Opinion: Why Many Thais Can’t Agree to Disagree About Ideologies

An anti-government demonstrator argues with a detractor during a rally on Sept. 19, 2020, in front of Thammasat University.

When it comes to politics, Thai people can’t seem to agree to disagree and respect each other’s political ideologies.

To be able, or willing, to ‘agree to disagree’ is much easier said than done in Thailand.

This is because it requires getting outside one’s bubble, tolerating what we may not want to hear, ensuring a safe space for all to state their case. Then compromise.

Safe public space for genuine free speech does not really exist in Thailand. Freedom of speech is not guaranteed, especially when it comes to anything critical of the monarchy. While one side can brand anti-government protesters as anti-monarchists and republicans, the other side are restricted by the lese majeste law and media-censorship, as well as self-censorship from making their case.

One side cannot fully state their case to the wider public unimpeded through mainstream mass media. As a result, real deliberation on the future of the monarchy institution is not possible.

Furthermore, both sides tend to dwell in the comforts of their own bubbles. Ultra-royalists can’t seem to understand why there are Thais who are so ‘ungrateful’ to the monarchy to the point where they want to reform the institution or even set up a Republic of Thailand.

Many end up concluding that anti-monarchists must have been manipulated or funded by the United States government. This despite the fact that it was the US which promoted a revived role of the Thai monarchy through its past support for military dictators like Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat during the Cold War.

On the other hand, protest leaders are increasingly at risk of keeping themselves in their own bubble as well. Their social media sphere, full of admirers and supporters as opponents are often blocked, is a virtual echo chamber. They believe they have the support of the majority when they’ve yet to even be able to muster a million people on the streets in a country of near 70 million people.

Some think victory is imminent if not a foregone conclusion and their motto is, “let it end in our generation”. They also wonder why the other side doesn’t hear or doesn’t want to hear “the students sing?” and sing along with them.

The sooner both sides promptly get out of their bubbles the better. They should quickly be able to recognize that there are a lot of people who disagree or are not convinced about their preference for what is the appropriate role and place for Thai monarchy in the 21th century, or in 2020.

It’s not like both sides do not know the others exist. It’s just that a good number of people on both sides think they could have it their way without having to compromise. At least the students-led protesters tried when they submitted a letter demanding monarchy reforms to a senior police officer on Sept 20 before ending their massive demonstration.

On Tuesday, protest leader Panupong Jadnok, aka Mike Rayong, told me they have heard nothing from the Privy Council about the demands and believe the senior police officer did not even deliver the letter to the king’s chief advisor, Gen Surayud Chulanont.

In a way, not answering to the protesters’ demands for monarchy reforms is also an answer. But as it is, both sides were unable to agree to disagree and meet halfway. Student protesters are being prosecuted, charged with sedition and more.

So whatever happened to compromise?

Many times over the past months, as anti-government and monarchy-reform protests intensified, I have heard and read ultra-royalists say: “How can we compromise with anti-monarchists?”

On the other side, it usually sounds like: “But how can we compromise with fascists?”

The truth is, we cannot make all Thais think alike. That should not even be a desirable goal for disagreement is a mark of free will and essential in a free and democratic society. We need to ensure adequate space for free discussion and deliberation and not suppressing different views.

Yes, both sides disagree, but to be able to agree to disagree, it takes compromise and ensuring adequate space so all can articulate freely. Also, without tolerance, the kingdom will end up in a zero-sum game that’s inevitably violent.

It’s easy to disagree. But Thailand has to work towards agreeing to disagree and cohabit with those whom we disagree with peacefully. In this case, the onus is more on the ultra-royalists side who tend to be more illiberal.