By Ponpavi Sangsuradej
‘Tour-long’(ทัวร์ลง) might be one of the most popular slangs on Thai internet these days. A bus-load of critics that are ready to take down social media accounts of those whose opinions do not conform with certain popular sentiments. It would take another whole article to investigate the formation of ‘tour-long.’
This article focuses on the phenomenon of the ‘call-out’ and ‘cancel’ culture in relation to the 2020 protests that have been taking place since the beginning of this year.
The ‘C’ Word
Callout and cancel culture have been a subject of controversy in transnational debate. We witnessed public figures in western media getting their lives ruined over racist comments, such as Lea Michele, for example. In 2019, Barack Obama said, ‘That’s not activism.’ Obama is not the only public person to have voiced disagreement with this online ‘social justice’ practice. Many have questioned if this is a go-to-way for justice seeking.
Now, back to the Thailand protests. Here, the callout/cancel culture holds certain similarities and differences to the #BLM or #MeToo movements. Some commentators have called Thai cancel culture ‘undemocratic’ and ‘useless.’ But in Thailand’s context, is it fair that we call cancel culture ‘undemocratic’ when we already live under such a distorted system?
Many young Thais grew up witnessing mass celebrity endorsement of the non-democratic PDRC (Kor Por Por Sor) movement. One singer claimed that ‘he is not really for democracy.’ Other public figures made degrading comments describing working-class Thais as too ‘greedy’ or ‘uneducated’ to deserve voting rights. They claimed to do so out of patriotism, to rid the nation of corruption. Since the 2014 coup, despite many corruption scandals by the Prayut Chan-o-cha regime, far fewer celebrities have spoken up. This upper-class hypocrisy has alienated many in Thai society and deserves to be challenged.
A power dynamic has to be taken into consideration. Whether it is undemocratic or useless in this fight, online callouts are often all that ordinary Thai people feel they are able to do. The calls on Twitter or Facebook for a favorite celebrity to speak up are a sign of desperation, not apathy.
The ‘F’ Word
When Miss Thailand Universe 2017 Maria Lynn Ehren posted about the disappearance of Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit, it hit the headlines everywhere. When a handful of Thai celebrities followed suit, we jumped in to praise them; we gobbled up every crumb. The interesting question is why celebrity messages matter more than those of ordinary people? Why has it become such a big deal when celebrities ‘sacrifice’ their status in the elite circle to be with us? Should we blame the culture of media sensation or the indifference of those in power?
Freedom of speech doesn’t mean the freedom from being ridiculed. Many celebrities, in exercising their own freedom of speech, invited ridicule on the protestors and their struggle. However, these protestors, in speaking out against the government, fear incarceration and murder, not just a loss of popularity or money.
In other words, it is the rights of the protestors as consumers to ask brands to support causes they believe in. If they realize the brand endorses the longevity of military dictatorship, they deserve the right to call out and find an alternative. The people deserve the right to ‘cancel’ a hotelier billionaire who called for the arrest of Roong Panusaya, purely for her exercises of free speech.
The ‘N’ Word
While there are ongoing physical protests in the streets, online campaigning clearly has tangible outcomes beyond just ‘cancelling’ celebrities. The #แบนสินค้าเนชั่น campaign, for example, resulted in many brands withdrawing their sponsorship from NationTV.
Most importantly, such callouts are not just ‘useless online blabbering,’ but important expressions of voices that have long been ignored by the ruling class. Until Thailand’s rule of law and human rights are sacredly upheld, hunger for celebrity endorsement of the protests will continue.
As long as the legacy of the junta regime is perpetuated, ‘call-out’ and ‘cancel’ culture are going to be part of this long fight.
Ponpavi is a PhD researcher on Burmese colonial history at SOAS, University of London. Twitter: @paviislearning.