Opinion: Thai Federation and the Limits of Free Expression

Black T-shirts with red-and-white emblem reportedly purchased by two women taken into custody. Image: Thai Lawyer for Human Rights.
Black T-shirts with red-and-white emblem reportedly purchased by two women taken into custody. Image: Thai Lawyer for Human Rights.

Re•tention: Pravit RojanaphrukThe crackdown on alleged Thai Federation supporters during the past week can claim one immediate success: raising the fringe group to public attention.

Ironically the move helped promote what was an underground group to many Thais who had never seen its flag or heard about the group until they saw photos online and in the media.

The arrests and detention of people for merely possessing or selling T-shirts bearing the obscure white and red insignia of the federation could be seen as a disproportionate response.

A 30-year-old mother of two by the name of Wannapha was detained seven days on a military base under the junta’s authority before being turned over to Crime Suppression Division police for possessing some of the shirts. She was granted bail Wednesday on a 200,000 baht bond after being charged with sedition. Rights lawyer Sorawut Wongsaranon says three others have also been arrested.

Read: ‘Republican Shirt’ Suspect Handed Over to Police

The Organization for a Thai Federation’s goal is believed to be secession of the northeast of Thailand for creation of a federal republic.

Part of a statement it posted on social media in retaliation to the arrests stated that: “Ultimately, the people of the Thai Federation do not have fear or waver in the face of the assault by evil soldiers who arrest those who possess the black T-shirts with the red and white flag.”

The military regime now wants to hunt down the leader, who writes under the nom de plume of “Uncle Sanam Luang” and is believed hiding somewhere in Laos.

We can debate whether the arrests are a gross overreaction on part of the military regime – there’s no credible intelligence they constitute a credible threat to the kingdom – but it can’t be denied that the move has succeeded in making the movement much more widely known.

Indeed, current and past constitutions refer to Thailand as an “indivisible kingdom” and there exists a legal basis to charge and try anyone expressing their wish to effectively balkanize Thailand.

But it’s not so much the ever-malleable laws that make such an idea unfathomable to many Thais, however. We have to also consider the deeply entrenched and dominant royalist ideology Thais have been taught from early childhood, both at home and school.

This deep ideology is what makes the issue so taboo for many. It’s interesting to note that even a number of major mainstream Thai-language newspapers chose not to report about the ongoing crackdown that featured prominently in English-language Thai publications. Is this also a form of self-censorship stemming from a feeling of unease about the issue and denial that there may be Thais who want see the nation a republic?

It is not just Thailand that is trapped in this deep ideological cage. In countries such as Malaysia, the cage is an illiberal interpretation of Islam that makes public displays of same-sex love a crime, as seen in last month’s sentencing of two women to six lashes of the cane by a Shariah High Court in Terengganu. In Malaysia, oral and anal sex are against the law of nature and civil law stipulates a prison term up to 20 years, along with caning and fines, for violators.

In Myanmar, the deep ideology is ethnic nationalism which seeks to bind frays in the national fabric by otherizing the Rohingya as the enemy.

Such beliefs are often unconscious, seemingly natural and insidious. They lock down what expression or acts can be permitted or considered acceptable. Like language, which is situated in cultural and historical contexts and shapes our perceptions and expression, ideology and religion cage us as well. Social hierarchy is built into the Thai language, for example, much more so than English. This makes Thai speakers more conscious of it when conversing in Thai.

On the Rohingya issue, Thai activists supporting democracy in Myanmar have repeatedly told me they were disappointed by many of the students crushed in the 1988 uprising, who have become prominent figures but now take anti-human rights stances when it comes to the Rohingya people due to their deeply entrenched ethno-nationalism.

Back in Thailand, people have been brought up and taught to love and revere the monarchy on a constant diet of positive-only information, to the point where these republican wannabes seem ungrateful and evil. It naturally leads not only to censorship and self-censorship, but vilifying those who hold different ideas about what Thailand ought to be.