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Never the same again

Aunty Tong doesn’t wear a red shirt. She’s just an ordinary person. I’m not sure
whether she finished primary school or not. Her job is “housewife”, which doesn’t
translate as “wife” because her husband died long ago. In the dramas on TV after the
news, such a housewife is called a “servant.” Never mind what she is. I know only that
she lives in the same village as me. One day, when she came to buy pork from my house,
I tried to find out how she feels about the demonstrations by the red shirts, and the
disorder that happened over Songkran (Thai New Year) while we were tied up with
making curry to take to the temple.
“Those people are demonstrating to drive the government out. How do you feel
about that, Aunty Thong?”
“Mm. Politics are a terrible mess. If I were the government, I’d resign. Just
knowing that the people hadn’t elected them to be the government, how can they still be
so thick-skinned, huh? If parliament is dissolved and a new election held and the
Democrat Party wins, I wouldn’t say a word. I’d accept the people’s verdict. But I don’t
understand how this government suddenly appeared. So isn’t it right that the people want
to drive them out?” Aunty Thong rambled on in keeping with her nickname “Aunty
Thong the big-mouth,” meaning she speaks big to show off.
I must say I was dumbstruck by Aunty Thong’s answer. She doesn’t have much
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education, doesn’t read the newspapers. She watches the news, and follows Pancake in
the soaps like ordinary people throughout Thailand. She doesn’t use words like
“democracy” but she explains it very clearly indeed.
Her memory is not short like many other people. She remembers that in the last
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election, following the coup government, the majority party was the People Power Party
(PPP) led by Samak Sundaravej, who became prime minister. She cannot understand the
events that followed. Why was the prime minister leading the party with a majority of
votes booted off the Thai political stage in a short time? How could the People’s Alliance
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for Democracy (PAD) demonstrate for as long as several months without anyone daring
to do anything? How come they could go to dance and sing in Government House for
ages, and even hold a rowdy marriage party there? How come tear gas could make people
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lose an arm or leg, and then doctors came out to explain it was tear gas from China?
Aunty Thong probably follows the popular saying, if you know Chinese goods are no
good, why did you buy them in the first place?

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Nickname of Khemanit Jamikorn, the most popular starlet in TV soap operas at the time.
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December 2007.
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A coalition of activist groups, formed in February 2006, with the primary aim of driving Thaksin
Shinawatra and his followers from power.
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On 7 October 2008, police dispersed a PAD demonstration aimed at preventing a new government
holding a parliamentary debate on its policy platform—a statutory requirement before assuming office. One
person was killed and several others injured, allegedly by Chinese-made tear-gas shells fired by the police.
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She’s still more perplexed how the PAD could seize an airport for several days,
causing people such inconvenience and damaging the economy, yet “prominent” people
in the society praised them as saviors of the nation, saviors of democracy. Big, important
people attended the cremation of one of the PAD protesters. None of the leaders of the
protest were arrested or charged. She’s even more infuriated that someone who covertly
supported the PAD could become a minister, and not of some petty ministry, but the
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foreign ministry itself.
Aunty Thong doesn’t read the newspapers and doesn’t know this government has
been nicknamed “a gift of the gods”. She simply doesn’t comprehend why the votes of
the people have not been respected. She doesn’t understand what or who is meant by “the
unseen hand.” She only understands in her own way that we had an election and should
accept its result, even if we don’t like it. End of story.
I’m stunned by Aunty Thong’s answers because they show clearly that Thai society
now is unlike the past, and will never be so again. There has never been a time in Thai
history that ordinary people like Aunty Thong understood the meaning of marking a cross
on the ballot paper to make their vote---even while the press, the middle class, and the
educated who think they are superior to the common people keep on calling those who
join the red shirt demonstrations misguided people and followers of Thaksin who sell
their votes and are unaware of the trickiness of politicians.
Some newspapers go even further by calling the red-shirt demonstrators the “red
tails” or the “red monthly”, reflecting and revealing the maturity and taste of that
newspaper very well. The group of academics who are addicted to this publication must
have lost all sense of right and wrong.
Many people are talking of double standards, the difference between the well-
connected mob and the unconnected mob. Many people have said that the redshirt mob
were responsible for the violence, including burning buses, threatening to explode a gas
truck, fighting battles here and there with various groups, and instigating the tension that
arose over the past 12-15 April. But I’d like to briefly review what happened just a little
before this disorder and before the gladiatorial contests between red, yellow and blue.
Can it be denied that, had there been no 2006 coup, there would be no war of
colors today? Whoever was behind the coup should realize that Thailand today is not like
the Thailand of 1957. Thai farmers and workers are not dumb, stupid citizens like the
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characters in the short story, “The gold-legged frog,” by Lao Khamhom. Ordinary
people no longer rush to bow and scrape when they see a district officer. We no longer
live in an age when legs shake in fear of the officials when we enter a district office. We

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PAD occupied both Bangkok airports from 25 November to 2 December 2008.
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A reference to Kasit Pirmomya.
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Pen name of Khamsing Srinawk (1930-). While a poor farmer is hunting frogs in a paddy field, his young
son is bitten by a cobra. Back in the village, the headman urges him to go to town to collect a government
handout for poor families with five children. He has just five. He is reluctant to leave his son, but others
persuade him. In town, the officials make him wait and harass him to show off their power. By the time he
returns, the son has died. A fellow villager calls him lucky to have got the money because tomorrow would
have been too late.
no longer live in an age when bureaucrats are called “lord and boss”. We live in an age
when the Chairman of the Subdistrict Municipality is the son of Uncle Sithon whose
paddyfields are alongside ours and who joins with us every year to carry out the spirit
ceremonies. And the Chairman of the Subdistrict Administrative Organization is the son
or grandson of someone in the village. We live in an age when nobody gets excited about
going to pay respects to the Provincial Governor on Songkran because nowadays, I’m
sorry, we hardly know his name, because the post has lost its meaning since the
decentralization of power to local bodies has more and more become a reality.
The term “government office” which once had the power to make people cringe
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and sometimes even take off their shoes, now has no more meaning than a spirit house.
Over the past 50 years, Thai people have changed a lot. Communication technology,
community radio, the NGOs’ work for the people’s sector over a long period, have
certainly played an important part in changing the consciousness of grassroots people
who before never thought of themselves as “the people” with rights and votes and the
power to determine their own fate through what is called government policy. People have
learnt that if they are not satisfied with government decisions, they can object, protest,
make alliances with other groups in a united front, and make public facts and news that
are different from the facts and publicity of the government.
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Thai society has people like Granny Hai, the Assembly of the Poor, active labor
federations, powerful consumer protection groups, patients who sue doctors (50 years ago
doctors were still seen as gods who spoke a divine language that ordinary people could
not understand), and NGO groups which demand the rights and dignity of the Thai
people. The state, or government agencies, have never “read” this change. People now
claim human rights and dignity equal with others, whether they are people living with
AIDS, sex service workers, gays and lesbians, slum dwellers, the homeless, male sex
service workers, and so on.
Just think. Thai society has come a long way, to the point even prostitutes and gays
come out as activists, and join meetings with feminists, academics, and counterparts from
all over the world to demand the dignity of their profession. Who in the world could have
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imagined that someone would simply make a coup, just like in the Sarit era? And who
would have thought they would exercise power exactly the same way that Sarit did in that
time? Even worse, in this age of deconstruction and irony, who could credit that they
would make publicity about supernatural powers and miracles in an attempt to make the
people submit to their authority. These efforts were not just unbelievable or even
hilariously laughable, but shooting themselves in the foot.

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A shrine erected to house the spirits of the place when a new building is constructed. These days, once
built they are generally neglected and ignored.
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Hai Khanjanta, a peasant woman from Ubon Ratchathai province, who fought against state agencies for
three decades for compensation for a plot of land of land submerged by a government scheme.
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A mainly rural activist coalition, founded in 1992, which campaigned largely on issues of land rights
and dam schemes.
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General Sarit Thanarat took power by coup in 1957, and died in 1963.
We are in an age when technology is just click, click, click. Any Mr A or Ms B has
a handphone that can take photos. If government media show one picture, people can
immediately publicize another picture with an opposite, belief-changing meaning. So the
monopoly of news and information is just a wet dream of the government. The Ministry
of Information and Communications Technology may rush to close down a website here
and website there every day, but next day other sites appear. The more sites that are
closed or blocked, the more people find new ways around. New language, words, and
symbols give government no chance of being able to close people’s eyes and ears the
whole year round. The more they close, the more people find smart workarounds, and the
more language is developed with complexity and concealed meanings that leave the
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government blinking. Common words like “overwhelmed” acquire hidden, hilarious
meanings with power to turn the world upside down.
Even though they shake their own heads loose in racing to close down community
radio stations, they have no hope of monopolizing news and information, and keeping
people trussed up in locks and chains as they desire, because the more they close down,
the more are opened up in their place.
This is the background to the anti-coup movement. At first it worked discreetly,
with no demonstrations, no violence, only publicizing information to arouse people as far
as was possible. Meanwhile ordinary people like Aunty Thong believed that when power
was returned to the people by election, everything would return to normal again. But not
so. The judiciary was used to remove the Thai Rak Thai Party from the scene. After an
election was held and the PPP installed in government by the people, extra-legal methods
were used through the agency of the yellow-shirted PAD in an attempt to drive the
government out.
By today, I should have no need to be roundabout. Even secondary students know
this is not people’s politics, but exploitation of people’s politics in the biggest, most
corrupt, most thick-skinned, and most dishonest way in Thai political history. The
discourse of Thai-style democracy, and the misconstruction of evil politicians who seek
election in order to lay their dirty hands on the loot, are broadcast over and over again,
along with the idea of an ideal ruler, free of any conflict of interests, transparent politics,
good governance, morality, ethics, the qualities of being a “good person”, and even the
game of competing to show the most loyalty.
The idea of “democracy” has not been as important as the need to “kill off”
Thaksin from the world of Thai politics. If there’s no democracy, it doesn’t matter. Just
get rid of Thaksin first. The wrongs and illegitimacies of Thaksin and his group have not
been properly investigated and adjudicated, and yet they are simplified and used to arouse
hatred. All the problems of the country are attributed to one man named Thaksin, as if,
were he not to exist, a pure and wonderful Thailand would instantly appear in all its
glittering splendor.
When a government voted in by the people was kicked out in thick-skinned fashion,
and another party was thick-skinned enough to replace it as the government, and Khun
Abhisit was thick-skinned enough to be prime minister amid question marks from the
whole world (I’m so embarrassed for him), then people were unable to remain still. Thus

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Guying a conventional phrase, “being overwhelmed by royal benevolence,” an emoticon of “Mr
Overwhelmed” was invented on a Thai web board.
the red-shirts came out to demonstrate for legitimacy, justice, and the meaning of
democracy---the very opposite of the PAD’s campaign to drive out a government that had
been formed through the democratic process!
This is a signal to the Thai ruling class that Thai politics are not the same as they
were. The “Thai people” have changed. Their political consciousness has developed a
great deal over the past 20 years. The ruling class may no longer be able to manipulate,
direct, and lead them by the nose with fine words and handsome faces and sweet smiles
and so many different rituals and ceremonies as they once could. Not any more.
The Thai people have changed. The Thai ruling class alone does not know that, and
keeps fooling itself that everything is still the same as before, and will be for evermore.

Translated by Chris Baker