Thailand’s stupidity politics

Thai PM was called a “stupid bitch” by the leader of the opposition

Yes, it really happened, to the shock of some and surprise of many.

Why the surprise? Verbal aggression is nothing new in Thai politics of recent years. Slurs and insults have become commonplace. Many Thai politicians and their supporters no longer follow rules of civility. Instead, they have accumulated an arsenal of vulgarity and personal insults as if these are the new normal for political expression. For those in the anti-government camp, after her brother, PM Yingluck Shinawatra is the favorite target for insults and ridicules.

This was not the first time Ms. Yingluck was called อีโง่ (pronounced ‘ee-ngo’, equivalent to the English vulgarity of “stupid bitch” or “dumb bitch”). This specific epithet has been used among her haters so much so that googling the word will return mostly her pictures and caricatures of her image.

But it’s one thing for ordinary people to call politicians bad names on Facebook or Twitter or by a water cooler at work. It’s quite another when the leader of the country’s oldest political party uttered such words at a public rally standing on a stage before a cheering crowd of supporters. It’s perhaps shocking to some that the leader of the opposition party lost his manners, for the Eton and Oxford educated Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiva has long been admired as the epitome of refinement. His high-brow Thai is usually polite and eloquent, and his English is flawless.

So what was Mr. Abhisit thinking? Bangkok Pundit has already asked that question and covered the context of Mr. Abhisit’s “stupid bitch” remark in detail. What was going through Mr. Abhisit’s mind when he said the expression, only he knows the true answer, and whether or not he meant it as an insult, he is clearly unapologetic about it. He said he “was merely following what [he] saw on Google.”


Stupid is as stupid does

Even before Ms. Yingluck became Thailand’s first female prime minister in late 2011, she has been the target of countless slurs, insults and ridicule, especially the ones that attack her intelligence. Every small slip or mistake, real or imagined, has been captured and magnified by her detractors: how she mispronounces a word, mixes up a district with a province, or fails to know one kind of grass from another.

Her detractors would have us believe that the PM has no thoughts of her own because she reads from prepared speech and is presumed to take orders from her older brother Mr. Thaksin. Her good looks further add to the perception that she is a mere pretty face, hence they gave her the nickname Barbie. Her less than fluent English and even her accented Thai (she grew up speaking a Northern Thai dialect) are criticized. All these personal failings supposedly make her an embarrassment to the country.

If even part of the things her detractors attribute to Ms. Yingluck were true, then Thailand’s prime minister is indeed unsuitable for high political office. True, even Ms. Yingluck’s supporters have never claimed that she is a genius, but anyone not blinded by prejudice would see that a woman with a master’s degree who worked for years as a business executive before becoming prime minister can’t be intellectually or mentally challenged.

“Stupid” may be branded on Ms. Yingluck, but calling someone stupid in the context of Thai divisive politics has less to do with the target’s intelligence than with political bias. A real-life dialogue between two friends:

A: Did you know Yingluck?
B: Yeah…
A: Was she really slutty since she was at Chiang Mai University?
B: Uh, no. Had same classes with her. Never saw her slutty.
A: But she must be slutty. They said so.
B: …
A: But she’s really dumb, right?
B: Er, she passed Chiang Mai entrance exam and studied political science. Can’t be that dumb.
A: But she’s gotta be. Listen to her. She makes no sense!
B: …

Other variations of the same are common. The truth is that verbally abusing Ms. Yingluck has become a national pastime for one side of the political divide. The detractors are unable or unwilling to distinguish between a “stupid” policy position on a matter of principle from anad hominem attack on a person making or supporting the policy or principle. Vulgarity is symptomatic of Thai political debate, in and outside of parliament. Oxford Union standards don’t apply. (For a good checklist of Rhetorical Fallacies: Errors and manipulation of rhetorical and logical thinking, click on this link.)

The most virulent abuses are usually committed on the keyboard. The best (or worst) examples of insults of Ms. Yingluck’s supposed stupidity are regularly featured on the Dislike Yingluck for Concentration Citizen [sic] Facebook page. Here’s an example. A post after Mr. Abhisit’s “stupid bitch” remark showed the PM at the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit sitting and smiling behind the “Denmark” country nameplate, flanked by Australia’s former PM Julia Gillard and Denmark’s PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt. The post suggested that PM Yingluck was sitting in the wrong seat, leaving Denmark’s PM no place to sit. Soon after several people posted another picture from a different angle showing the Thailand country nameplate off to the right of PM Yingluck. Even the page supporters were embarrassed.

Beyond stupid

As Ms. Yingluck is called “stupid”, her supporters are nicknamed kwai daeng (“red buffaloes,” meaning “stupid redshirts”), who in turn have been calling Mr. Abhisit and his deputy Mr. Suthep Thuagsuban “murderers” (for ordering the military crackdowns of the 2010 protests that left over 90 people dead) and their supporters ma-laeng-saab(“cockroaches”).

Strong insults such as hia (“monitor lizard,” epithet used with someone considered “despicable” or an excuse of a human being), homophobic slurs like “fag” and “homo,” and curse words equivalent to “evil,” “vile,” “base,” are also used freely by both sides. In other words, respect for human dignity and decorum can no longer be taken for granted in Thai politics. (In Germany in the 1930s, this kind of rhetoric also took center stage and we know where that led.)

The “stupid bitch” remark is the latest in a long line of vulgar insults Ms. Yingluck has been subjected to. Among the early high-profile insults, two years ago she was compared to a prostitute by a businessman (who described all women from Northern Thailand as “uneducated,” “lazy,” “intellectually retarded,” and “fit only for” working as prostitutes, not as prime minister). In May this year she was called an “evil woman, worse than a whore” by a well-known cartoonist. In the same month, the Office of Prime Minister website was hacked and the hackers turned the official page to show Ms. Yingluck’s picture with a caption “I’m a slutty moron.”

Characteristic of those making high-profile insults are their denial of the insults and/or lack of apology or remorse. Usually such insults end up being a nonsensical partisan bickeringwith little or no regard for the truth or principle of the matter.

Given that the insults against the PM often carry a strong misogynic tone, one would expect Thai feminists to make noise. But this has not been the case. Leading Thai feminists have been largely silent. Worse, the leading defenders of misogynist insults tend to be women.

In this latest case, female Democrat Party MPs defended in parliament Mr. Abhisit’s ee-ngoremark that it was “not vulgar” and “not an insult” as the meaning of such an expression “depends on the context.” They argued that the word ee is also used in other contexts such as อีพ่อ อีแม่ (ee-por, ee-mae—“dad”, “mom”) in Isan dialect. The fact that Mr. Abhisit was speaking central Thai and not the Isan dialect, or that the word “stupid” is in itself an insult even without the vulgar ee prefix, was conveniently not mentioned.

Soon after the “stupid bitch” backlash, Mr. Abhisit’s former spokesman, Democrat MP Thepthai Senpong went on to sarcastically call PM Yingluck อีฉลาด (ee-chalaad, “smart bitch”) on Twitter after her official Twitter account called the Vatican an “Italian city state.” PM Yingluck’s Twitter team quickly apologized for their mistake.

What’s really stupid?

Thailand’s “stupid” petty politics can make one’s head spin but what perplexes serious observers the most is the Democrats’ political strategy in all this.

Surely, a case can be made that Pheu Thai politicians are not of the highest caliber (to be fair, the party was purged of its cream of the crop a few times with the party dissolution of its previous reincarnations, although a few have returned). But what does that have to do with the Democrat Party? If anything, that should make its job easier to expose wasteful and harmful policies and corruption. The opposition camp has the advantage of having never been purged of its best and brightest and most eloquent. So why aren’t they drawing on this talent?

In the past few years, the Democrat Party under the leadership of Mr. Abhisit has done many baffling things. Top on the list is its choice of deputy spokeswoman Ms. Mallika Boonmeetrakool who might be described as a cross between Michele Bachman and Rush Limbaugh—the antithesis of the intelligent and articulate Democrat Party image. Ms. Mallika’s style is aggressive and fiery, and her often crude, rude and inflammatory comments have stunned observers too many times to still be surprised by what she does now. Detractors relish Ms. Mallika’s antics, but those hoping for an effective opposition party can only shake their heads.

Recently Ms. Mallika (also known as ‘Molly’) criticized former Democrat Party leader Pichai Rattakul for joining the political reform council initiated by the government. She described him as “old” and “hard of hearing,” and not representative of her party. Other vocal Democrats are only slightly less offensive than Ms. Mallika. And given more “street talk” from Mr. Abhisit at political rallies of late, is the Democrat Party now really going down the road of gutter politics?

It is ironic that the Democrats don’t concentrate on legitimate policy issues to take on Ms. Yingluck’s party and government. The rice pledging program, the first car policy, the speed rail project, the education reform, all these are worth debating—or even Ms. Yingluck’s frequent travels and absence from parliament which was what led to Mr. Abhisit’s “stupid bitch” comment in the first place. And if they dare, the Yingluck government’s record of freedom of expression is pretty appalling, though a pot calling a kettle black would be a bit too funny.

Granted that the Democrats have criticized government policies but their approach is light on substance and heavy on vitriol. For a party that used to be regarded as a strong opposition party, its performance has been more than disappointing. Instead of well-reasoned arguments presented in parliament debates, we have seen aggression and childish tantrums.

Antics like chair snatching, chair throwing, even strangling and animal-like wailing used in no-holds-barred obstructionist tactics suggests a sense of desperation, frustration and anger of a political party that has lost control. Such antics may not turn away Democrat Party faithful but it does nothing to convince anyone else that the party is performing its role as an opposition party to hold the government accountable for its action and to advance democratic interests. To those more cynical, it seems like the opposition party is trying its best to discredit not just the ruling party, but to create distrust in the parliamentary system.

The Democrat Party continues to speak only to its shrinking base, and the shrill, vulgar words alienate potential supporters who are seeing more and more evidence that Pheu Thai, however second-rate, is by comparison a lesser evil. The Democrats are showing that they care more about political revenge than the interests of the majority of the Thai people, and that helping to move the country forward is less important than scoring points and short-term emotional gratification.

The Democrat Party may have thrown away more than its gloves going into a new era of aggressive street politics, relying on street mobs and vitriol. However, this new strategy under Mr. Abhisit’s leadership may not have the full support within the party. The deputy leader Mr. Alongkorn Ponlabutr calls street politics “destructive democracy.” Mr. Alongkorn sees the flaws of his party and has been calling for a major reform from within. Unfortunately, not many in his party seem to be listening.

Come the next election in 2015, if it stubbornly continues on this destructive path, the Democrat Party will likely find itself in another term in the opposition, with a further shrunken base, number of seats and stature. It will yet again confirm the belief that it is a party that cannot win the trust of the people to rule and can only come into power with the help of the military and the court. Then, someone will be staring at the true meaning of stupidity and it won’t be funny or gratifying.

Note: The article was first published on SiamVoices, Asian Correspondent, on 14 September 2013.

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