In Thailand’s increasingly polarized and desperate politics vitriol and invective have become common, and virulent sexism and hate speech is showing a dramatic spike.
Vile sexist, racist, dehumanizing insults and personal attacks have been exchanged across the political divide since the early days of the current crisis in the mid-2000’s. It seems more and more Thais have abandoned our legendary politeness and become nastier in public. Face breaking is fast becoming a new national past time.
The biggest target of hate speech of the time is of course Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra, who’s been called many things from ‘Barbie’ to ‘prostitute,’ ‘slutty moron,’ ‘dumb bitch,’ ‘whore,’ ‘evil woman, worse than a whore’—often by men of high standing cheered and defended by women. Her humanity and femininity have been depicted in countless images in the most vile, most degrading ways imaginable.
The abuse of our first female prime minister got so bad that many international media have highlighted the ugly misogyny and the filthy and hate-filled language against her.
I was relieved to see some Thai women’s rights organizations and advocates speaking out publicly at last, after a long silence. The appalling misogyny deserves more domestic reflection and condemnation.
But the sad truth is, it’s often committed by political leader themselves, from the main opposition party leaders and members to respected doctors, university professors and famous celebrities.
I feel ashamed for my fellow Thais who think calling the prime minister a ‘dumb bitch,’ a ‘whore,’ and laughing at jokes involving her vagina and sexual assault, shows they are smarter and worthier than she is.
There’s an awakening in Thai civil society to the ugly hate speech. Yet, political leaders are still largely silent especially when it occurs on their own side.
UN Women issued a statement showing a serious concern, noting that women’s participation in Thai politics and political leadership remains low. “When few voices speak out for equality and respect, women’s equal position and standing in society becomes threatened.”
It’s not just Thai women’s equal position and standing that become threatened. The equal standing of all Thais is being threatened—our morality, humanity and dignity—when political enemies are debased to the extent that they are no longer equal human beings worthy of common decency and respect.
Surely, Ms. Yingluck is not the only victim. Misogynistic and homophobic insults and hate speech have been hurled by her supporters at opposition figures too.
We have seen decapitated heads of Ms. Yingluck, her brother and their political allies, an image of Ms. Yingluck naked climbing a thorny tree after death, and photoshopped pictures of Mr. Suthep and the Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva with a noose around their neck. Mr. Suthep has also been seen on a wanted notice up in Isan with a 500K baht bounty on his head.
With top political leaders already depicted in horrific death or suffering in this life or the next, images of other political players bloodied and bruised are starting to emerge.
The imagined violence goes in parallel with the dehumanization and demonization that is not only condoned but is part of the top-level rhetoric.
After a protester was killed in a blast in January, Mr. Suthep shouted from the protest stage that Ms. Yingluck was ‘an animal’ and ‘not human,’ and reminded his supporters that they were fighting ‘fiendish monsters from hell.’ The truth of the matter is that she is the little sister of the square-faced devil whose evils—the protesters believe—must be eradicated.
The anti-government crowds love to use the word ‘eradicate’ when referring to the Thaksin Regime plaguing Thailand. Those who don’t support them are quickly branded ‘unpatriotic,’ ‘red buffalos,’ or ‘Thaksin’s slaves.’
Killing communists was permissible in the 1970’s. It’s not a big stretch for killing ‘monsters’ and ‘slaves’ of the evil one to be permissible too.
It is already starting. The mini riots around Ramkhamhaeng University at the end of last year, in which red shirts were pulled off their vehicles and stripped of their red shirts which were burned on the spot. The senseless beating of a taxi driver in a road blockade, a homeless man found with a red shirt among his belongings, an undercover cop. Some dead bodies have also been found in anti-government protest clothing and accessories. These are danger signs.
In the ongoing political struggle between the old and new behemoths, blind partisan hatred is a reign of terror. Thais are once again cheering on the killings of other Thais.
Government supporters cheer at the deaths of anti-government protesters and wish Mr. Suthep dead. Anti-government protest supporters willfully ignore the killings of red shirts now as they ignored or cheered on their deaths in 2010. Some are pleased, even giddy, about the hooded armed men ‘defending’ their comrades in the latest violent clashes in Lak Si.
Disturbingly familiar is the same old xenophobia reminiscent of the 1970’s. Thammasat students were branded ‘Vietnamese communists’ then. Now we hear of ‘Cambodians’ supposedly brought in to help the red shirts and the police.
The poor elderly Thai-Chinese man who was shot in the neck and most likely will be paralyzed from the neck down has been branded on social media as a ‘Cambodian right-hand man of Hun Sen.’
With both sides having already suffered losses, each is now condemning the other as non-human and traitor. Unrestrained resentment and anger are driving out decency, empathy and reason.
Thailand needs more moral courage from not only political leaders but also its citizens to stand up for principles, not just personalities. Those who believe in decency, democracy, justice and peace must come out to defend these values.
More voices of reason need to be heard. We need to start a civilized and open public debate to sort out political disagreements, to find common grounds and agree on how to move our country forward and avoid disastrous violence.
We need more trust and empathy for all sides to support our emotional friends to rise above primordial, partisan hate and tits for tats. It’s time for Thais to stop the emotional lashing and behaving like savage tribesmen and women.
Whether our favored principles are human rights and equality or duties and tradition, none of us have exclusive claims to righteousness and love for the nation.
The talk of civil war or splitting Thailand in half is getting louder. Unpleasant and unlikely as it is, it is not entirely implausible. Still, looking at Egypt, Syria or Nepal should give us pause. The end results of uncontrolled hate are not what we want to experience first hand.
Note: A slightly edited version was first published in the Bangkok Post on February 13, 2014.