The outcome of Thailand’s general election on 14 May 2023 brought joy to tens of millions of people, as the top two parties were pro-democracy parties. Thai voters have consistently shown strong support for democratic ideals before, but few of us anticipated this historic result; the party that won the most votes turned out to be the newly-formed Move Forward (‘Kao Klai’ in Thai), a party more progressive in its principles than any previous election winner.
Particularly controversial is Move Forward’s vow to propose amendments to a law commonly dubbed ‘112’, a lèse-majesté law prohibiting any criticism of the monarch. No previous political party with an agenda to undermine powers associated with the monarchy had ever gained meaningful support from any social sectors, let alone won in an election. Until a few years ago, to even mention the monarchy with a questioning undertone was taboo. Now, astonishingly, the Thai people – or at least the fifteen million voters of Move Forward – seem to feel that the monarchy is permissibly debatable and that the 112 law is a serious problem.
On the evening of 14 May I was glued to a screen, like the rest of the nation, following reports of the vote count in real time. When it became clear that the votes for Move Forward had outnumbered the rest, the first thing that came to my mind was my late friend, the writer and publisher known by his alias ‘Wad Rawee’, whose death in 2022 meant that Thailand lost one of its bravest literary figures.
Wad Rawee was an outspoken critic of 112 and of the wider political influence of the palace in general. He had been focusing on the subject matter for many years, in his writing and at public events, when it was still considered too delicate (or too dangerous) a topic to touch on. Wad Rawee saw 112 as an obstruction of free speech and creativity, for when it came to the subject of the monarchy, writers and artists had only two options: offer praise or keep their mouths shut. What infuriated him the most, I believe, was the fact that even the supposedly forward-thinking and ‘radical’ intellectuals seemed willing to keep quiet. He regarded the behaviour as cowardice and hypocrisy.
Wad Rawee was an intimidating figure to those who didn’t know him well; he often came across as uncompromising and fiery, especially in an argument. He was also a blunt and opinionated book reviewer. I was nervous the first couple of times we met because I assumed that he wouldn’t care for my frivolous writing, and I was afraid he would make a point of saying so to my face.
That was during the brief but vibrant heyday of Thai ‘indie’ culture, from around 1999 to 2005. At the time, Wad Rawee was running a small bookstore in the heart of Siam Square, a trendy hangout spot for Bangkok urbanites. The store was on the second floor of a narrow commercial building, but he named it Underground. He wanted it to be a hub for writers to socialise, and he was very active in organising book-related talks there. (I felt lucky to be invited to participate on several occasions. It turned out the formidable Wad Rawee didn’t hate my work after all.)
In 2006, there was a coup d’état staged by the Thai Royal Army. It seemed to be warmly welcomed by the Bangkok middle class, and by many influential personalities in the purportedly pro-democracy intelligentsia. The ousted government, led by the popular Thai Rak Thai party, was framed by the military supporters as corrupt, and its founder, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was accused of being anti-monarchy.
The 2006 coup created a vicious rift within the Thai literary and artistic communities. Many writers and artists openly praised the military’s action, but for some of us it was an ominous event that exposed Thai democracy to be a sham. It was sometimes referred to as ‘network monarchy’, a kind of pretend democracy designed to preserve the powers of the palace and the military. The conservatives like to call it ‘Thai-style democracy’.
Wad Rawee became highly critical of the writers who supported the military, many of whom were his close friends. He used online platforms and social media to attack and denounce prominent and respected figures. When the polarisation intensified, he chose the side that was extremely unpopular within the literary establishment: the Red Shirts, a protest movement that brought together supporters of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, pro-democracy intellectuals, and genuine leftist activists.
While not all Red Shirts were concerned with the role of the palace in politics, critics of the monarchy attached themselves to the camp because they saw it as a movement against the entire ruling network. Wad Rawee started to shift from being an active literary figure to an active political activist, and he was among the witnesses of the military crackdown on the Red Shirts in September of 2010 that resulted in around 90 deaths and left thousands of people injured.
I was not in close touch with Wad Rawee during these years of political crisis, but not long after the crackdown on the Red Shirts, I received an email from him, asking whether I would join his campaign to propose amendments to 112. By that time, many activists and academics who criticised the monarchy had fled the country because they risked being unfairly charged under the law, and some of them had encountered physical threats from the ultra-royalists.
I didn’t seem an obvious choice for Wad Rawee to recruit. I’d never participated in any political projects, nor had I ever expressed any strong opinions about the monarchy in my writing. Yet I accepted the invitation within minutes. I thought, perhaps foolishly, that any level-headed person would recognise the absurdity of 112.
Once the campaign kicked off in May of 2011, it was quickly condemned by the royalists and the conservative mainstream media, which at the time included most of the country’s cultural elites. We were stigmatised as an ungrateful bunch of anti-monarchists with a plot to tear down the throne. My portrait was featured in a popular right-wing weekly, with a slanderous caption. Soon I was blacklisted by numerous organisations. A few friends made it clear I was no longer welcome in their lives. It was as if I had become less than human in their eyes. It was an interesting time. To this day, some still remember me as the guy who wanted the right to criticise the king.
The campaign found affiliation with like-minded groups within academia and other pro-democracy organisations, expanding into a larger movement. I did not participate in most of the events that ensued, apart from a few literature-related ones, and eventually my relationship with Wad Rawee returned to the way it was prior to the 112 activism; we would meet and chat once or twice a year at annual book fairs, and from time to time exchange emails about book projects. He never demanded that I continue to support his crusade, nor did he ever berate me for not being more politically active. He remained a kind, distant friend.
Between the 2010 campaign and today, much more has happened. There was another military coup in 2014, more people fled the country, a new political party called Future Forward was formed and became popular with a younger generation that also wanted change. In the 2019 general election, Future Forward remarkably became the third largest party. Then, after it was claimed by the incumbent government that the party had violated election laws related to donations, Future Forward was dissolved. During the pandemic, protesters took to the streets to demand reforms of the military and the monarchy. Move Forward was formed by previous members of Future Forward, and became even more popular, and now it has won the 2023 election.
As I write this – six weeks since the election – it’s still unclear whether a new government will be formed by Move Forward and its allies, and whether its candidate, Pita Limjaroenrat, will become the prime minister. Will Move Forward suffer the same fate as Future Forward, its predecessor?
The existing Thai constitution appears to have been composed in shameless favour of conservatism, including giving the military-appointed senate the power to select the prime minister. Since the most recent election, several key senate members have already expressed disapproval of Move Forward, citing the party’s agenda to amend 112 as the major reason. Even Pheu Thai, Move Forward’s strongest ally and potential coalition partner, is at odds with the latter’s stand on 112. There is a real possibility that Move Forward will be forced to return to their role as an opposition party because they dared to touch 112. There is also a real possibility that the party could be dissolved for the same reason.
For the democratic, liberal-minded Thais, high hopes for change in politics has brought repeated heartache. When we chose a democratically elected government that prioritised the people before the establishments, the military staged a coup. When we chose a political party that proposed reforms of the military and the palace, the Constitutional Court dissolved it. When it comes to progress in Thai democracy, to borrow the words of Lou Reed, things always seem to end before they start.
While discussing the monarchy may not be such a taboo, as it was when Wad Rawee led the 112 campaign, the law is still going strong. Just today, a thirty-year-old woman was sentenced to three years in prison for posting a satirical image associated with the monarch. Two days ago, a musician was sued for singing a protest song at a march. Last week, three people were sentenced to between three and six years in prison. In March, a fifteen-year-old student was detained for six weeks, making her the youngest victim of lèse-majesté.
Move Forward’s surprising victory made me think of Wad Rawee: not only because he would have gotten a kick out of seeing such a party win in an election, but also because he was one of the earliest activists who fought against the discriminatory 112 law, and who paved the way to this result.
Wad Rawee was indeed an alias, but ‘Rawee’ was part of his real name. Derived from Pali and Sanskrit, Rawee means ‘the sun,’ or ‘a courageous person’ or ‘a person who has light.’ Wad means ‘to draw’ or ‘to imagine.’ Imagine a courageous person who has light. What an arrogant nom de plume, yet how apt.
1 July 2023
Image © Dr Cialtron