Categorized | English, WSF 2010

Anti-Gov’t Protesters Use Cultural Taboo as Weapon

Posted on 19 April 2010 by admin

Shirts on sale at the protest site in Bangkok say 'prai', which refers to the low and uncouth 'commoners'. Credit:Johanna Son/IPS

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Apr 18 , 2010 (IPS) – “I know the word; I understand it; I love it,” street artist Chuwit Kunasawat said, using his pencil-thin brush, dipped in deep red ink, to paint on the right cheek of an anti-government protester.

Eight protesters stand around the painter as he works close to the driveway of the posh InterContinental Hotel here in the Thai capital. They are among the nearly 60 people daily who have been asking the 48-year-old Chuwit to leave his mark on their cheeks.

They, too, are drawn to the word that has animated this painter of faces – ‘prai’, a three-character Thai word that refers to a class of people in this South-east Asian kingdom who are low, uncouth and exploited.

But Chuwit paints this deeply insulting Thai word on protesters’ cheeks with pride, as well as biting satire. “What is wrong in showing who we are – low-class, so what?” asked the native of the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai, who came to Bangkok to join the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the protest movement that has occupied commercial Rajprasong district since early April.

The protesters’ open assertion of this word on shirts, headbands and posters affirms how Chuwit and those gathered around him are determined to expose class lines and mock a cultural taboo in this kingdom that is still replete with many feudal trappings.

The word is a dominant presence among the tens of thousands of red-shirt wearing UDD protesters here that have refused to budge from Rajprasong, Bangkok’s upscale shopping heartland.

Boonsong Panrag, a 53-year-old gardener at a local council in a Thai town, said, “I come from the prai class and we are different from the amart (aristocracy).” His red shirt showed a male figure holding up a sign saying ‘Prai … historic day.’

Clothing with similar messages are in great demand among UDD supporters at the Rajprasong protest site, says Champa Kanpatchi, a vendor close to the main stage of the rally where speakers rail against the government late into the night. They attack the country’s unelected political aristocracy that ranges from the entrenched elite, the conservative bureaucracy, royalists to the military that props them up.

“This shirt is popular,” said Champa, pointing to a white T-shirt with bold red text that says ‘Prai ….We have no fear.’ The 55-year-old usually makes a living as a farmer in the rice-growing north-east, home to the country’s rural poor from where the UDD draws most of its support.

“They are breaking a cultural taboo by using this word so openly to describe themselves without feeling ashamed of being prai,” said Bunthawat Weemoktanondha, an anthropologist from the north-eastern city of Khon Kaen. “It is well known that this word indicates class discrimination.”

‘Prai’ is so sensitive that its use to describe a person could lead to “serious consequences, even physical attack,” Bunthawat explained in an interview. “This word is not used frequently because it means the speaker is calling a person low-class, ignorant, stupid.”

Little wonder why the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has responded with alarm at the UDD’s attempt to frame its ongoing protests as one pitting the ‘amart’ against the ‘prai’. Government leaders have said this derogatory word has had no place in the Thai social fabric since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932.

Besides, the government says, the fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the UDD’s political patron, is himself more ‘amart’ than ‘prai’. After all, the Abhisit administration points out, Thaksin is a billionaire telecommunications tycoon.

The UDD, which launched its street protests in mid-March in a historic part of Bangkok before expanding to Rajprasong, began adding the word ‘prai’ to its armoury three months ago as it turned up the heat on the government to dissolve parliament and call for a fresh poll.

The ‘prai’, the UDD’s argument went, had been disenfranchised twice after governments they voted for were forced out of power through non-electoral means, including the second Thaksin administration turfed out in the 2006 military coup. The Abhisit administration, for its part, came to power through a backroom deal shaped by the military and not a popular vote.

“This word has been used to define who the majority of UDD supporters are and who we are not,” said Weng Tojirakan, a UDD leader. “We are a movement of exploited people and we wanted to remind the amart about it.”

“And why are the government and the amart worried?” he asked rhetorically during an interview. “Till we used prai, they and the media that support them called the red shirts stupid, uneducated, provincial people. We are human, not dogs.”

The use of this word has given the showdown between the street and the government — where 24 people were killed and over 800 injured during a botched military crackdown on Apr. 10 — a political and social identity distinct from previous clashes that had led to protesters’ deaths.

Unlike the student-led and middle-class led protests in 1973 and 1992, it marks the first real challenge to Thailand’s feudal hierarchy that was left intact after it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, said David Streckfuss, a U.S. academic specialising in Thai cultural history. “The word meant ‘serf’ during the absolute monarchy but fell out of use after slavery was abolished.”

“Its reappearance and celebration so openly is a direct egalitarian challenge to the status quo that has never happened before,” Streckfuss told IPS. “It is weird, calling yourself low class and uncouth, yet politically and socially extraordinary.” (END)

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