Down with Feudalism, Long Live the People!

The People against Royalism in Thailand Today

December 3, 2020

Wearing a red blouse on the stage under red spotlights – the color symbolizing anti-dictatorial dissent – 22 year-old Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattnakul announced the electrifying 10-point demand for monarchical reforms that transcended all limits of Thai politics.1The author thanks Thongchai Winichakul, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, and Michael Montesano for their advice in improving this essay. Nalin Sindhuprama and Kelvin Ng have also been critical interlocutors. The Association of Thai Democracy (ATD)’s political activities across the US have nourished my spirit while writing this essay miles away from Thailand. The essay benefits from Ellie Tse and Zachary Levenson’s editorial finesse. They are not responsible for this essay’s interpretations and mistakes.

Rung, a sociology student, is the female leader of the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD). Her public declaration started at the tail end of the August 10 demonstration at Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus outside Bangkok. The line-up before her consisted of a youth leader from the Northeastern “Isaan” region, a labor union representative, a human rights lawyer, and an exiled refugee. Before a young crowd of up to 10,000, Rung’s voice started off as trembling, then increasingly impassioned, yet composed. Rung addressed the crowd as “the people.”

The audience listened rapturously to and cheered vociferously at the world-shattering declaration that transgressed the forbidden realm of the hitherto unsayable one sentence after another. The crux of Rung’s reform proposals hinges on the democratic control of the monarchy’s power, which would deprive the royal family of extra-constitutional and unchecked authority. Speaking as and for “the people,” Rung dispels once and for all the myth that the sovereign is above politics. The announcement repositions the monarchy back in the mundane political sphere, as it were. It led to the birth of a disobedient Thai collectivity no longer afraid to expose the monarchy’s systemic problems.

Rung ended by shouting in Thai, “Down with Feudalism (sakdina), Long Live the People (pracharat)!” while throwing her written scripts into the air, creating an astonishing spectacle. Rung and the audience repeated the chant in unison three times while displaying the iconic Hunger Games three-finger salute. Since then, this slogan has emerged as one of the most popular Twitter hashtags and protest chants. Rung adapted this phrase from Khrong Chandawong, a leftist MP from Isaan, who originally yelled “Down with Dictatorship (phadetkan), Love Live Democracy (prachathipatai)” before being executed by firing squad in 1961.

The 10-point demand’s style, collectively drafted by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, self-consciously emulates the People’s Party (Khana Ratsadon)’s manifesto originally drafted in 1932 during a bloodless democratic revolution. Both political groups, separated by 88 years, are united by the same objectives: to subordinate the monarch to the constitution and create a people’s nation. Not since the People’s Party’s struggle nearly a century ago have protesters demanded the reform of the monarchy – not until now, that is.

Thammasat University (est. 1934), where Rung studied and announced her 10-point demand, was founded out of the People’s Party’s commitment to democratizing education. The left-leaning students’ massacre in October 1976 also took place at this university’s Tha Phrachan campus. The university itself embodies the spirit of Thai radicalism and anti-dictatorial struggle.

Rung’s red blouse, the 10-point demand’s style, the protest’s chant, and Thammasat University as the demonstration’s location all manifest the protestors’ magisterial knowledge of Thai revolutionary histories.

This essay aims to contribute to the Thai protests’ momentum by thinking alongside Rung and other comrades who take to the streets because they see themselves as “the people” (ratsadon) challenging “the feudalists” (sakdina). It considers the antinomy between sakdina and pracharat, or interchangeably, ratsadon, as the governing structure of the current protests. It re-reads this antagonism through Marxist revolutionary Jit Phumisak (1930-1966)’s analysis of the sakdina system and historian Thongchai Winichakul’s concept of hyper-royalism.

After providing an overview of the 2020 Thai protests, it identifies contemporary features of the sakdinaratsadonantinomy in four spheres: political, economic, socio-cultural, and ideological. It shows that the current protests are dealing with a deep-seated, totalistic system of oppression and inequality. The opponent’s systemic nature explains and necessitates the protests’ diverse coalition, borne out of the assembly of many in the common fight against different but interconnected aspects of the sakdina system. A more precise analysis of this antinomy better clarifies the situation and may lead to sharper insurrectionary strategies.

Conceptualizing the contingent and uncertain contemporary moment bears high stakes for this unfolding political saga. Readers should therefore note the open-ended and heuristic nature of the claims made in what follows.

 

The 2020 Thai Protests

Public discussion of the monarchy has been taboo in Thailand for many decades. The draconian lèse-majesté law (section 112 of the Criminal Code), dubbed the “world’s harshest”; the Computer Crime Act; and other state-sanctioned punishments like forced disappearance have combined to create an atmosphere of fear that only reinforces the taboo.

June 4 of this year marks the most recent case of forced disappearance that catalyzed the ongoing Thai protests under the umbrella of the Free People Group (Khana Prachachon Plod-aek). Because the protests are coalitional and comprised of many sub-groups, I refer to the protests in plural form throughout.

As an outspoken advocate for democracy and LGBTQ+ rights, Wanchalerm “Tar” Satsaksit (1982-2020?) embodied progressive Thai values appealing to Thai youth. Satsaksit’s noble dream of changing Thai society into one that honors freedom of expression and democratic participation cost him his life. He was charged with lèse-majesté and lived in exile in Cambodia. The Thai state’s armed agents abducted him in broad daylight in front of his residence in Phnom Penh. Satsaksit’s last words on the phone to his sister while being bundled into a black SUV were, “I can’t breathe.” His words strikingly resonated with George Floyd’s plea for a life a week before Satsaksit’s disappearance.

Satsaksit’s abduction jolted young Thais into a deep awareness of the state’s violent handling of dissenters. Many young Thais voiced their concerns on social media that they may share the same fate with Satsaksit unless the people democratically control and audit state power. Upon the disappearance of Satsaksit, the Twitter hashtag “cancel 112” (#ยกเลิก112) became a trend with more than 500,000 retweets within a day despite the fearful environment. This state-sanctioned murder heightened the young Thais’ longstanding disappointment at the military dictatorship led by Gen.Prayut “Too” Chan-ocha (in office 2014-) in securing and enhancing the Thai peoples’ wellbeing.

Thailand’s average annual GDP growth rate had been the lowest in ASEAN except for Brunei (3.4% between 2012-2016, 3.9% in 2017, and 4.1% in 2018). The wealthiest 1% controlled an estimated 50% of national wealth in 2019, making Thailand one of the world’s most polarized economies. The government’s economic scheme has primarily benefitted the “Five Families” of Sino-Thai conglomerates. In this aggravating economic condition, King Vajiralongkorn(r. 2016-), among the world’s wealthiest monarchs, and the military government squandered the state budget on questionable luxury goods and weaponry.

Satsaksit’s last words on the phone to his sister while being bundled into a black SUV were, “I can’t breathe.” His words strikingly resonated with George Floyd’s plea for a life a week before Satsaksit’s disappearance.

Exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the military government’s poor economic performance, its cooperation with the monarchy, and the dictatorial oppressiveness gave Thai youth the feeling that the system is rigged beyond repair. The government failed at socially reproducing Thai lives as livable.

While the government deployed the lockdown mandate to suppress the first wave of the protests in February this year, the second wave from mid-July is still ongoing. The hashtag “let it end in our generation” (#ให้มันจบที่รุ่นเรา)reached 1.11 million tweets on July 20 after the inaugural second-wave protest ended. It forcefully emerged as one of the protests’ slogans thereafter.

The initial demands of the second-wave protests included the dissolution of parliament, ending intimidation of the people, and drafting a new constitution. These demands were aimed at democratizing and demilitarizing Thailand. The protestors subsequently adopted the Thammasat 10-point demand for monarchical reforms after its declaration in early August.

Multiple youth groups and veteran activist networks alternate to lead diffused, flashmob-style protests of 20,000-100,000 without centralized leadership. The protestors come together not because of common origin but due to their common condition and shared perspective. A summary survey of the groups involved in the protests reveal their heterogeneity, in both demographic and ideological terms: the high-school “Bad Students” group, provincial youths, vocational students, college students, the LGBTQ+ “Seri Thoey” group, artists, the dance team “Ratsa-dance” group, k-pop fans, young monks, human rights advocates, occupational groups, and various trade unions and labor coalitions. Because of the Thai state’s violent oppression of the left, trade unions and labor coalitions have remained a minority in the current protests. Most prominent youth leaders share the urban college-educated background.

The protests occur several times a week. Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram are the main communicative channels. Though Thailand’s capital city Bangkok remains the center of protests, at least 49 provinces (out of 77) have witnessed youth protests associated with the Free People Group. Examples of high-profile provincial youth leaders organizing in Bangkok include Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa, from the Isaan human rights defender “Dao Din” group, and Panupong “Mike Rayong” Jadnok, from the “Eastern Youth Leadership” Group.

Among the most inspiring provincial protests came from Patani, a predominantly Muslim southern province where locals speak vernacular Malay. This is among the most oppressed provinces in the country. Pro-democracy Patani youths assembled under the “Persatuan Pemuda Patani” (‘Youth Association of Patani’) group to join the nationwide protest in front of the historical Kerisek Mosque on August 2. One of the participants commented that he joined this protest because it is only within a democratic system – rather than the existing structure of centralized and militarized authoritarianism –that Patani people could engage with Thai politics on equal terms.

So far, the government has merely entertained the possibility of drafting a more democratic constitution but have consistently ignored other demands. There is no real sign of backing up from both the barracks and the palace. No deaths have yet occurred, but the government has so far responded to the protests with increasing violence and different forms of micro-repression. These include the deployment of the riot police, mass arrests, and the use of teargas grenades and high-pressure water cannon jets laced with purple dye and teargas chemical. In late November, the polices began charging the protesters with the lèse-majesté law after they have refrained from using it per the king’s request. In contrast, the pro-government and royalist counter-protestors enjoy both government’s protection and the king’s overt encouragement.

At the international level, the Thai protests have forged informal online solidarity “Milk Tea Alliance” with democratic movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and may extend to India, Belarus, and Chile. Statements supporting Uyghur and Tibetan self-determination appeared in the protests. The hashtag “if Laos politics was good” (#ຖ້າການເມືອງລາວດີ) began trending in mid-October following the Thai protests. Analysts have discussed the possibility of an ASEAN spring if Thai protests triggered a ripple effect on other ongoing Southeast Asian struggles against dictatorship and neoliberalism in the Philippines and Indonesia. Many Thai immigrant communities across the globe, i.e., in Tokyo, Sydney, Berlin, Boston, Los Angeles, have also organized flash-mobs in solidarity with the protests back home.

 

The Real Face of Sakdina Today

Jit Phumisak, revered as the Thai “Che Guevara,” proposes in his unfinished The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today (1957) that we ought to analyze sakdina as a social system consisting of three spheres: the political, the economic, and the socio-cultural. Phumisak wrote this exposition when the Thai military and royalists began to win power back from the pro-democracy Khana Ratsadon. Such a brief interregnum – a situation that mirrors what’s happening in Thailand now – enabled Phumisak to launch a trenchant critique of sakdina. He did not live long enough to witness the triumph of the monarchy-military alliance, which succeeded in building a rightist hegemony based on royalist nationalism from the 1990s onwards. This will be discussed in some detail below.

To gain a fuller picture of sakdina that Phumisak did not sufficiently examine, this essay suggests adding the fourth sphere into this system: the ideological. It develops this final sphere through an engagement with Thai intellectual historian Thongchai Winichakul’s notion of hyper-royalism.

The Real Face shares overlapping intellectual and political concerns with other Marxist critiques of Thai feudalism around the 1950s, particularly with the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT).2Jeamteerasakul, Somsak, 1991, “The Communist Movement in Thailand,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Monash University, 32-4. What makes The Real Face stands out is its investigation of Thai feudalism as a totality based on rigorous historical research, compared to other programmatic or historically unsubstantiated accounts. This strand of critique sequentially disappeared as the CPT lost its appeal among left-leaning students following the 1976 Thammasat massacre. Thai leftists rarely continue Phumisak’s investigation precisely because of the fearful atmosphere created by the monarchy-military triumph, which, in turn, reinforced the de-radicalization of the Thai left.3Kitirianglarp, Kengkij, 2014, “Khwammai lae thana khong Jit Phumisak: Rao cha chotcham khao yangrai” [The Meaning and Status of Jit Phumisak: How Should We Remember Him?], in Jit Phumisak: Khwamsongcham lae khon runmai [Jit Phumisak: Memory and New Generation], ed. Suthachai Yimprasert, Bangkok: Jit Phumisak Foundation, 118-26.

In the current protests, radical student groups from pro-establishment Chulalongkorn University, where Phumisak studied and was harassed by conservatives, have occasionally invoked his anti-royalist activism, revolutionary poems, and marching songs. Though The Real Face is a household read among left-leaning university students, rarely do the protestors pick up Phumisak’s critique of feudalism and link this farsighted critique to the current struggles. This essay aims to modestly fill this gap between theory and practice and set this conversation in motion.

Analysts have discussed the possibility of an ASEAN spring if Thai protests triggered a ripple effect on other ongoing Southeast Asian struggles against dictatorship and neoliberalism in the Philippines and Indonesia.

The Real Face’s translator, historian Craig Reynolds, argues that Phumisak has transformed the term sakdina from a description of monadic “positions in a socio-political hierarchy” in pre-modern Thailand into a whole “social system” resembling European feudalism.4Reynolds, Craig J., 1994 [1987], Thai Radical Discourse: The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 152. Reynolds also remarks that the term takes on a seditious and subversive meaning, denoting the “backward agrarian order,” “authoritarian rule,” and “exploitative relations of production.”5Ibid., 157. For those against the sakdina system – anti-monarchist, pro-democracy, and republican forces alike –sakdina is a decidedly pejorative term.6Winichakul, Thongchai, 2014, “The Monarchy and Anti-Monarchy: Two Elephants in the Room of Thai Politics and the State of Denial,” in “Good Coup” Gone Bad: Thailand’s Political Developments since Thaksin’s Downfall, ed. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 79-108.; Jory, Patrick, 2015, “Republicanism in Thai History,” in A Sarong for Clio: Essays on the Intellectual and Culture History of Thailand, ed. Maurizio Peleggi, Ithaca, N.Y.: Southeast Asia Program Publications, 97-118.

We need not concern ourselves here with the unresolved debates about what sakdina really means. We only need to utilize sakdina’s affordances as an analytical category made possible by Phumisak’s interpretation of the term. Following the CPT, Phumisak himself limits his analysis of sakdina to a production system based primarily on land as a means of production.7Reynolds, Thai Radical Discourse, 45-7. If sakdina were only about a land-based production system in 2020, the sakdina-ratsadon antinomy would not have such a powerful import among the protestors today.

The current Thai state’s composition is founded upon cooperation among several historically specific monarchist institutions. Note the difference here between the monarch – the king – and the monarchists, i.e. those who favor rule by kingship. The two primary monarchist institutions are the monarchy itself, which is not just one concentrated cluster but an expansive network, and the military.8Chitbandit, Chanida, 2007, Khrongkan annueang ma chak phraratchadamri kansathapana phraratcha-amnatnam nai phrabatsomdetphrachaoyuhua [The Royally Initiated Projects: The Making of King Bhumibol’s Royal Hegemony], Bangkok: Foundation for the Promotion of Social Sciences and Humanities Textbooks Project, Ch. 6.; Kumpha, Asa, 2019, “Khwam plianplaeng khong khruakhai chonchannam thai pho so 2495-2535” [Changes of the Thai Elite Network, 2495-2535 B.E.], Ph.D. Dissertation, Chiangmai University.

A recurrent observation throughout the protests has been that when the protestors address sakdina, they have in mind concrete referents. They specifically mean King Vajiralongkorn and current military prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha as personifications of the sakdina system. In this regard, political scientists Napisa Waitoolkiat and Paul Chambers aptly identify Thailand’s government since 2014 as a khakistocracy (military plus aristocracy).9Waitoolkiat, Napisa, and Chambers, Paul, 2017, “Arch-Royalist Rent: The Political Economy of the Military in Thailand,” in Khaki Capital: The Political Economy of the Military in Southeast Asia, eds. Waitoolkiat and Chambers, Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 40.

In a memorable scene from the recently-aired Australian SBS documentary “Thailand on the Brink,” cops stuffed Rung (introduced above) into a car, while her comrades displayed the three-finger salutes to protest and shouted in Thai, “Down with dictatorship (phadetkan), long live the people!” After three chants, protestors altered the wording slightly, replacing “dictatorship” with sakdina (22:03-22:18). The inextricable connection between dictatorship and sakdina makes this change in wording really resonate with protestors.

 

The Political Realm: Monarchy-Democracy

Phumisak considers struggles over land ownership between sakdina and other classes as a defining political feature of the sakdina system.10Reynolds, Thai Radical Discourse, 51-6. In Thailand, the sakdina system of rule corresponds to the monarchy. As we shall see, sakdina’s contemporary political struggles with ratsadon are over power to rule the nation, not just land ownership.11This essay brackets the important questions of capitalism and imperialism in relation to monarchy for other occasions. It does not determine both capitalism and imperialism to be the most relevant elements in the immediate situation.

The People’s Party’s 1932 democratic revolution formally overthrew feudalism and submitted the absolute monarch to the constitution. It turned the “constitutional” king into a mere figurehead. But history just does not progress in a linear way.

Works of critical-minded historians, especially those of Nattapoll Chaiching and Somsak Jeamteerasakul, demonstrate that the monarchists have struggled to re-establish and consolidate royal rule ever since.12Chaiching, Nattapoll, 2010, “The Monarchy and the Royalist Movement in Modern Thai Politics, 1932-1957,” in Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand, eds. Søren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 147-78.; Jeamteerasakul, Somsak, 2001, “Rao su: phleng phra ratchaniphon kan mueang kap kan mueang pi 2518-2519” [We Will Fight! The King’s Political Songs and Politics 1975-76], in Prawattisat thi phung sang: ruam botkhwam kiaokap karani 14 Tula lae 6 Tula [The History that Has Just Been Constructed: Collected Articles on 14th October and 6th October], Bangkok: Samnakphim 6 Tula Ramluek, 115-48. To realize their goals, the monarchists have cooperated with and were exploited by the US, Sino-Thai corporate elites, Buddhist monkhood, and their long-standing collaborator, the Thai military. The rebirth of the Thai monarchical-military coalition was a consequence of an anti-communist, conservative, and capitalist alliance forged during the Cold War.

King Bhumibol (r. 1950-2016), the father of King Vajiralongkorn, succeeded in forming a right-wing hegemony during the last two decades of his reign. This hegemonic power came from his ability to synthesize both monarchy and democracy into what Thongchai Winichakul calls a “royal democracy.”13Winichakul, Thongchai, 2016, Thailand’s Hyper-Royalism: Its Past Success and Present Predicament,  Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2. But as the 10-point demand points out, the king has always endorsed every military coup d’etat against the democratically elected government because both mutually benefit from a centralized authoritarian rule. It further contends, “such a situation constitutes an enemy to the principles of democracy with the king as head of state.”

King Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne during the military rule in 2016. Therefore he could bypass democracy and consolidate absolute monarchical authority right away, unlike his father. The latest attempts at absolutism involved erasing the public memories of the People’s Party and its democratic legacies. It is little wonder, then, that the protestors chose the People’s Party itself as their reincarnation. This symbolizes a return of the specter of democracy and constitutionalism.

The original People’s Party installed a plaque on the ground of the Equestrian Statue Square in Bangkok to commemorate its democratic manifesto’s declaration. This plaque mysteriously disappeared in 2017, following a disturbing trend of the state-led erasure the People’s Party’s legacies.

On the early morning of September 20, 2020, the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD) led the protestors to install a new “1932 Revolution Plaque 2.0” bearing a three-finger salute on the grounds of the public plaza adjacent to the royal palace. Before placing the new plaque, UFTD’s leader Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak began praying for the Khana Ratsadon members’ spirits, in his words, to “protect all of us here.”

Though The Real Face is a household read among left-leaning university students, rarely do the protestors pick up Phumisak’s critique of feudalism and link this farsighted critique to the current struggles. This essay aims to modestly fill this gap between theory and practice and set this conversation in motion.

The new plaque’s engraving reads in translation: “Thailand belongs to the people, not a property of the king, as [the monarchists] have deceived us.” This symbolic act declares the ratsadon’s challenge to sakdina and marks a grounded commitment to bringing the god-like king from the celestial to the terrestrial sphere. Police removed this plaque the next day, which in turn fueled the plaque’s serial and endless reappearance elsewhere as 3D printed replicas, T-shirts, and face masks.

Reportedly, this Penguin (Chiwarak’s nickname) asked a foreign correspondent a revealing rhetorical question: “If a dog in a nearby house annoys you because it keeps barking, would you go out and fight the dog and tell it to stop barking? Or would you go out and talk to the owner of the dog to make it stop barking?” This shows how one of the protest leaders understands the unequal relationship within the sakdina camp where the military government is subordinate to the king.

This protracted war between sakdina and ratsadon officially began in 1932 and has not yet been resolved. The protestors, at least parts of the coalition, explicitly identify with Khana Ratsadon and invoke its spirit. Both sides of this antinomy participate in the politics of ruling the nation. One favors the rule of the elitist few. Another aims to emancipate from that rule by the few towards collective self-rule.

 

The Economic Realm: Extraction-Regulation

The sakdina economy, Phumisak points out, feeds on tax monopolization and profit extraction from the land through rent and interest.14Reynolds, Thai Radical Discourse, 88-143. Thai political economists further locate the source of the crown’s wealth in shareholdings in major industrial companies (i.e., Siam Cement Group) and commercial banks (i.e., Siam Commercial Bank), real estate, and private donations.15Unchanam, Puangchon, 2020, Royal Capitalism: Wealth, Class, and Monarchy in Thailand, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 94-99. The tax-exempted Crown Property Bureau (est. 1937), a state enterprise that is not accountable to the parliament, manages all of the crown’s wealth. It functions similarly to a sovereign wealth fund. Perceptibly, the sakdina themselves are fully entangled in the circuits of industrial and finance capital.

However, the monarch’s chief source of wealth is tax money. This has been a perpetual target of the ongoing protests.16Ibid., 99-101. When the monarch-military couplet rules the state, the government allocates excessive state budgets to both institutions. To further control the crown’s wealth, King Vajiralongkorn transferred the Crown Property Bureau’s entire portfolio of an estimated $40bn. to himself in 2018.

On numerous occasions, the protestors yell, display, or graffiti the word “phasi gu,” meaning “my fucking taxes.” Protestors also frequently call for boycotting on anti-democratic, pro-establishment corporates. For example, during the plaque installation rally on September 20, youth leader Penguin called for a boycott of Siam Commercial Bank (SCB), “a money pot of feudalism” in which the monarch is the biggest shareholder. On November 25, two months later, an estimate of 15,000 protestors rallied outside of SCB headquarters in Bangkok to, in the organizers’ words, “reclaim assets that should belong to the people.”

As wealth can be converted into power, democratic regulation of sakdina’s finances stands as the protestors’ primary concern. The 10-point demand proposes to separate the king’s private assets from the state budget drawing from tax money, to reduce the state budget’s royal proportion, and to cease private donations to royal charity funds. These proposals aim at making the crown’s wealth auditable and accountable to ratsadon.

 

The Socio-Cultural Realm: Hierarchy-Equality

Hierarchy and discrimination based on social rank characterize sakdina society.17Reynolds, Thai Radical Discourse, 56-7. The closest analog to sakdina social stratification, then, may not be class relations, but rather the hierarchical structure of an endogamous caste system.

The sakdina and their collaborators are at the top of the hierarchy. They make sure that state apparatuses like schools and temples serve sakdina’s interests in creating a submissive ratsadon. The commoners constitute the base’s majority. The landless slaves occupy the lowest position in the hierarchy. Sakdina literature, manner, tradition, and ceremony serve as the hegemonic means for maintaining sakdina’s control.18Ibid., 57-61. Though literal slaves no longer exist in Thailand, slave-like conditions still prevail.

Sakdina’s social hierarchy reproduces itself through widening power differences between the sakdina ruling elites and the rest. Abounding evidence shows that Thai citizens internalize this sakdina social hierarchy. Thais consensually reproduce it by disciplining their bodies before royal presence and addressing the king via the lowest part of his body: the dust under his feet.

Not only does this hierarchy deepen social inequality, but it also sanctions a pernicious form of dehumanization: it reduces particularly political opponents to an animal or even to things. This has brutal consequences. Systemic dehumanization justifies the political opponents’ otherness and legitimizes their violent treatment. The Thai state vindicated its massacres of the left-leaning students in 1976 and the pro-democracy “red shirts” demonstrators in 2010 by misapprehending them as non-Thais or inhuman. The sakdina, on the other hand, enjoys the privileges of impunity.

When Rung declared the earth-shattering 10-point demand, she subverted this codified social hierarchy. She used the most equal pronouns available in the linguistic convention to refer to herself – a ratsadon – and the king – a sakdina. In a quest to restore their humanity and form a new self-ruling collective, the ratsadon protestors describe themselves as “human beings, not dust.”

Phumisak rightly argues that “women in sak[d]ina society were treated contemptuously and oppressed as human beings inferior to men.”19Ibid., 57. Women face double oppression from both the sakdina hierarchy and patriarchy. In her response to the New York Times, Rung said, “the monarchy and the military have all the power in Thailand, I shouldn’t be afraid to say that men have almost all the power in Thailand.”

In spite of this, young women have emerged at the forefront of the protests, assuming visible roles as active leaders and vocal participants. They bring to the forefront issues like rape culture, ableism, LGBTQ rights, sex work, abortion, taxes on menstrual products, and intrusive school rules based on a conservative account of gender.

The protestors relentlessly question the traditional hierarchical institutions that form the social basis of the sakdina system, ranging from families, schools, religions, police, business to the military and the monarchy.

Both sides of this antinomy participate in the politics of ruling the nation. One favors the rule of the elitist few. Another aims to emancipate from that rule by the few towards collective self-rule.

High school and college students march on the streets because they experience school as their first dictatorship. One 17-year old participant told a Reuters reporter that “[Schools] are trying to instill in us that we are only the little people in an authoritarian society.” Young progressive monks call for reform of the existing institution of monkhood, presently rife with corruption, misconduct, and abuses of power.

We are witnessing, in other words, nothing short of a radical demand in this current uprising: one insisting on the total restructuring of the social fabric toward greater equality, in tandem with – and not as a supplement to – overtly political demands.

 

The Ideological Realm: Hyper-royalism-∞

While Phumisak only mentions sakdina’s governing ideology in passing, Thai intellectual historian Thongchai Winichakul has proposed hyper-royalism as the “ideological condition” of the monarchy, or, in the terminology used here, the sakdina system.20Winichakul, Thailand’s Hyper-Royalism, 3.

Hyper-royalism denotes an exaggerated glorification of the monarchy and its excessive permeation in everyday life. Winichakul describes it as a “spell” that forms a “community of believers” akin to religion.21Ibid., 19. Hyper-royalism was cemented as the royal hegemony grew and reached its peak in late King Bhumibol’s reign.

Among its most significant products is the royal-nationalist historical narrative, which centers solely on the monarch’s success in saving Thailand from the enemies and leading the nation to prosperity.22Winichakul, Thongchai, 2011, “Siam’s Colonial Condition and the Birth of Thai History,” in Unraveling Myths in Southeast Asian Historiography, ed. Volker Grabowsky, Bangkok: Rivers Books, 23-45. This Thailand is the king’s nation where ratsadon are reduced to disposable bodies and mere decorations to the king’s splendid deeds. The royal-nationalist narrative, Winichakul asserts, “remains the bedrock of Thai historical consciousness.”23Winichakul, Thailand’s Hyper-Royalism, 14. This explains why many Thai royalists – whom this essay designates with the epithet “proud roys” – justify their counter-protests as “defending” the king’s nation and call the protestors “nation-haters” (chang chat).

The possibilities of countering the hard-wired ideological condition of the sakdina – hyper-royalism – are open, plural, and infinite. Hence, the infinity sign. If the protestors were to be consistent with their way of thinking, this alternative should replace the king’s nation with the people’s nation.

Hyper-royalism works in tandem with the other three aspects of the sakdina system. It strengthens the monarchy, sanctions excessive royal spending, and reinforces the existing social hierarchy. I would even go so far as to say that the sakdina system is the foundational source of oppression and inequality in Thailand. Because of this, the largest coalition of ratsadon shall abolish the conditions that make the sakdina system possible.

As the protestors make clear in their demands, they want a functional and robust constitutional democracy – an arrangement in which the monarch stands among many political participants. The constitutional and the democratic in constitutional democracy must live up to their normative promises. The constitution shall rule over the monarchy and military, or the sakdina. The military does not topple the democratically elected government; the king does not endorse coups. The demos or ratsadon shall rule themselves and collectively determine the nation’s better future.

There are undoubtedly many conflicting opinions about Thailand’s future should some of the current protests’ demands come to be actualized. Yet, it is only when ratsadon can self-govern and further determine common problems that the contours of an alternative future beyond the sakdina’s nation might take specific shape.

Rung admitted in one of the interviews that “I don’t know how far this is going to go – how many years – but [in] the end, this movement will succeed.” This struggle is indeed a long one dating back to at least 1932. Still, many protestors, in our personal correspondences, continue to share an unwavering optimism that “time is on our side.” The clock of the old regime is ticking.

In an interview with the Thai Associated Press, a seasoned female protest organizer, Chonticha “Lukkate” Changrew, evaluated – rightly, in my opinion – the long-lasting impact of the current Thai protests as follows:

Our movement has changed the perception of Thais toward the monarchy and military. If we cannot win this time, we still have planted the seed of criticism of the ruling elite and monarchy in the people’s minds.

A contemporary reincarnation of the People’s Party means carrying its unfinished democratization project to completion. Now that the disobedient Thai collectivity has been born, we have no other options but to end the condition of our oppression in our generation. |||

  1. The author thanks Thongchai Winichakul, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, and Michael Montesano for their advice in improving this essay. Nalin Sindhuprama and Kelvin Ng have also been critical interlocutors. The Association of Thai Democracy (ATD)’s anti-sakdina activities across the US have nourished my spirit while writing this essay miles away from Thailand. The essay benefits from Ellie Tse and Zachary Levenson’s editorial finesse. They are not responsible for this essay’s interpretations and mistakes.
  2. Jeamteerasakul, Somsak, 1991, “The Communist Movement in Thailand,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Monash University, 32-4.
  3. Kitirianglarp, Kengkij, 2014, “Khwammai lae thana khong Jit Phumisak: Rao cha chotcham khao yangrai” [The Meaning and Status of Jit Phumisak: How Should We Remember Him?], in Jit Phumisak: Khwamsongcham lae khon runmai [Jit Phumisak: Memory and New Generation], ed. Suthachai Yimprasert, Bangkok: Jit Phumisak Foundation, 118-26.
  4. Reynolds, Craig J., 1994 [1987], Thai Radical Discourse: The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 152.
  5. Ibid., 157.
  6. Winichakul, Thongchai, 2014, “The Monarchy and Anti-Monarchy: Two Elephants in the Room of Thai Politics and the State of Denial,” in “Good Coup” Gone Bad: Thailand’s Political Developments since Thaksin’s Downfall, ed. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 79-108.; Jory, Patrick, 2015, “Republicanism in Thai History,” in A Sarong for Clio: Essays on the Intellectual and Culture History of Thailand, ed. Maurizio Peleggi, Ithaca, N.Y.: Southeast Asia Program Publications, 97-118.
  7. Reynolds, Thai Radical Discourse, 45-7.
  8. Chitbandit, Chanida, 2007, Khrongkan annueang ma chak phraratchadamri kansathapana phraratcha-amnatnam nai phrabatsomdetphrachaoyuhua [The Royally Initiated Projects: The Making of King Bhumibol’s Royal Hegemony], Bangkok: Foundation for the Promotion of Social Sciences and Humanities Textbooks Project, Ch. 6.; Kumpha, Asa, 2019, “Khwam plianplaeng khong khruakhai chonchannam thai pho so 2495-2535” [Changes of the Thai Elite Network, 1952-1992], Ph.D. Dissertation, Chiangmai University.
  9. Waitoolkiat, Napisa, and Chambers, Paul, 2017, “Arch-Royalist Rent: The Political Economy of the Military in Thailand,” in Khaki Capital: The Political Economy of the Military in Southeast Asia, eds. Waitoolkiat and Chambers, Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 40.
  10. Reynolds, Thai Radical Discourse, 51-6.
  11. This essay brackets the important questions of capitalism and imperialism in relation to monarchy for other occasions. It does not determine both capitalism and imperialism to be the most relevant elements in the immediate situation.
  12. Chaiching, Nattapoll, 2010, “The Monarchy and the Royalist Movement in Modern Thai Politics, 1932-1957,” in Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand, eds. Søren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 147-78.; Jeamteerasakul, Somsak, 2001, “Rao su: phleng phra ratchaniphon kan mueang kap kan mueang pi 2518-2519” [We Will Fight! The King’s Political Songs and Politics 1975-76], in Prawattisat thi phung sang: ruam botkhwam kiaokap karani 14 Tula lae 6 Tula [The History that Has Just Been Constructed: Collected Articles on 14th October and 6th October], Bangkok: Samnakphim 6 Tula Ramluek, 115-48.
  13. Winichakul, Thongchai, 2016, Thailand’s Hyper-Royalism: Its Past Success and Present Predicament,  Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2.
  14. Reynolds, Thai Radical Discourse, 88-143.
  15. Unchanam, Puangchon, 2020, Royal Capitalism: Wealth, Class, and Monarchy in Thailand, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 94-99.
  16. Ibid., 99-101.
  17. Reynolds, Thai Radical Discourse, 56-7.
  18. Ibid., 57-61.
  19. Ibid., 57.
  20. Winichakul, Thailand’s Hyper-Royalism, 3.
  21. Ibid., 19.
  22. Winichakul, Thongchai, 2011, “Siam’s Colonial Condition and the Birth of Thai History,” in Unraveling Myths in Southeast Asian Historiography, ed. Volker Grabowsky, Bangkok: Rivers Books, 23-45.
  23. Winichakul, Thailand’s Hyper-Royalism, 14.
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