By Songwut Jullanan
On social media today, the name “Red Buffalo” refers to Army Chief General Apirat Kongsompong. His nickname is “Daeng,” which means red.
But before this, conservative Bangkokians referred to members of the UDD (United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship) as “Red Buffalo,” because they wear red shirts.
To refer to someone as a buffalo is to call them stupid.
Stupid is as stupid does
The insult at General Apirat is a reaction to his various comments about the pro-democracy movement, which includes calling them “nation-haters” and “burden to the land.” Meanwhile, UDD members’ insult is to cast them as “stupid farmers” from the northeast, the Isan region, who follows Thaksin Shinawatra.
The buffalo is an integral part of the Isan lifestyle, used in rice farming, the region’s principal occupation. Thai culture associates the buffalo with docile and obedient characteristics, willing to endure hard work, and dumb.
Conservative Bangkokians view Isan’s people, especially poor farmers, as uneducated and easily manipulated; being poor, their votes could be bought.
As the nation’s most populous region, Isan people’s power can move an entire country in the voting booth. The region has been key to the Thaksin Shinawatra political faction’s election victories over the past two decades.
It took the defection of powerful Isan politicians to Palang Pracharat ahead of the 2019 national election for the pro-traditional establishment party to gain a strong foothold in the region.
An outdated stereotype
“Vote-buying in Isan is an outdated stereotype. The Isan community has changed,” said Dr. Pratueng Moung-On.
Dr. Pratueng is a lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University. He has published several research pieces that focused on Isan politics, including his recent study on the national election methods and effects under Thailand 2017’s constitution.
Dr. Pratueng explained that vote-buying no longer determines the election outcomes in Isan. A political party’s political ideology and its policies that respond to the communities’ needs are instead the main factors.
“Isan people chose Thaksin Shinawatra and the Pheu Thai Party because they believe that the party can improve the economy, especially for the grassroots, as well as solving the drug problem in local communities.”
The research found that in Thailand’s 2019 election, candidates who spent money buying votes in Ubon Ratchathani province did not win the election.
“Vote-buying in Isan will have little to no impact on the national election’s outcome,” said Dr. Pratueng.
A prejudicial view
Isan is a Sanskrit word. Its literal meaning is “Ruler or the Northeast.” Its connotation, however, is the contrary. Assistant Professor Ram Prasansak, a lecturer at Ubonratchathani University, explained that Isan is usually depicted as an arid land, the most impoverished region in the country.
“Its people are portrayed as uneducated, poor, and vulgar,” said Assistant Professor Ram.
According to Assistant Professor Ram, the people of Isan are described through the discourse of “โง่ จน เจ็บ” (stupid, poor, sick). Stupid, because they lack education. Poor, because they are low-wage workers. Sick, because they cannot afford healthy food.
He further explained that Thai soap operas often portray Isan people as laborers in the agriculture sector. Those who migrate to Bangkok are low-wage workers such as maids, taxi drivers, or factory workers. This image of Isan people is the prevailing stereotype in the eyes of conservative Bangkokians.
“In Thailand, prejudice is based more on social class than on race,” Assistant Professor Ram said.
“Isan people who are rich and well-educated don’t have to endure the stereotypes. But those who work as security guards, maids, and taxi drivers do.”
According to Assistant Professor Ram, many Isan people intentionally do not speak their native dialect, especially when in Bangkok, because they fear the stereotype.
But stereotypes and reality are two different things.