Regular readers will know that PPT sometimes has writers who have been off trawling academic papers. Yesterday, our post included a link to a paper on populism. It was while looking for this paper that PPT came across an article that we are sure will be of considerable interest. “Working Towards the Monarchy and its Discontents: Anti-royal Graffiti in Downtown Bangkok,” is authored by Serhat Ünaldi of the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. It is available (for a fee, free to subscribers or through universities that subscribe) at the Journal of Contemporary Asia.
PPT has posted on another article by the same author, on a related topic, here.
The latest article is surely about anti-royal graffiti but it is also about much more. Below we include excerpts so that readers can get a feel for the article, where the abstract states:
This article examines the desacralisation of royal charisma in contemporary Thailand. Over the past few years an underground discourse has emerged among critics of royal ideology and supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that directly confronts the power of the monarchy. The images, metaphors and linguistic devices used in the process are difficult to study because they rarely appear in public. This article focuses on an unprecedented demonstration of rage against the monarchy on September 19, 2010, when red-shirted demonstrators painted anti-royal graffiti on a construction hoarding at Ratchaprasong intersection in downtown Bangkok. In analysing the Thai political crisis as a battle of different charismatic groups, the article will present the September 19 event as the first open strike against the sacred charisma of the Thai monarchy. This charisma has hitherto been protected by royalists from all walks of life who were “working towards the monarchy.” With their attacks on the monarchy the red-shirts were challenging a legitimacy-conferring system which had benefited wide sections of the Bangkok populace in the past. At the same time, a competing charismatic movement has emerged around Thaksin, who himself has to take into account the charisma he conferred upon his followers.
We felt the charisma and Max Weber stuff was overdone in the article but we understand that academics are looking for the theoretical angle. Yet we found the empirics far more interesting. The first couple of sentences set the scene:
The spread of anti-royal graffiti in downtown Bangkok on September 19, 2010 was a watershed moment in recent Thai history that has remained almost unnoticed in analyses of the country’s political crisis. On that day, thousands of protesters donning red shirts gathered at Ratchaprasong intersection in central Bangkok. The rally took place in commemoration of the fourth anniversary of the 2006 coup against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (p. 1).
PPT’s post from that day in 2010 may still be of some interest. What is certainly of interest is the focus in this new article on the anti-monarchy graffiti of that day and the analysis the author does of the ownership of the Rajaprasong area. On the latter, this is interesting:
The space examined here is a major part of downtown Bangkok…. Based on land ownership the area can be divided into two. The western part is privately owned by Princess Sirindhorn who, as the landlord, earns the income generated from property rents directly. The eastern section is owned by the Crown Property Bureau (CPB) which manages the assets of the monarchy as an institution but whose generated income is “paid at the King’s pleasure” (p. 8).
As few researchers have ever dared publish on the private assets of the royals, this account is interesting. We will save this detail for another post and here concentrate on the graffiti. Of this, Ünaldi states (p. 15):
For the purpose of this study a sample of 63 graffiti items were assembled, 51 of which appeared on September 19, 2010 on the construction fence at Ratchaprasong intersection, four at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument during a protest on October 10, 2010, and three, and five, respectively, during gatherings on November 19 and December 19, 2010.
Some of the messages from the graffiti are worth repeating, reflecting a “ta sawang/awakening” moment (p. 17):
The use of the word fa was not limited to this one graffiti but occurred frequently: fa ta diaw (one-eyed sky); fa bo kan (the sky is no barrier, …); mueng mai chai fa mang khue ma thi nasomphet (you are not the sky, [but] more likely a pathetic dog); hia sang kha fa mai mi ta phro fa ta bot (the “monitor lizard” ordered the killings – the sky has no eyes because the sky is blind). Like hia, ma (dog) is one of the strongest insults in the Thai language.
More attacks on the monarchy related to ownership, stewardship and sufficiency (p. 18):
“the country does not progress because there are no good people. Bad people were taken to rule the land because heaven has no eyes, because the eyes are blind. [They] see damn animals [ai sat] as good people. I ask for real, you damn blind man [ai bot],when will you die?” Some red shirts were aware that their protest site was owned by the monarchy and suspected this to be the reason for their violent expulsion from the area in May: thi khong khot pho-mae mueng rue thueng ma kho khuen phuen-thi (Does the area belong to your ancestors so that you demand it back?). By painting some graffiti on the asphalt of the street the red shirts marked Ratchaprasong as their territory: ku khoey non yu thi ni [I once slept here]. Other street artists took issue with the king’s sufficiency economy: kha daeng yang pho-phiang (killed enough/sufficient red [shirts]); pho-phiang tae ku yang mai pho kin (sufficiency but I didn’t have enough to eat). To this commentator, the idea of sufficiency seemed to sound cynical given his or her own struggle for survival. Next to the official sign for the sufficiency economy on the fence at Ratchaprasong one red shirt commented ironically: pho-phiang ko mai tong tham bai (sufficiency, so don’t produce a poster). These comments were probably the strongest signal of the breakdown of royal charisma: The king was no longer seen as benefiting the people and his “sufficiency economy” model was debunked.
Queen Sirikit was a target for graffiti (p. 19):
Red-shirts poked fun at her weight, her makeup and rumours about her involvement in the disappearance of the “Blue Diamond,” a gem which was stolen in 1989 from the Saudi Arabian royal family. Several items depicted the queen as a blue whale, hiding a gemstone in her mouth. Next to one such painting someone had written: Sa-u ha phet mai joe khrai ru bang (the Saudis are looking in vain for a diamond. Who knows anything?). Another graffiti mimicked the prohibition signs on the fence and depicted a crossed out whale, adding khet plot pla-wan (whale-free area). Someone else had written: Ai bot kap i pla-wan jombongkan tua jing (The damn blind man and the damn whale woman are the real dictators).
This is certainly a paper worth reading. In our next post we will look at what this paper says about property and royal wealth.