A square-jawed trickster who dominates or appears hidden in the background of almost every cartoon strip evokes a former Thai prime minister assigned blame for every problem in Thailand. He is the smirking foil of the uniformed general, with the unique ability to turn his beaming delight into squinting rage.
They’re the leads of “Kai Maew” (Cat’s Egg), a dark online comic featuring caricatures satirizing Thai politics and current events, from student reformer Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal and fugitive Red Bull heir Vorayuth Yoovidhya to figures familiar only to news junkies.
Without any speech balloons, it aptly reflects things rarely depicted and discussed openly. Its edgy humor has won it more than 330,000 fans in its first year.
The author agreed to be interviewed so readers could know more about the background of the page, his views on freedom of expression and whether Thaksin Shinawatra pays him to draw. He would only do so anonymously over chat messages, because he said going public might affect his ability to continue drawing.
“Agencies contact me to draw promotional stuff on the page every week, but I don’t accept any of it because ‘Jack Maew’ pays me monthly, so I’m already rich (do you believe me?)” wrote the author, who we will call Kai Maew.
He said he’s a 30-something Thai man and though some of his friends know he’s behind the popular page, he chooses to remain anonymous so he can continue drawing them.
“I draw them because I love drawing, and I’m happy when people see my drawings,” he said.
Although fans believe the title “Kai Maew” is a play on “Thaksin’s testicles” – a derogatory term used by Thaksin foes to describe his supporters – the author gave an anodyne explanation about his love for cats.
Despite the specificity of situations and events his cartoons address, he is reticent to address what it means or even who the characters represent. Asked why, he said he doesn’t want to get sued.
To readers however there is little nuance.
Jack of course is the square-faced, blue-suited businessman. He’s the troublemaker who’s always smirking from somewhere in the frame. Readers sometimes have to search each image for Jack. He may appear prominently to smirk about the “guns” the General has presented to the media or subtly take the form of a mind-reading alien to look into the General’s heart.
The admin admitted the character’s name comes from the Chinese businessman with a similarly shaped head – Jack Ma – and Thaksin Shinawatra’s unofficial nickname “Maew.”
“People often think Jack Maew is behind everything, so I draw him in every photo to end the story quickly,” he wrote.
There’s also regulars such as Hawaiian-shirt and submarine-loving junta deputy Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan. Gov. Spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd is a pinocchio-chicken created by the General to tell whopping lies.
Instead of writing rants on Facebook, Kai Maew said he releases his frustrations about society and politics through his satirical drawings. With good feedback from friends, he decided to launch Kai Maew in April 2016.
Most of the author’s inspiration comes from current news and movies and he said it takes less than an hour to draw each image using mobile phone app ArtStudio.
Apart from characters, the cartoon is also open for interpretation, as there’s no dialogue or description. That engages many readers to participate by sharing their own explanations for what is happening, similar to fans of Spanish cartoonist Joan Cornella.
“I’d like readers to imagine the conversation on their own, which must be more fun,” Kai Maew said. “And well, part of it is I’m afraid that I’ll get into trouble.”
As the government has moved to limit access to information online and has arrested those who satirize it, Kai Maew admitted he sometimes self-censors.
“Of course, I’m scared. But it’s not right that our access to information is limited like this. Are we going to live like this?” he said. “There are many dangerous issues that I wish to draw, but I gave up the idea, as I’m afraid those who share my drawing will be in trouble.”
During the year since he began drawing Kai Maew, he said society has changed a lot.
“More and more people now see the light,” he said. “They might be frustrated too with what’s going on, and that’s why they gather at my page.”
For him, art conveys more than aesthetics but also insights into society.
“If truths that are scarcely discussed are portrayed artistically to make people realize what’s right and wrong, I think this art form has realized its function,” he said.
Here are some recent selections, find more at Kai Maew on Facebook.