By Porntida Tanjitpiyanond
The ongoing pro-democracy movements in Thailand are primarily led by young people who do not conform to the stereotypical obedient, compliant, and quiet Thai kids. As a result, the student protestors have been labeled by several traditional media outlets as angry, violent, self-righteous, and outright disrespectful.
This portrayal can have adverse effects. Not only does it make a large portion of the public dislike the students, but it distracts them from the actual cause of the social movement: the fight for democracy and social reform in our country.
Growing up in Thailand, I was taught to ‘respect and listen to your elders from a young age.’ This is well captured in a common saying, “if you follow the path of your elders, you won’t get bitten by dogs (i.e., dern tarm pooyai mha mai gud).”
In this way, Thailand’s social structure is very much based on the concept of seniority, where younger Thais are expected to be obedient, compliant, and respectful towards older Thais. This stereotype of good Thai kids (i.e., dek dee) is deeply embedded in our cultural narrative.
What happens when the actions of the student protesters go against this stereotype?
Psychological research suggests that children who act in a counter-stereotypical way can face many social penalties, including pushback and ostracism.
In the context of the ongoing social movement, the older generations may frown upon the student protesters for being unconventional. They may label them as ‘bad Thai kids’ (i.e., dek mai dee) who are too rebellious and bold.
As a result, their protest actions are attributed to bad character and viewed as a transgression that should not be encouraged or tolerated in society.
But feelings of anger and a sense of injustice are core psychological factors that mobilize people to protest to change their social reality. It is a natural response to living in a society where they feel intolerable levels of inequality and injustice.
Without a strong push for change, the illegitimacy of the status quo remains unchallenged. Thus, there is no denying that there is a strong sense of anger and injustice expressed by the younger generation in the pro-democracy movement.
But aggressiveness should not discredit the underlying goals
There is a rich body of evidence suggesting that mainstream media tends to delegitimize movements towards social change by portraying protestors as deviant and dangerous, which negatively impacts public attitudes towards the movement – a phenomenon known as the “protest paradigm.”
From this perspective, media coverage of the student protesters as angry and violent can elicit dislike and sway public attitudes away from sympathizing with the protestors’ fight for social reforms.
Based on the evidence outlined above, we need to reflect on whether the media portrayal of student protestors as rebellious Thai kids is, in fact, diverting our attention and dissuading us from what they are truly fighting for.
This self-reflection is especially critical as our opinions matter during this time of the social and political uprising in Thailand.
Having said that, my goal is not to change people’s current political opinion, but to present researched evidence to better understand how social factors (i.e., traditional Thai values, media portrayal of protests) work to shape our beliefs and behaviors.
As a Thai social psychologist, I am motivated to better understand and improve the social reality that we live in. Without research evidence, we may be trapped in a cycle of believing in conspiracy theories or letting our opinions become biased by media outlets that may not tell us the full story.
However, existing research conducted thus far is based mainly on Western societies with Western populations and Western values (e.g., US, UK, etc.), different from Thailand’s social and cultural conditions. Even though these studies’ evidence gives us important insights into the dynamics of social movements, it does not entirely explain what is currently going on in Thai society.
To better understand Thailand’s current social movements, we need to conduct more research with the Thai population to understand public attitudes and opinions shaping the future of our country.
My research team at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, is conducting an online survey to understand Thai people’s opinions about the ongoing protests around social reform. We believe that this research is an important avenue that will allow us to understand how current events shape the social dynamics in Thai society.
In this effort, we need as many Thai participants as possible to share their opinions with us. We would greatly appreciate it if you can participate in our online survey.
To learn more about it, please visit website.
Porntida is a Ph.D. student in social psychology at the University of Queensland with a research interest in economic inequality, social class, and stereotyping.