Can We Talk?

By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer

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‘Shut up!” a Thai man shouted at the American moderator of a talk at Yale given by exiled-and-roving Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun earlier this month.

That’s a perfect way to stop a conversation and ensure that there will be neither learning nor dialogue.

The man who shouted at Pavin was apparently very upset at Pavin’s talk on neo-royalism and Thailand’s royal family.

\According to a transcript posted on Australia’s New Mandala website by James Giggacher, the unidentified Thai man, who claimed to have links to Yale’s Medical School, also pointed a finger at an organizer who approached to stop him from interrupting Pavin’s talk and shouted: “Get out of my face! Get out! Get out!”

As for Pavin, his identity was also questioned by the man in a way that’s become all-too familiar here in Thailand.

“How could you be Thai? Okay? You are not Thai!”

Thousands of kilometers away from Thailand, some Thais maintained their acute inability to engage in a civilized conversation with those whom they disagree with politically.

Hate speech, vitriol and the demonization of “the other” has plagued Thailand for a decade now and shows no sign of subsiding.

But the ultra-royalist zealot above is not alone. Many Redshirts or so-called liberals and progressives routinely block and unfriend those who exhibit strong opposing views on social media.

Many inhabit their own little “purified” political worlds in which those who disagree must be gullible, dumb, outright evil, or all combined.

“Somebody bought you! How much did you get paid from Thaksin [Shinawatra] anyway?  How much did you get paid? 50 million baht?” the man back in New Haven demanded Pavin answer, referring the ousted and fugitive former premier.

A few years ago, I experienced a similar incident when I was invited to speak at an event where panelists began criticizing Thaksin before a largely pro-Thaksin, Redshirt crowd.

One Redshirt scribbled a note to the speaker, essentially telling her to shut up.

Brawls and even murder at drinking holes between friends with differing political stances is not unheard of.

In one incident, Thai Post newspaper reported on June 22, 2012, that a Yellowshirt man killed his drinking pal, a Redshirt supporter, after hours of drinking and arguing over Thailand’s color-coded politics. The murderer, who used a knife to stab his mate to death, confessed to the police after being arrested, claiming he was insulted as a Yellowshirt by the man.

Not all political disagreement ends in murder or shouting, but enough people simply don’t know or don’t want to hold a conversation or dialog.

They’re apparently more interested in reinforcing and imposing their own belief upon others, and when they fail, they try to shut them up or simply brand the other as evil.

This may partly has to do be with many Thais penchant for avoiding conflict and saving face – to the point where a different political opinion becomes a threat.

For a lot of Thais, ad hominem and vitriol replace frank and direct argument because they believe their world is threatened by differing political views.

Relying on vitriol and ad hominem instead of reasoning and tolerance is a recipe for a political and social stagnation, if not decline, however.

It’s unfortunate enough that Thailand already has more than its fair share of censorship and self-censorship on sensitive political topics, and the last thing she needs is citizens who don’t really know how to talk with those whom they politically disagree with.

In a climate of political hatred, there’s little or no apparent incentive to do so.

People often get demonized for publicly talking to those who hold different political views. One Twitter critic has repeatedly demonized me as a “fake liberal” for talking to conservative anti-Redshirt activist Tul Sitthisomwong and posting a photo of us.

In their “utopia,” which is more a dystopia, people will never talk to those who hold different political ideologies at all – or those who think differently must be silenced or eliminated. But how can we move together as a society if we don’t really know or want to talk to one another?

Thailand is not just a social in denial due to censorship and self-censorship but it’s also a society where many don’t know how to really converse and really don’t want to.

Now, can we talk?

Pravit Rojanaphruk can be followed on Twitter at @PravitR