Generation gap in Thailand: Youth demand cultural change  

The new generation are demanding democratic freedom and equality, which older people fear will destroy Thai culture
Generation gap in Thailand: Youth demand cultural change   

Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit speaks to the media before the parliamentary vote for Thailand’s new prime minister in Bangkok on June 5, 2019.

Tired of seeing the same ultra-royalist elites returning to power over and over again, young Thais in the big cities are trying to invent new ways of protesting to show their opposition to the government. Their demands are symbolic of the Westernization and cultural changes they aspire to, and they speak volumes about the evolution of outlooks.

In March 2019, during the Thai national elections, a new party — the Future Forward Party (FFP) — surprised the nation by coming third behind the country's two main political parties. It was supported by urban youth. If previous Thai elections pitted peasants against the urban middle classes, this time it was more of a clash of generations.

For the first time, Thai urban youth have a political party. The FFP is now busy organising anti-government demonstrations to protest the immutable return of the same elite minority to power. One such protest program on Jan. 12 gathered nearly 10,000 people.

Their slogans included demands for more democratic freedom, a curb on government spending, a check on the role of the army in politics and an overhauling of the judicial system to put an end to the impunity of the powerful.

Young FFP leader Thanathorn Juangroonruangkit has made a meteoric political ascension. Unknown a few months before the elections, his party won more than 80 of the 500 elected seats in parliament, thanks to the votes of urban youth.

Since then, he has been public enemy number one for the Thai elite and military and has seen a proliferation of legal proceedings against him, including his disqualification as a member of parliament. One of the reasons why young people are demonstrating is to support him.

Thai society is divided, but the fault lines do not read in the same was as in previous social conflicts, in which peasants from the Northeast (the "Red Shirts") clashed with the urban middle classes.

This time, it is rather a clash between generations, sometimes within the same families (by the way, Thanathorn's uncle is a prominent member of the army-backed party). The reasons for discord are no less profound and question the foundations of Thai identity.

Young people say they are tired of the system of patronage, an essential cultural fact in Southeast Asia, which makes it difficult to question an older or richer personality. It is even customary to bow one's head slightly when passing by these "phu yai," the important people.

Intergenerational shock

At the very top of this pyramid is the monarchy. If the institution in itself is not necessarily questioned by the new generation, it is more the relationship to a sacred monarchy that is questioned, and of which nothing can be said since one is "the dust under one's feet." That is how a Thai must refer to himself if he speaks to a member of the royal family.

Recently, the trip of one of the king's daughters to the southern islands, which prevented fishing and tourist boats from passing through the area for a few days, provoked an unprecedented wave of fury on social networks.

The palace reacted a few days later by announcing that there would now be fewer roadblocks on the roads as royal processions passed by.

Until then, not only were vehicles stopped for palace motorcades to pass but even the highways were also blocked. Vehicles simply stopped because it is considered inappropriate for ordinary citizens to overtake crowned heads.

The monarchy is seen as the keystone that holds the whole society together. For the proponents of modernization, if there is no significant change in the institution, Thai society itself is doing nothing but sit back and watch.

But what is projected as modernization and democratization by some is just a Westernization of morals for others. The latter group fears Westernization will destroy Thai traditions and identity, which accords unconditional respect for elders as a cardinal value.

It is true that the leaders of the FFP distinguish themselves from the rest of the Thai political class because of their mastery of foreign languages, as many were educated abroad. This is a point that the conservatives are attacking them on.

The head of the army, the ultramonarchist Gen. Apirat Komsompong, warned his troops during a lengthy speech a few months ago against "these young people steeped in Western democratic culture, who spread false information to overthrow the monarchy and hand Thailand over to communism."

The move of the youngsters, he said, will bring the situation in Thailand closer to that of Hong Kong.

Freedom of expression and lese majeste

The FFP's number two, lawyer Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, studied at the Nantes Faculty of Law in France. Earlier in his schooling, he had been a high school student at Bangkok's Assumption College, a famous institution founded by French fathers in the 19th century.

The institution, a preferred college for the elite of Thailand, is now managed by the Order of the Brothers of Saint Gabriel.

The institution also trained almost all the politicians who abolished the absolute monarchy in the 1930s.

"If the school does not teach catechism, it unquestionably teaches certain Christian values, which go in the direction of a more egalitarian society," says Buddhist activist Sulak Sivaraksa, a former student of the school.

In economic terms, while the young millionaire Thanathorn has run one of the country's most successful businesses with a firm hand, inherited from his father, Piyabutr comes from a more modest background.

He readily cites the Spanish Podemos party and France Unsubdued as references. The economy is undoubtedly the weak point of the new party, due to the lack of consensus between its leaders and experts in its ranks, which allows their political opponents to describe them as "daddy's sons who know nothing of the difficulties of life" (Apirat).

Until a convincing economic program is proposed, the new Future Forward Party, and its urban young supporters, are demanding freedom of expression and major changes to the education system. Thailand's notorious lese majeste law can punish anyone who criticizes the king, queen or heir to the crown with 15 years in prison.

This is an adapted version of an article that appeared in Eglises d'Asie (Churches in Asia), a publication of the Paris-based Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) or Paris Foreign Mission Society.

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