have been charged with actively trying to physically harm the monarchy, in the now infamous incident where the queen and prince royal’s vehicle was swamped by protestors, others have been charged for such minor offences as wearing inappropriate clothing.
One woman, for example, was charged for dressing too similarly to the queen in a fashion show, while another was charged for wearing an exercise outfit similar to that of the king. Both were deemed by courts to be offensive parodies of the royals. These cases have drawn scorn from human rights groups, however, during a time of global pandemic the Thai state presumably feels it can get away with such gross censorship.
At the time of writing, there are currently 56 cases of Lèse-Majesté charges in the Thai courts. This goes to show that the court was always the final resort for a monarchy that has reinforced its power through almost every possible facet of life in the kingdom.
However, since the protests, the toothpaste is out the tube and many are sure that it can never go back in. The sheer levels of public dissidence and the dramatic rise of popularity in republican exiles overseas mean controlling this new anti-monarchy tendency, manufacturing monarchist consent, is never going to be as effective as it once was.
Without question, in the year 2021 royalist realism has been virtually wiped out. The movement to abolish the Lèse-Majesté laws has become the focus of the majority of activists, with smaller demonstrations popping up in the kingdom on a near-daily basis. These activists hope that removing the threat of Lèse-Majesté can make it possible to criticise the greater royalist superstructure. To once again reference Fisher, vast numbers of the population have exited the royal castle, which now begs the new question: What of capitalist realism?
The name Haji Sulong is little known in Thailand proper, despite being considered a hero and the founding father of the modern separatist movement in Thailand’s deep south ‘Patani’ region. Little is known outside the region about the conflict that erupted following his death, showing just how localised a civil war can be. This nescience is embodied in Haji Sulong, a man who lived an extraordinary life, was wildly influential and yet almost totally unknown to Thai society at large.
Haji, originally Muhammed Sulong, was born in 1895 to a Jawi family of religious teachers in Lukson Village in the Patani Sultanate, Thailand (then Siam). The Jawi are a Malay Muslim people localised in what is today the ‘Three Deep Southern Provinces of Thailand’. Sulong attended the local Jawi religious school where he was trained in Malay, basic Arabic and Islam.
The greater kingdom of Siam would have had little influence on the young Sulong, as Patani was almost entirely self-governing at the time, in fact, it is said that Sulong never spoke a word of Thai in his life. The local Sultans of Patani had for centuries paid tribute to distant Siamese kings, who in return offered their protection from encroachment by the other Malay Sultanates to the south. This arrangement also kept the British Empire at bay, as they gradually conquered the Malay states, formalising Siam’s ownership of Patani in the treaty of 1905.
At just 12 years old, Sulong was chosen to make Haj and to study in Mecca, a rare honour in the Jawi community. This was seemingly made possible by his family’s influential religious status and his intellectual prowess shown as a student. Making Haj for a member of the Jawi community at the time was not only expensive but extremely time-consuming, the trip would typically take around one full year to complete, on top of that it was dangerous, around 15% of pilgrims did not survive the journey.
Time in Mecca
On arrival in Mecca, Sulong had the opportunity to meet Syeikh Wan Ahmad bin Muhammad Zain al-Fatani, a leading scholar from Patani and a prominent modernist. He spent the next two decades studying Quranic Arabic and Islamic theory, moving between several mosques and schools. Eventually, he earned a reputation as a scholar and attained the position of Junior Lecturer at al-Haram Mosque specialising in Islamic law. At some point, after completing Haj he attained the name Haji.
Mecca Circa 1910
The Islamic world that Sulong had entered into was tumultuous, with power towing and throwing between the Ottoman and British Empire as well as resistance from local rulers. Without a doubt, the secular nationalist influences of the new Young Turks impacted on the young Sulong as well as the teachings of the legendary scholar Muhammad Abduh, who is today known as a key founding figure in Islamic Modernism. During this era, he also spent time in colonial Jerusalem and Egypt.
Islamic Modernism was a relatively new and bold current in Islamic thought at the time. The concept attempted to reconcile the Islamic faith with modern values such as democracy, civil rights, rationality, equality, and progress. Sulong pursued this avenue of theology rather than the reactionary Wahabism which was also on the rise.
Age 29 Sulong, now a widower after a brief first marriage, remarried a woman named Khadijah who was a member of Kelantan Royalty, from British Malaya, which increased his ties and influence among the Jawi community back in Southeast Asia.
Living in Mecca during the First World War, Sulong witnessed what many Arab Muslims considered to be a betrayal by the British and French Empires after they fought against the Ottomans. The western empires carved up the Arab world as their own newly-acquired colonies, leading to much resentment. This would later give rise to post-colonial Arab nationalism, which was highly influential on Sulong. Shortly after WWI, however, Wahabist Islamic extremists took control over Mecca. The new rulers did not at all favour the Jawi community, many of whom left for elsewhere in the Islamic world, including Sulong and his wife, who, shortly after the death of their young son, departed back to Patani.
During Sulongs time in Mecca, he witnessed tremendous upheaval and was exposed to numerous strains of synthesised Islamic thought in nationalism, colonialism, identity, theology and self-determination. He left Patani as Muhammed, the child and returned as Haji, the widely respected scholar, well versed in theology, politics and their synthesis.
Return to Patani
On his return to Patani, he saw his homeland in desperate need of redevelopment, particularly in regards to Islam. He considered typical Jawi spirituality to be far removed from authentic Islam, with many people incorporating aspects of Animism, Hinduism and even Buddhism into their religious practices, this influenced both the individuals’ spiritual lives and their systems of education and governance.
He felt a responsibility to teach Islam as he had learnt in Mecca. As such he began touring the south of Siam, lecturing and meeting with local spiritual leaders. His teachings were described as ‘progressive and bold’ upsetting many of those local leaders. The purpose of this tour was first seeking to revive Islamic teachings, then to reform Islamic education and finally to implement modern political and legal systems within a pluralist Islamic context.
‘Three Southern Provinces of Thailand’
Following his tour, Sulong decided to build a school in Patani. This would not be another Jawi Islamic school, as were typical in the region, but an institution that taught a modernist progressive curriculum within an Islamic context. As construction of the school neared completion Siam was rocked by the 1932 coup that toppled the absolute monarchy of King Prajadhipok.
This development made necessary a completely new relationship between Patani and the new civilian post-coup leadership in Bangkok. Sulong saw this as an opportunity to forge good ties with Bangkok so as to have more influence over what he considered the reactionary old guard in Patani. In 1933 he travelled to Bangkok to meet with the new leadership and request funds for his school. Prime Minister Phahol agreed and future Prime Minister Pridi Phanomyong, while he was Minister of the Interior, visited the newly built school where he was warmly received. This cemented the perception from Bangkok of Sulong as the leading authority in Patani, despite the existing influence of other powerful families who hadn’t yet been able to forge ties with the new regime.
Sulong became headmaster of his new school and gained tremendous influence among the local community. The school also served as a mosque for the community, proselytising Sulong’s modernist teachings on Islam.
The warm relationship with Bangkok, however, was short-lived as the national leadership began to see Sulong’s movement as a threat to their governance over the region and the school was closed down just 2 years after opening. Sulong then resumed his touring of the South, continuing his education program with his dedicated followers.
In 1937 Siam held its first general elections, which included votes from Patani. In the Patani election, Sulong controversially supported a Buddhist candidate, Jaroen Suebsaeng, over the more locally populist Muslim candidate Phraphiphitphakdi who was a descendent of the Jawi Sultanate. Sulong saw Jaroen as being more inclined to his own political aims of modernism and pluralism rather than supporting a member of the old Jawi elite purely on the basis of shared identity. Jaroen was also aligned with the reformist Pridi who Sulong surely admired. Phraphiphitphakdi won the election, however, Jaroen would later become elected as governor of Patani in large part due to Sulongs support.
The fall out of the general election spelt bad news for not only Sulong but the majority of the Jawi community in the deep south. Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram replaced Phahol as the Prime Minister of Thailand and established a military dictatorship inspired by the Italian fascism of Benito Mussolini. Phibun launched a reactionary modernization campaign known as the Thai Cultural Revolution that included a series of cultural mandates, changing the country’s name from “Siam” to “Thailand”, and enforced promotion of the Central Thai language. This cultural mandate program was particularly problematic for the people of Patani as after centuries of near-complete autonomy from Bangkok they were now suddenly being forcibly assimilated into the Thai state.
Thai cultural mandates poster
School curriculums were forced to focus on Central Thai culture and all lessons had to be in the Thai language. Traditional Jawi clothing was banned and Islamic courts, which were previously used in civil cases were prohibited. The local population passively resisted, when there was a dispute among Muslims it would be arbitrated informally, Sulong was often chosen to act as arbiter in these cases.
Sulong became the leader of an informal extrajudicial legal system in Patani and part of the tacit resistance movement to Thai imperialism. Certainly to Sulong, this would have been all too familiar, having spent decades living under western colonial powers while in Mecca.
World War II
The outbreak of World War II saw Phibhun’s Thailand align with Imperial Japan. The Japanese Army also conquered Malaya from the British Empire and the British sought allies to resist the Japanese in the region. Many Jawi joined the underground Thai resistance movement against the Japanese-Phibhun alliance. The British supported the Jawi independence movement, which had grown stronger during the Phibhun era and supposedly promised them national independence post-war, thus further undermining Bangkok’s control over the deep south.
Sulong used this opportunity to ingratiate himself with the pro-independence movement and the British, however, he was always sceptical as he had witnessed the dark side of British colonialism during his time in Mecca and the middle east.
At the close of the war, however, the British didn’t live up to their promise. The United States wanted to treat Thailand as an ally, despite its alignment with Japan. This was due to the encroaching threat of communism, the US saw Phibhun, who managed to hold onto power post-war, as a useful anti-communist ally and as such the issue of Patani independence was ignored.
The Pridi Years
The post-war years in Thailand were chaotic, with an ever-shifting political climate, as the reformer and anti-Phibun politician Pridi came to power briefly in 1946 prospects were looking optimistic for Sulong and his movement. The young King Ananda even donated 20,000 Baht to promote welfare in the region and Pridi indicated his willingness to allow greater autonomy.
In 1947 the Bangkok government sent a team of representatives to the deep south on a fact-finding mission regarding the possibility of greater autonomy for the region. Sulong was chosen by religious leaders as their representative and he proposed the following: 1. That the four southern provinces be governed as a unit, with a Muslim governor. 2. That for the first seven years of the school curriculum, Malay be allowed as the language of instruction. 3. That all taxes collected in the four southern provinces be expended there. 4. That 85 per cent of the government officials be local Malays. 5. That Malay and Thai be used together as the languages of government. 6. That the provincial Islamic committees have authority over the practice of Islam. 7. That the Islamic judicial system be separated from the provincial court system.
The delegation held extensive discussions with Sulong over the requests but had no authority to implement them, as such they returned to Bangkok. The national government was slow to respond, so Sulong started a very public pressure movement, collecting funds and again travelling around the region promoting his movement and its goals. He also declared that if Bangkok approved his suggestions he would invite back Haji Mahayiddin to govern the region, Mahayiddin was the son of the last Sultan of Patani and former leader of the underground movement during WWII. This demonstrated that Sulong had no real interest in governing, rather he was more interested in continuing his educational work.
During this period, just over the border in British Malaya, separatist movements were becoming increasingly bold and insurrectionary. This along with Sulong’s increasing popularity made Bangkok nervous about the region falling into all-out separatist revolt. Some government officials in Bangkok saw Sulong’s movement as being the Patani branch of the independence movement that gripped Malaya.
Conservatives Reclaim Bangkok
In November 1947 a coup overthrew the reformist national government, replacing it with a conservative royalist regime who were extremely hostile to the movement in Patani. A crackdown on reformists and dissidents followed and Sulong was arrested in January 1948 along with his more active supporters. Charged with sedition Sulong was sentenced to 4 years imprisonment, all of which were served in Bangkhwang Prison in Bangkok. In jail, he wrote extensively, however, all of his writings were screened and censored by prison officials.
Without Sulong the movement in the deep south became increasingly paranoid and moved further underground. Those who were still free made little progress with a government in Bangkok who had no intention on ceding any ground.
Sulongs release after 4 years saw him return to a hero’s welcome in Patani where over a thousand followers came to greet him at the train station. However, he was barred from taking part in any political activity and was told to stop teaching or else he would be imprisoned again. Sulong apparently obeyed but struggled personally without being able to fulfil his purpose in life.
During the next year, the Bangkok government grew increasingly paranoid of internal threats. The Communist Party of Thailand was becoming more influential, while the independence movement in British Malaya grew ever stronger.
In August of 1954 Sulong was summoned to a police station in nearby Songkhla province for questioning. He attended with two colleagues and his 15-year-old son to act as a translator. The four were never seen again. Years later the police officers involved would admit to the brutal murder of Haji Sulong and company. Their bodies were never found.
To this day Sulong’s battle for self-determination lives on. However, the movement he helped to define has taken on an entirely different shape. A far more radical tendency has come out of the deep south in terms of its resistance to Bangkok, nowadays bombings, drive-by shootings and assassinations are commonplace as the Thai authorities have taken an increasingly heavy-handed approach to the separatists.
Patani is a city under military occupation, full of checkpoints manned by heavily armed soldiers, brought in from distant provinces to crush the unrest. The era of reformist post-colonial Islam seems like a distant memory in the Muslim world. However, the influence of Haji Sulong as a martyr and as the intellectual force behind Patani’s self-determination movement remains. Indeed the current insurgency has generally continued its tradition of nationalism, rather than embracing a more Salafist creed, as has become increasingly common in rebellions throughout the rest of the Islamic world and we can only assume that this tradition in Patani stems from the extensive teachings and influence of Haji Sulong.
An examination of Thailand’s internal ‘auto-imperialism’, how the state works to capture populations on the fringes of the kingdom and put them to use for the nation’s imperial core. Exploring the roots, history and present day effects of Thai ‘auto-imperialism’.
Walking through a Lisu village in the far northernmost reaches of Thailand we come across the village headman’s house, adorned atop are two flags; the red, white and blue of the Thai state and the yellow of the monarchy. The headman himself, from the Lisu ethnic minority, is not Thai. Nobody in this village is. Yet they fly Thai flags over the leader’s house. It’s reminiscent of nearby Burma, just a few kilometres away, where the British flag once flew.
Imperialism and Colonialism have many faces, most famously the British model of the 17th to 20th century alongside other European powers, the legacy of which remains potent today. There’s also the more contemporary American model, which doesn’t explicitly take land and form colonies in the style of the former, but still utilises both soft and hard power to subjugate countries and peoples. However, imperialism was never strictly confined to the West. Japan’s imperial empire was vast, malicious and remarkably similar to its European adversaries in its aims and functions. We also have a multitude of examples of localised imperialism; states which practice almost identical methods of subjugation but on a far more local scale, and it is here we find Thailand.
Auto-Imperialism and Subaltern
The version of imperialism in Thailand can be considered ‘auto-imperialism’— though ‘imperialism’ refers to the expansion of a nation’s borders abroad, ‘auto-imperialism’ (like how ‘auto-cannibalism’ refers to the consumption of one’s own body) is a means of imperialism conducted on endemic populations. Specifically the capture of populations already within a nation’s borders, who were previously living outside of state control and influence.
In postcolonial studies and critical theory, Antonio Gramsci coined the term subaltern, which designates the colonial populations who are socially, politically, and geographically outside the hierarchy of power of a colony, and of the empire’s geographical homeland. As such within Thailand the subaltern peoples can be considered to be the ethnic minorities of the northern hills, the ethnic Malay Muslims of the deep south, and the huge Isaan region, which makes up over 30% of the population for the entire kingdom, while the central Thai planes constitute the imperial core of Thai power, both culturally and politically, centralised in Bangkok.
Thailand’s evasion of Western colonisation is often heralded in the kingdom as a miraculous feat of ingenious diplomacy, whereby kings Mongkut and Chulalongkorn saved Siam from the Western imperialists. However, in hindsight, we can assess that much of this is due to sheer luck and the importance of healthy economic relations and a political buffer zone between the British and the French colonies, but that’s an article for another time. The end result was that Thailand was free to continue its feudal practices unabated and went on to expand its control into lands untouched by the Western powers. However, during this era the state was relatively weak and unable to influence its outer reaches— rendering those residing outside of the state’s influence as the remaining subaltern peoples, some of which remain subaltern to this day.
Phibunsongkhram and Euro-Fascism
In 1932, the Siamese Revolution pushed the country towards a semblance of ‘democracy’, however military figures have repeatedly asserted their control over the state, through coups, aggressive diplomacy and the threat and occasional use of mass violence to control restive populations. Plaek Phibunsongkhram rose to power when he was handed the premiership and leadership of the military from Phot Phahonyothin in 1938— Phahonyothin conducted Thailand’s first successful coup against an incumbent Prime Minister. Phahonyothin admired Mussolini’s Italian Fascism as did Phibun. This led to an intentional design of Thailand’s governing systems as an imperialist and fascist state based on what Phibun saw during his time spent in Europe in the 1920s.
Phibun introduced the cultural mandate system, which was aimed at homogenising Thailand into ‘central Thai’ culture, the culture of those at the imperial core, in an explicitly fascist method aimed at entrapping the subaltern peoples on the fringes of the state, this was known as Thai’ification and it exists as one of the methods of Thailand’s state-sanctioned racism. Phibun’s tenure as Premier included conducting a war on French Indochina to reclaim territory once ceded by Siam to French colonial forces. His farcical war, much like his mentor Mussolini’s failed foray into Abyssinia (Ethiopia), resulted in an embarrassing defeat against the French. However, while WWII raged and the Japanese empire rapidly expanded across Asia, that very year when the imperial Japanese army arrived on Thailand’s doorstep Phibun’s Thailand capitulated immediately. The Japanese, new rulers of the region, then demanded that the desired Indochinese territories be handed over by France to Thailand as a reward for Thailand’s submissiveness to their new Japanese overlords.
Phibun then took his obsession with euro-fascism to an almost farcical level in building the Victory Monument, a monument to this ‘victory’ against French Indochina. The monument itself was designed similarly to monuments and buildings commissioned under both Hitler and Mussolini— thus receiving the name ‘fascist architecture’. The Victory Monument still stands today, its importance even translated into a BTS (sky train) station, but aside from this obvious celebration of Thai fascism, the subtler influences of Phibun and the fascistic military class are still prevalent. This is where the structure of modern Thailand has its roots.
Mass Violence by the state
The vast majority of mass violence at the hands of the state have been carried out against Subaltern Isaan peoples, who for as long as Isaan people have had an identity it has been one of domination by the Thai state. Originally the Isaan region, a large chunk of North-Eastern Thailand, was an inhospitable jungle/swamp area, however, the Siamese state wanted to make use of the land and as such a mass forced population transfer of Lao people to Isaan took place starting in 1827. Forced population transfer was a technique also used widely by the European colonial states. However, as much as the state tried to control them, the new Isaan’ers proved an extremely restless population, with numerous peasant uprisings, holding onto their Lao language and practices to this day, they have yet to truly assimilate into mainstream Thai society.
Most notably during the 20th century, there was a large scale revolt, in the communist insurgency that gripped the region from the 1950s until an armistice in 1984. The vast majority of communist cadres were Isaan’ers rebelling against the Thai state. Since the armistice, however, the people of Isaan have continued to revolt unabated, into the 21st century, in the form of the red shirt movement, a predominantly Isaan based group of populists originally centred around former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra— considered a hero by many Isaaners. The repression of the redshirt movement has been brutal and is on-going to this day. It has been covered in great detail in a series of articles by The Isaan Record.
However, Isaan is far from the only victim of Thailand’s ‘auto-imperialism’. As mentioned in the intro, in the far north of the country a diverse plethora of ethnic minority groups dot the mountains who are also the victims of ‘auto-imperialism’. For centuries the state was unable to penetrate the far reaches of the mountains, as such those who lived there were free of state control and oversight. The anthropologist James C. Scott argues that these residents made a conscious decision to flee there in order to escape state control. However once clear borders were drawn, Siam and then Thailand considered it a mandate to make those within their borders ‘useful’ or ‘productive’ members of the state. We have previously covered this in the article Nationalism and Anti-Statehood in Thailand.
Ethnic Karen in Mae Hong Song Province
The Thai state treats more remote northern regions such as Mae Hong Song province, almost exactly as European imperialists treated their colonies. Establishing outposts, religious missions, transplanting settlers, enslaving locals (in the past), and today subjecting the local population to strong-armed pressure into cultural assimilation, while strictly regulating and limiting their traditional practices.
Border Expansion in the deep south
The Thai state carries out a very similar practice in the deep south provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani, along the Malay border. The region was captured by Siam and it’s ownership of the territories were ratified by the British in 1912. However the vast majority of the population are Malay Muslims and, as with many northern provinces, there is little to no history of Thai people living in these areas.
Since around 2004 the 3 provinces, as well as a few districts in Songkla province, have been in near open revolt against the Thai state. The local grievances predominantly revolve around Thai state-mandated schools and government institutions, as the locals would rather live under Sharia (Islamic) law. A small number of closely affiliated armed rebel groups have since conducted bombing campaigns and attacks on targets seen as symbolic of the Thai state. Notably, military barracks’/checkpoints, government offices and even state schools, targeting teachers brought in to teach the Thai state curriculum. Today there is a heavy military presence throughout these southern states, the area feels like it’s under military occupation and in many ways it is.
The demands from the bulk of the locals and the rebels are fairly tame, few call for true secession, mostly the demands are for partially localised governance and independent schools. The Thai state’s inflexibility to these demands highlights it’s inflexibility in it’s nationalist and imperialist outlook, wherein the governing powers in Bangkok see anything within the clearly defined Thai borders as their own property, including those people on the outer reaches.
Malay Muslims in Thailand at prayer
Peoples as property
From observing how the Thai state treats its people in a similar way as it treats its territory it is clear that ‘auto-imperialism’ is one of the key drivers for the kingdom. The purpose of all this is to ‘capture’ these people and make them productive towards the imperial ‘central Thai’ core, as was exactly the same driver behind Western imperialism and colonialism.
While much of European colonialism is now becoming confined to history, Thai expansionism is very much alive, as the restive populations continue to attempt to evade capture, be they in Isaan, the north, the deep south or elsewhere. The Thai state is still firmly rooted in its founding traditions of fascism, expansionism and loyalty to its imperial core, focused on expanding Thai hegemony as far as is possible in the 21st century.
Ethnicity, Borders, and the Grassroots Interface with the State: Studies on Southeast Asia in Honor of Charles F. Keyes by John A. Marston, 2014 Silkworm Books
The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia by James C. Scott, 2009 Yale University Press
Subaltern Social Groups: A Critical Edition of Prison Notebook 25 by Anthonio Gramsci, Columbia University Press
In the midst of ostensibly good-faith discussions on Racism in the United States, and more importantly for myself, regarding Thailand, I have found that several key points about Thailand’s systemic racism are often overlooked. I have seen, supported, and engaged in discussions about why we need to hold each other accountable on an individual basis, however, I fear that talking will not solve our societal injustices permanently outside of a brief ‘feel-good’ period where individuals try to reforge culture before material conditions that shape society— and culture— creep up on us and scuttle our brief successes.
If in the United States, the police are shown to uphold systemic racism, what are some sources and examples of systemic racism in Thailand? Here Capitalism leads to the exploitation of migrant workers, the State alters attitudes towards Chinese people due to National Agenda changes, and the country’s history of Fascism is linked with the erasure and exclusion of communities outside a manufactured ‘national identity’.
To paraphrase and repurpose a Kwame Ture quote: in order for your discourse to be successful, whomever you target your discourse at must have a conscience— i.e. the capacity to think. You cannot talk to a construct; you cannot sit down and convince Capitalism to stop favouring Racism. Capital Accumulation is dependent on lowering the cost of production. If a Capitalist intends to turn a larger profit, he will not decrease the quality of his machines, the quality of his raw resources, nor the dividends and profits destined for his or his shareholder’s pockets. It is more likely for him to slash wages or find labour willing to work for less. In Thailand— and in much of the world— this translates directly to Racism through the existence of cheap migrant labour.
Capital, Labour, and Racism
I pose a simple question: what distinguishes the Thai Labourer from the Burmese Labourer or the Khmer Labourer? I find the answer is not their self-worth, not necessarily their skill, but rather it is their ability to be pushed around and exploited.
The International Labour Organisation and the Solidarity Center have been working with Thai Unions and workers to ensure that the government upholds international labour standards. However, years ago, the spotlight was shone on what is essentially slave labour in the Seafood and Fruit industries as migrant workers were getting their documents seized in order to force them into work— slavery was common in Siamese history, however for it to be present in ‘modern’ Thailand is shameful.
Even today I have yet to hear of legislation allowing migrant labour to form unions— even though there was some pressure from the United States just two years ago. Thailand’s Labour rights are dodgy at best and nearly non-existent for migrant labour, even with the 2017 NCPO Foreign Work Order, as courts often take the side of the company due to corruption and the capitalist profit motive which forces social institutions to unite against exploited and oppressed people in the defence of the accumulation of capital.
Essentially, aside from Thai society’s subtle racist and xenophobic attitudes, Thailand’s institutions also systematically reinforce and disadvantage those of other nationalities and races— namely Burmese and Khmer in terms of migrant labour.
However, these issues link to people coming from outside of the nation’s borders, what about the oppressed who exist within? Thailand’s many ethnic minorities have gone from successful communities to shadows of their former glory due to the Sakdina system (Siamese caste system) and Siamese auto-imperialism that laid the foundations for Luang Phibunsongkhram’s fascist dreams and his Palingenetic Ultranationalist efforts that included state-sanctioned Sinophobic sentiments and cultural mandates that undermined the diversity of the citizens of both historic Siam and ‘modern’ Thailand.
State, China, and Racism
On that point of Sino-Thai relations, Thailand’s strange relationship with China goes to demonstrate the relationship between the State and Capital Accumulation and how Racism is necessitated by leaders who desire a strong national identity and increased state power.
The ethnic majority of Thailand, the Tai, came from Guangxi in modern-day China. Over time they started developing a distinct culture from the Tai that spread into modern Vietnam, Laos, and so forth. Over time, Thailand benefited from an influx of Chinese migrants that included a lot of manual labourers and rickshaw drivers— a lot can be learned at the Thai Labour Museum near Makkasan Station. Over time, this economic boom soon turned sour as the Chinese labourers rose to become powerful and influential members of society and ethnic Thais became more and more hostile towards their success. In 1914, under a fake name, King Rama 6 (whose statue adorns the entrance of Lumpini Park) published an article called “The Jews of the East”, an anti-semitic and sinophobic rant about how the ethnic Chinese are loyal to their race and money, rather than their King or country.
The sinophobia only got worse as Siam observed its transition to a ‘constitutional monarchy’ in 1932, but in 1938 Phibun became Prime Minister and tried to counter the economic power of the ethnic Chinese, despite being of Chinese descent himself. This racism towards ethnic Chinese was state-sanctioned and came as a result of his other ultranationalist and fascistic tendencies and edicts. After his removal, and his coup to reinstate himself, Phibun realised that he had an opportunity to further his ideological agenda by allying himself against Mao and the eventual People’s Republic of China. However, one might characterise this as an anti-communist stance, but this foreign policy was coupled with a domestic policy of shutting down Chinese schools, social associations, and the limiting of Chinese immigration, and is, therefore, more in line with an Ultranationalist stance. Therefore, the point of the Anti-Chinese sentiments during Phibun’s time was to divorce any notion of Tai heritage from the exodus from Chinese lands. This further aims to add to the National Mythos which not only deified past Kings, but also tries to assert that Thai society is not only homogenous, but also unique and does not have any roots outside of the borders of the State (which I believe is evidence to support the claim that Phibun’s Nationalism incorporated Palingenetic Ultranationalism, but that’s for another time). I would also argue that Phibun did this to disassociate ‘Chineseness from communism’. There was a similar practice in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Since then, Thailand has grown cosy to the Chinese— as demonstrated by the massive yearly intake of Chinese tourists. You might argue that the sinophobia dissipated over time, however, I would argue that the sinophobia was necessitated by Rama 6 and Phibun’s consolidation of state power and the ossification of national identity. Bismarck engineered war against France as the final move to unify Germany under a single Germanic identity— it is the same here. Pinpointing the ‘Chinese’ as the ‘them’ or the ‘other’ makes it easier for Phibun to manufacture a sense of ‘us’ within the Thai nation-state. Hence, Racism has been employed in the not too distant past as a State tool in Thailand. Furthermore, the PRC supported the Communist Party of Thailand and therefore the anti-communist doctrine of Thailand made it so relations with China would not benefit Thailand as it was aiding the USA in their bombing campaigns in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
Today, the sinophobia has been switched off because of the efficiency of the Chinese economic machine, and the other benefits that come with Chinese investment in Thailand. In the pursuit of Capital Accumulation, the State and the ruling classes have agreed that manufacturing positive relations with China— and the Chinese community— are necessary to ensure economic success (given that Thailand knows it could be completely destroyed by China if relations were to deteriorate).
Ultranationalism, Phibun, and Racism.
Aside from the sinophobia associated with Phibun’s administrations, there is also the matter of his 12 Cultural Mandates that worked to strengthen the national identity mentioned before. 12 is quite a few to unpack, but here are the mandates that focus on the cultural homogenisation of the country. The four mandates that relate to the question of cultural homogenisation are mandates 1,3,9, and 10.
Mandate 1 says: “The country, people and nationality are to be called ‘Thai’.” “Thai” has been argued to mean many things from “People” to “Free” to even “Free People”. However, it is first and foremost a reference to the ethnic Tai people who migrated here from China. Etymologically various countries are the same, with “Land” (or their language’s equivalent— i.e. the Central Asian ‘stans) as a suffix to the root word which denotes an ethnic group or a “people”. This is how the term “Thailand” was indeed constructed by Luang Wichitwathakan. Do remember that Thailand is locally referred to as ประเทศไทย, transliterated to: The Country of Thai, the Thai Country, or even The Country that is Thai. If that doesn’t qualify as directly linking the Nation-State with Race, then I don’t know what does. Phibun did this in the knowledge that individuals within the border of the nation come from a vast and varied set of cultures and ethnic groups— ranging from the Lisu in the north to the Maniq in the south. The reference to a singular ethnic group as representative of a collection of heterogeneous people is State-sponsored racial erasure.
Mandate 3 states that citizens of Thailand will “use the name ‘Thai’ to refer to all Thai people, without subdividing them”. This further adds to the points raised from Mandate 1, but also demonstrates a standardisation of “Thainess”. “Thaification” is a process where various ethnic groups and non-dominant cultural practices are replaced by behaviour and practices that are enforced by the dominant Thai ruling class. Given that the seat of governmental and royal power lay in Bangkok and economic power centred around Capital Accumulation is centralised in Bangkok, Central Thailand became Thailand. The dialect spoken by the Central region was enforced Nation-wide, the customs and the traditions of the Central region was enforced Nation-wide, subservience to the State and King was enforced Nation-wide; more erasure. Thankfully, the erasure was unsuccessful and there is still a varied set of traditions around the nation, yet one only wonders what was lost in the erasure process.
Mandate 9 is quite long, and has two main points. The first point concerns the Thai language and how “Thai people must extol, honour and respect the Thai language, and must feel honoured to speak it” as well as ‘teach’ —albeit in a rather ‘condescending’ and linguistically colonial way— Thai to those who do not speak it. Secondly, combining treatment of the Thai language and the erasure of regional and cultural differences, the mandate also states “Thai people must not consider place of birth, residence, or regional accent as a marker of division… Thai people must consider it their duty to conduct themselves as good Thai citizens should, and … instruct those who do not yet know and understand their duty… to … the Thai nation.” Reading this mandate, one might think that it promotes a sense of unity amongst Thai people, but much like the German unification project, this mandate only serves the creation of an idealised single sense of “Thainess” out of an existent plurality of vibrant and diverse cultures. There is a clear attempt to normalise erasure and exclusion of those who speak other dialects (non-central Thai) as well as the other languages spoken by non-Tai ethnic groups.
Mandate 10 further works towards Phibun’s dreams of bringing european-style fascism to Thailand. It states that “Thai people should not appear at public gatherings, in public places, or in city limits without being appropriately dressed”. This is not only an example of increased State control, but also the state-sanctioned erasure of culture through the imposition of an ‘appropriate’ style of dress that invalidates the customs and cultures of citizens within Thailand who did not desire to subscribe to european customs. The mandate further states: “inappropriate dress includes wearing only underpants, wearing no shirt, or wearing a wraparound cloth”. This strengthens the argument that the mandate is hiding racial antagonism, as we see that his attitude towards Tradition is neither consistent nor genuine. The ‘wraparound cloth’ (ผ้าขาวม้า) to which I assume he refers to is a staple of Thai clothing of both the Central-Thai and the regional-Thai, and through the invalidation of a cultural practise, he has tried to further build the one-ness of the Thai national identity— all in an attempt to build the Fascistic Ethnostate with the aid of the Palingenetic Ultranationalist notion of ‘national rebirth’.
All of this to say, Thailand has not treated its ethnic groups with much respect. Today, it is the same. An activist for the Karen people, Polajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, was found burned in an oil drum which was dumped in a reservoir in a nature reserve. The last time I heard about oil drums and killings, it was when the Thai state captured and killed Communists in the 70s, so it is no stretch to imagine that this was orchestrated by the State or those loyal to it. The reality is that local activists are suppressed and ethnic minorities are often trivialised and turned into tourist attractions— which does economically benefit some ethnic communities, however, not all are turned into lucrative tourist attractions which disadvantages these groups, as there is no national push or safety net to preserve these cultures.
In conclusion, not much has really changed in terms of power structures in Thailand’s social and economic organisation, therefore it stands to reason that issues of Racism are still present in Thai society— if not as a result of ignorance, then as a result of centuries of systematic racism that probably started as a group of displaced peoples trying to forge an identity and a home for themselves. With that in mind, those that have and still identify as non-Thais/non-Tais whilst residing within the country’s borders should be given the same rights and respect that a self-identifying Thai would.
If it’s a better Thailand you want, Thailand can only do better upon its Liberation from that which oppresses the supposedly “Free People” (i.e. Crown, State, and Capital). In terms of what we can do for those protesting as part of the BLM movement, make sure you pitch in wherever you can and listen to the instruction and expertise of those who know more than you—i.e. Black activists and Black intellectuals like Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Assata Shakur. Changing the material conditions for these oppressed people will allow them to better break their chains, and it would be a disservice as an Asian not to say: Yellow Peril Supports Black Power.
The Origin of Modern Official State Ideology in Thailand by Eji Murashima, 1988
Pibulsongkram’s Thai Nation-Building Programme during the Japanese Military Presence, 1941-1945 by Thamsook Numnonda, 1978
Nationalism and Anti-Statehood in Thailand by Gabriel Ernst, 2019
For a millennia Thailand, Siam and its preceding states were deeply feudal, exploitative and hierarchical, a far cry from the idyllic agrarian life presented today by the Thai education system. Governed by power and fear these were functionally slave states, where the landlords would tattoo their property, their slaves, to clearly mark both ownership and enforce the caste system. The reforms started by Rama V in the late 18th century radically changed this dynamic on the surface, providing very basic individual freedoms and rights for the kingdoms subjects. However this change came complete with a revisionist history, absolving the crimes of the past by putting strong rose tinted goggles over centuries of Thai society. This vision remained until Jit Phumisak became the first to truly expose Thai history, to lay it bare for what it really was, and inspire a radical attempt to restructure the kingdom, sometimes referred to as the Che Guevara of Thailand, Jit’s legacy as a folk hero of the working class lives on today.
Previously eulogised in the legendary folk ballad, ‘Jit Phumisak’ by Caravan, he is said to be “a philosopher and writer, he became a candle, giving light to humanity”. Today much of Jit’s life is shrouded in mystery and rumour. Born in 1930 to a modest family in Prachinburi Province, he grew up through the Japanese occupation, spending time as a teen in Thai occupied Battambang, Cambodia where his gift for languages led him to speak fluently in modern Khmer and even have a strong understanding of ancient Khmer. After leaving Battambang, Jit finished his education in Bangkok, his remarkable intelligence earned him a place at Chulalongkorn University. The student world Jit entered at Chula was one brimming with radical ideas and organising. Marxist Leninism and then Maoism had become rooted among sections of the student population following the coup of 1947.
At university his grades were indifferent, as he was known to become engrossed with materials outside of the coursework and often become distracted, handing in his assignments late. He even failed the second year of his history course, having to repeat it, ironic as he would become one of Thailand’s most famous and influential historians. He was known among the faculty to be argumentative and for relentlessly questioning his professors.
It is rumoured that Jit was radicalised in 1953 when he was hired by William J. Gedney, an American linguist recruited by the US government to translate the The Communist Manifesto into Thai in an attempt to warn the Thai government about the evils of communism. Jit was hired as a translation aid and was radicalised to Marxist theory. Jit developed a great friendship with Gedney, who he remained close with until his death, Gendry is sometimes even referred to as Jit’s foster father.
He then settled into the radical student life, mostly focused on writing, covering primarily history and linguistics. Known for his remarkable understanding of the Khmer language, Jit wrote several books and articles examining Thai history through an anthropological Marxist perspective. However contrary to today’s understanding of Bangkok student life in the 1950’s, while there were many radical leftists, there was also a strong right wing contingent of students who plagued Jit and his comrades, sometimes violently, with little to no protection from the university officials. Notably in 1953, during the infamous yonbok incident in which a young Jit was knocked unconscious by members of the faculty of engineering, (the faculty was well known for its far right wing leanings).
Jit became well known in the student community, not only for his academic work but for his original music and poetry as well. He penned over 20 songs still widely known today, notably “Starlight of Faith” “แสงดาวแห่งศรัทธา”, which is still often sung a political protests, (though we can find no audio recordings of him performing any of his musical work). Much of his poetry and music are tributes to labourers or calls for the working class to rise up and fight the bourgeoisie. A capable musician he also dove into musical theory from a Marxist perspective, writing the book “Art for Life, Art for the People”, which explored the purpose of art, focused on traditional Thai music, insisting that art must have a purpose to serve the people.
In 1957, aged just 27, Jit penned his seminal work ‘The True Face of Thai Feudalism’. This was the first extensive Marxist reading of Thai history, exposing the harsh reality of everyday life in the Kingdom before the reforms of Rama V. The book was a scathing look at Thai history and became extremely popular among the more radical intellectual community. As such it’s ideas were filtered down and cited widely in other works, having a huge influence on how Thai society saw itself and its past.
The book,was of course banned by the right wing Thai government, who at the time were extremely paranoid about communist agitation. Jit, alongside many other radical students, was arrested and imprisoned in Lard Yao prison, which inmates called ‘Lard Yao University’ due to the large number of students incarcerated. In prison he continued to write music and plays for the other inmates with themes about persisting through hopelessness and overcoming adversity. He also tended to the prison vegetable garden and acted as a teacher to many of the less educated inmates.
Lard Yao Prison, supposedly Jit Phumisak is in the image
After 6 years in Lard Yao, Jit was declared ‘not guilty’ of being a communist and released from prison. He promptly went and joined the Communist Party Thailand insurgency in Sakhon Nakhon Province, Isaan.
While operating as a communist insurgent Jit went by the name Comrade Preecha, while little is known about his time spent in the jungle, it’s widely believed that he was tasked with writing revolutionary songs for the party. It was here he penned “The People’s Liberation Army March” “มาร์ชกองทัพปลดแอกประชาชนไทย” and “The Phu Phan Revolution” “ภูพานปฏิวัติ”, named after the Phu Phan mountains which was home to the insurgency. These songs are far more explicit, more soviet style, communist music compared to his earlier work, clearly influenced by his time spent with and the instructions of the Communist Party leadership. However Jit was reportedly never actually a member of the CPT, just a supporter who joined the insurgency in the jungle.
It was in 1966, aged just 35 that Jit was killed. The circumstances surrounding his death are still extremely murky, with many varying accounts. The official story by the Thai government is that he was killed by patriotic local villagers, however few believe this to be the reality as the insurgency was widely popular among the local people in Sakon Nakhon.
The most commonly held belief, by those who admire him, is that he was killed by Thai government forces. In the Caravan song about his life its sung “He fell at the edge of the forest, his blood soaked the troubled land, a land impoverished and bleak, on the day he came down from the mountains, under the giant eagle’s shadow (a reference to the US military presence in the region), his killers were gleeful, his death brought good fortune; promotion, four stars and many stripes.” Jit was killed a year before his ideological compatriot Che Guevara. Without a doubt Caravan’s rendition is how his death is remembered by the vast majority of those who still speak his name.
The role Jit’s memory and presence played in the Thai left in later years really can not be understated. While the insurgency he joined rumbled on in the more remote reaches of the kingdom there was still relatively little engagement or connection with the student population until the 1970’s. It was at this time that a renaissance of Jit’s work took place as many of his writings began to surface and be distributed among young Thai intellectuals. In many cases his name was still forbidden to be printed or even spoken and Jit was sometimes simply referred to as ‘him‘. Much like Che, Jit became a talismanic figure in Thai leftist organising and thinking at the time. This of course came to a bloody end in 1976 during the Thamamsat massacre, where hundreds of demonstrating students were brutally killed by the Thai state, leading to a mass exodus of surviving students, many of whom followed Jit’s example and joined the communist insurgency in the very same hills where he fell.
Following the end of the communist insurgency in 1983 it became legal to publish Jit’s work. As such it has become foundational material for Thai radicals ever since. Today Jit still stands in Sakon Nakhon, at a statue erected in his honour, which has become more than a mural, the monument has led Jit to becoming an almost demi-god, as locals often bring him flowers and offerings for good luck and prosperity. While in Bangkok at the Thai labour museum a wall is dedicated to the forever young revolutionary, displaying some of his personal instruments and a small shrine in his honour. As well as his widely published books, poems, songs and plays, the story of Jit Phumisak lives on among millions in the kingdom today and he is far from forgotten.
How leftist Thai folk radicalised a generation and continues to inspire today.
Deep in the forested mountains in Thailand’s north eastern Phetchabun province on the edge of the Isaan region, on the corner of a bend in the road, sits a small car park with a few deserted market stalls. Getting out the car we walk for a few minutes through the trees to find a rusted old bulldozer among a small cluster of dilapidated wooden huts.
This encampment is one of the only remnants of the communist insurgency which once raged across these hills. The thirty-year conflict brought both farmers and student intellectuals into the wild to fight together against the Thai state. After somberly wandering around the site we get back in our car. Turning on the ignition, the speakers blare Plerng Chiwit, translated as Music For Life, a genre of Thai leftist folk music written in these hills for the rebellion.
The soft guitar and haunting vocals ring out: “He died in the outskirts of a jungle. His red blood spilled all over Isaan soil. It’s red colour will last forever. He died worthless, but his name lives on. People asked about him, craving to know more about Jit Phumisak. A philosopher and author who lit the candle for common people.”
“Feels spooky,” my friend mutters.
His name lives on
The song by the legendary Thai band Caravan recounts the life of Jit Phumisak, an intellectual and communist insurgent who, after writing his seminal history of the Thai state from a Marxist historical materialist perspective, was jailed for 6 years. Shortly after his release, he joined the communist insurgency in 1965 only to be killed a year later. Long after his death Phumisaks name lives on alongside his academic work and poetry, much of it written in prison.
In a dusty room at the back of the Thai Labour Museum in Bangkok, Jit’s pin (A lute like instrument) sits behind glass, next to a portrait of a young Phumisak, immortalising him as one of the heroes of working people. Opposite from Jit is the guitar belonging to Nga Caravan, the group’s lead singer, peppered with leftist stickers. The ties between Plerng Chiwit and the labour movement run deep.
“When I was young, my father would play Caravan on the way to school in the mornings,” Mean, a 26 year old medical student tells me in the northern city of Chiang Mai, “I didn’t really understand it, but the music’s message stayed with me: About inequality, the suffering of the poor and collective action. They laid the foundations in my mind.” Mean, who now identifies as a communist, says if there was another insurgency he wouldn’t hesitate to join.
This was the case with almost every young leftist I spoke to researching this article, Caravan repeatedly came up as a radicalising influence as well as the work of Jit Phumisak. Kay, 25 another leftist told me “We used to have the old Plerng Chiwit cassette tapes at home, I would listen to them when I was a young teenager and they really inspired me.” One eighteen-year-old radical I spoke to even had Caravan as his ringtone.
Four decades later
In 1982, the Thai communist insurgency was over. It was a vicious and bloody war, with two decades of fighting primarily in the mountainous areas of northeastern Thailand. It all began when the rural peasants rose up in the 1960s with support from Vietnamese and Laos communist cadres funded by the Chinese government. In the 1970s, the movement was bolstered by a mass influx of radical middle class student volunteers fleeing persecution in Bangkok following the 1975 student massacre at Thammasat University. This included the members of the band Caravan, as well as many other musicians, poets and artists.
Speaking to one local in a remote village in Nan province, another insurgent hotspot, he told me the rebel musicians would be warmly welcomed by the locals when passing through. “Nga Caravan [the frontman of the band] would come through here. Many of the artists did. They used to hold small concerts for us. They would have a guitar and maybe a few other instruments and their voices. It really lifted the spirits of the local people.”
At its height in the late 1970s, the insurgency was considered a serious threat to the kingdom’s sovereignty. However, after the Chinese and Vietnamese governments stopped supporting the campaign, the movement began to fizzle out, and an amnesty deal in 1982 brought the fighters out of the forest and back into civilian life. Since then communism has become a niche ideology in the kingdom, with many of the former cadres giving up on Marxism and settling into the liberal coup ridden politics of the Thai state.
The history of the insurgency is largely confined to academia, much of it inaccessible or unappealing to the average young person. Nevertheless, the music remains popular, particularly the works of Caravan.
Khon Gap Kwai
One song in particular is considered the anthem to the rebellion, the seminal ‘Kon Gap Kwai’ (Man With Buffalo) by Caravan. The track, featuring traditional North Eastern instruments, artfully tells the tale of the symbiosis between farmer and buffalo—the everyday life of a poor peasant—before a call to arms against the Thai ruling elite.
“Man with man work the fields in the way of man. Man with buffalo work the fields In the way of the buffalo. Man’s work with buffalo is rooted deep in our history. They’ve worked together for an age, it works out alright.
“Come, let’s go now. Carry our plows and guns to the fields. Poverty and weariness endured for too long. Bitter tears held back for too long
“Here is the song of death, the death of our humanity. The rich eat our labor, set one against the other, as we peasants sink deeper in debt. They call us savages, we must destroy this system.”
The lyrics to the song remain well known across Isaan and particularly among farmers. Speaking to Somkhit Singsong, the original writer of Kon Gap Kwai, he told me, “The song and this kind of music remains popular today because ever since I wrote it the conditions for Thai people haven’t changed.”
Somkhit, who also wrote several novels, short stories, and poems, is now an elderly man living on a farm in the northeastern Khon Kaen province. He penned the legendary track for Caravan around 45 years ago while he was a student in Bangkok. At the time, his rural Isaan background made him an exception in the mostly middle class world of urban university students. “After I wrote Kon Gap Kwai, I travelled home to visit my family. When I came back to Bangkok, the song was everywhere, it spread so fast. Not only with students but everyone was playing the song on protests and on strikes,” he tells me. “I think it was so popular because the content and form of the song is really easy to understand. People can relate to it, it penetrates their hearts.”
Somkhit didn’t stay in Bangkok to graduate, he dropped out of university to head back to his home village in Khon Kaen. There he joined the central committee for the Socialist Party of Thailand, rather than the more popular Communist Party of Thailand. It was in 1976 that Somkhit was finally driven to join the Communist Party insurgents in the forests. There he said he was a representative of the Socialist Party, a distinction he is keen to reinforce to this day. He still maintains he was never really a communist guerrilla but, either way, he spent five years in the forests with the insurgents fighting the Thai state.
“In the forest there were so many bands that made up the insurgency, including Caravan. Soldiers and musicians, music was just another one of our weapons to fight against injustice, for the rights of the poor and the underclass,” he said. “You know, when you fight with your fists it hurts the body, when you fight with words it hurts the soul.”
As for the current state of Thai music, Somkhit see’s little revolutionary messages in them. “I don’t like any new bands because they never play political songs. Today music is for entertainment only, not solidarity. Maybe in the future it will happen, I’m optimistic,” he says. “I know my music is still popular because I can search it on Youtube and Facebook. It still connects. I have over 6,000 Facebook followers! But really people still connect to the music because after the revolution failed, everything has stayed the same.”
This article was originally published on New Bloom Magazine This is a re-post with the authors permission.