Decoder

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How Thai Activists Troll the Monarchy

Protesters have adopted humor and wit to critique the country’s politics.

By , a Thai political commentator who writes about women, religion, and political change in Southeast Asia.
An illustration of the Thai word kuan teen
An illustration of the Thai word kuan teen
TA KASITIPRADIT ILLUSTRATION FOR FOREIGN POLICY

From early 2020 to late 2021, Thailand experienced near-daily protests triggered by the disbanding of the Future Forward Party, which was seen by Thai progressives and young people as a force for democratic reform. Thousands of people took to the streets to protest the military government brought to power in a 2014 coup. But activists soon turned their critique on the monarchy and the laws that shield the royal family from criticism.

As the protesters’ agenda expanded, so did their iconography and lexicon. They dressed up as Minions from the movie Despicable Me to mimic the yellow shirts worn by royalists and pro-military activists or paraded around in Tyrannosaurus rex costumes to represent Thailand’s “dinosaur-age” establishment. Many protests were characterized by a tongue-in-cheek brand of humor that Thais call kuan teen—literally, “causing an itch to one’s foot.” Kuan teen is associated with annoying or bothersome behavior, often in a way the offending party finds funny. The phrase is considered vulgar, but kuan teen requires wit and sophistication.

Thailand is a parliamentary democracy, but the military has effectively controlled the legislature through the 2017 junta-drafted constitution. Meanwhile, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the throne in 2016, has consolidated power under the crown. In an extraordinary move in 2017, the junta-controlled legislature transferred control of the Crown Property Bureau—an agency responsible for managing an estimated $40 billion in assets—from the Finance Ministry to the king himself. Then, in 2019, the king brought two army units under the direct command of the palace. Such changes were barely reported in local press at the time—let alone critiqued—due to lèse-majesté laws.

From early 2020 to late 2021, Thailand experienced near-daily protests triggered by the disbanding of the Future Forward Party, which was seen by Thai progressives and young people as a force for democratic reform. Thousands of people took to the streets to protest the military government brought to power in a 2014 coup. But activists soon turned their critique on the monarchy and the laws that shield the royal family from criticism.

As the protesters’ agenda expanded, so did their iconography and lexicon. They dressed up as Minions from the movie Despicable Me to mimic the yellow shirts worn by royalists and pro-military activists or paraded around in Tyrannosaurus rex costumes to represent Thailand’s “dinosaur-age” establishment. Many protests were characterized by a tongue-in-cheek brand of humor that Thais call kuan teen—literally, “causing an itch to one’s foot.” Kuan teen is associated with annoying or bothersome behavior, often in a way the offending party finds funny. The phrase is considered vulgar, but kuan teen requires wit and sophistication.

Thailand is a parliamentary democracy, but the military has effectively controlled the legislature through the 2017 junta-drafted constitution. Meanwhile, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the throne in 2016, has consolidated power under the crown. In an extraordinary move in 2017, the junta-controlled legislature transferred control of the Crown Property Bureau—an agency responsible for managing an estimated $40 billion in assets—from the Finance Ministry to the king himself. Then, in 2019, the king brought two army units under the direct command of the palace. Such changes were barely reported in local press at the time—let alone critiqued—due to lèse-majesté laws.

But as dissent entered the mainstream, protesters grew creative in how they approached these topics. “Kuan teen exists in Thai politics because we are not able to communicate directly, even though we all know what we are talking about,” said Attapon Buapat, nicknamed Kru Yai, a prominent pro-democracy activist and satirist. Attapon rose to fame with his own kuan teen skits at public rallies, featuring cobras, Deksomboon soy sauce, and Red Bull bottles—items instantly recognizable in Thailand as parodies of backstabbing politicians, military bosses, and tycoons, respectively. “I don’t have to explain anything,” Attapon said. “Thais immediately understand.”

There is power inherent in the activists’ humor and satire.

The funnier the skit, the more Thailand’s establishment perceives it as a threat. One notable example was the People’s Catwalk fashion show in October 2020, when activists walked down a red carpet in Bangkok’s gay district, satirizing Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana’s fashion show that took place down the road the same night. The protest modeled itself after a drag show, which was no coincidence: Kuan teen is a highly camp affair. Since then, dozens of activists connected to the fashion show—some as young as 16 years old—have been charged with lèse-majesté, or insulting the monarchy, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison. 

The prominence of young people gives kuan teen politics an edge. Thai society is intensely hierarchical, a fact reflected in the language, which embeds age into its forms of address. Anthropologist Moodjalin Sudcharoen points out that the act of young people challenging their elders—phu yai, or “big people”—can be subversive. This defiance is heightened by the online generation’s wit. For example, a student group announced a “big surprise” in October 2020, leading to a mass police presence and barricades across Bangkok in anticipation of a crowded demonstration, only for officers to find that the surprise was that activists had ditched the protests.

However, the fun of kuan teen barely conceals the deep resentment young people feel toward Thailand’s political establishment. Most university-age students in Thailand have seen nearly as many military coups as validated political elections in their lifetimes. Students oppose what they see as authoritarianism trickling down to secondary schools, including strict government rules around haircuts and uniforms. “Political power in Thailand is nonsensical. So we can only be kuan teen in response,” said activist Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, known by the nickname Pai Dao Din. “Kuan teen is a form of treason, not giving in to power that has no logic.”

There is power inherent in the activists’ humor and satire: It makes sacred institutions seem extremely human. “The military and the monarchy, definitely the most powerful institutions in Thailand, want to present themselves as serious institutions,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a self-exiled academic and critic of the monarchy who lives in Japan and runs the “Royalist Marketplace” Facebook group, which encourages discussion about the monarchy among its 1 million members. “You can criticize them for being corrupt or power-hungry. But if you treat them like a joke, this is another level.”

Another protest that struck a nerve, in August 2020, involved protesters dressing up in Harry Potter costumes to expel “He Who Must Not Be Named.” Nearly one year later, protest leader Arnon Nampa was indicted in connection with the protest. (He was released on bail this February.) Other protesters have been charged for similar kuan teen activity: wearing crop tops in an apparent parody of the king or posting messages to the Royalist Marketplace group.

For now, mounting lèse-majesté arrests and court cases have dampened the revolutionary fervor. Street protests ground to a halt at the end of last year amid a renewed climate of fear. Between November 2020 and June 2022, at least 208 people were prosecuted for lèse-majesté charges in Thailand—the most ever recorded in a two-year period. One protester was convicted on 29 counts of lèse-majesté and was handed an 87-year prison sentence. At least 280 minors involved in the protests have been prosecuted for all manner of crimes since the demonstrations began, from breaching COVID-19 restrictions to violating the controversially broad Computer Crime Act. 

Meanwhile, Thais seem to be seeking electoral solutions. In Bangkok’s crowded gubernational election this May, independent candidate Chadchart Sittipunt—a former transport minister—won some 52 percent of all votes. The success of Chadchart’s pragmatic reformist platform in a historically pro-establishment district may be a bellwether for broader change. Chadchart mentioned the coup in his victory speech, recalling his experience of being temporarily detained by the military as he and the rest of the government were ushered out of power in 2014. National elections are rumored to be taking place in early 2023, although the exact date is unconfirmed.

Attapon readily admits that the protests did not change the government. “But kuan teen has fundamentally shaped talking points in Thailand, in just two years,” he said. In his view, the scope of political conversation has widened to include LGBTQ issues, education, and even hair. In May, the personal care brand Dove launched an ad campaign critiquing haircut rules in Thai schools—the subject of various rallies—in a sign that some dissenting anti-establishment views have gone mainstream. And while direct critique of the monarchy has gone back underground, many Thais no longer choose to stand up for the national anthem in movie theaters, an act that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

As a uniquely engaged generation comes into its own over the next decade, the fierce, irreverent spirit of kuan teen will be channeled in increasingly influential ways, with the potential to break Thailand’s cycle of coup and crisis.

Jasmine Chia is a Thai political commentator. She writes about women, religion, and political change in Southeast Asia. Twitter: @chia_jasmine

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