What makes the recent student protests different from any other protests since the current political conflict began when the Yellow Shirts hit the streets in 2005?
It’s one thing to have the Bangkok middle-class in the streets. It’s another to bring in bus loads of rice farmers from the northeast, or oil palm farmers from the south. It’s a different thing to see provincial middle-class march on Bangkok. It’s comical to have celebs and rich folks covering themselves in sunblock and brand-name attire to strut around waving flags, only to disappear well before the bullets fly.
But in the eyes of the elders, the greatest sin is to see the younger generations rebelling against the society they have worked hard to build.
This is “เนรคุณ” (nae-ra-khun).
The greatest sin in the Thai culture
Nae-ra-khun translates as “ungrateful”. But this isn’t a strong enough reflection of the fear, disappointment and anger of the elders. “Traitorous” or “betrayal” are both more reflective of their sentiments when these words are used. To betray all the “บุญคุณ” (boon-khun, kindness and favors) the elders have bestowed on the young.
Even more disconcerting, these “betrayers” are not just university students. Thailand has been there since before in the 1970s. Betrayers are also high schoolers – Triam Udom Suksa and Satree Witaya for instance. Forget economic decline, PM2.5 or even COVID-19 – social order is threatening to turn Thai society upside down.
To the ruling regime, this is the thought: “Six years ago, we got their parents to march for us. Today, their children march against us.” This is the true emergency, the real threat to the ruling regime.
Do not question. Do not talk back.
Educational reform is a topic much talked about, but there’s never discussion of an actual plan to implement. This is because the educational reform that Thailand needs is to teach students critical thinking — to question the world, to analyse all things and to find the truth.
But the Thai social fabric is built on this educational philosophy — obey, submit, do not question, do not talk back. Copy, memorize, repeat, bow, crawl. A system that keeps young people in total submission, as reflected from the haircut on their heads, all the way down to the uniform and shoes, the manners in which they speak and act. Total control.
We have all been there. We all went through the same system. It’s a system that has worked well for the ruling regime for decades, if not centuries. But those students that came out to protest are saying,
“No more. We will stand up. We will speak out”.
Therefore, what puzzles the elders and the ruling regime the most is this: “What? They talk back? They ‘เถียงผู้ใหญ่’ (argue against the elders)?”
Back in the good old days, if the young were to rebel, they would do it quietly and out of sight. Now, they do it on school campuses and in the streets. They tweet it, record it and post it. Their reach is immediate.“Have they no fear? Have they no shame?”
The change they don’t want to believe in
When the young rises up, it’s never just about politics or about a regime change. It’s not just to replace one government with another. It’s a cultural change, a shaking up of social order. As such, the ruling regime doesn’t even have to say so. The teachers and school administrators know well to act quickly and clamp it down. This is why the students at Suan Kularb School were denied from gathering on campus by school administration and in the streets by the police.
This is not just “nae-ra-khun” against the ruling regime, but also against parents, teachers and society elders. It’s a sin so unimaginable that the elders have to believe: “These kids must be manipulated by some group with evil intentions. What else explains this? We have done such a wonderful job raising them.”
True, they have been influenced, but not by the devil whispering in their ears. They are influenced by the evolving world, globalization sped up through information & communication technology. Satellite and internet. Google and social media. Facebook, twitter. Many are still reading books, and others are writing them.
The youth are connected to the world and get to see all the beautiful and ugly things the world has to offer – instantaneously.
They see governments that are effective, transparent and accountable. Society that enjoys human rights, civil liberty and equality under the law. Economies that are developed and innovative. They see young people around the world taking charge of their own lives and being a part of change, whether in fields of politics, business, society or the environment.
And they ask themselves, “Why can’t we have that too?”
Thailand is not a nation not without merits. But we are a nation that can do — and should have been doing — so much better. That’s what the young generation want, something better for themselves, something better for Thailand.
This is not “nae-ra-khun”.