Thai political slang explained: พรรคแมลงสาบ or ‘cockroach party’

พรรคแมลงสาบ [phak malaengsap] or ‘cockroach party’ is a derogatory term, widely used by the general public to refer to the Democrat Party based on its longevity and high resilience to stay in power. Many may attribute the term to its long controversial history, but the term was first used in 2002 from within the Democrat Party itself as Kanok Wongtrangan was looking for a model to navigate the politics of the time.

Etymology

Established in 6 April 1946, the 73-year-old Democrat Party is the oldest political party in Thailand. It might have been called the grand old party, but instead is known as the cockroach party. The phrase is used from time to time in contemporary Thai politics. For example, if something undignified about the Democrat Party comes up, people may say ‘the cockroach party deserves its name.’

The term is so widely used that many have forgotten its origin. In fact, it was invoked by the Democrat Party itself in 2002, two years after Chuan Leekpai dissolved parliament and the Thai Rak Thai party won the subsequent election and 4 years before the military coup by Sonthi Boonyaratglin in 2006. The grudge against the Thai Rak Thai Party was still fresh because the Democrat Party felt the government had been simply taken away from them.

The annual conference of the party was held in April ahead of a failed no-confidence motion against Thaksin Shinawatra. At the conference, the Democrat Party claimed that Thai Rak Thai’s village fund programme did not work, Thaksin’s monopoly in the telecommunications industry was problematic, and the Thai Rak Thai party had money to spend for cabinet meetings in nice places around the country because the Democrat Party had worked hard to restore the economy after the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

Prof. Kanok Wongtrangan

In other words, the Democrat Party was trying as hard as possible to get back into government, and it was in this context that the term ‘cockroach party’ emerged. Contemplating how to win the next election and reform Thai politics, Prof. Kanok Wongtrangan, an influential figure in the party, proposed that the previous election in 2001 was won because Thai Rak Thai sold pipe dreams to voters, and the loop hole was there for the Democrat Party when people saw the government could not deliver.

In order to seize the opportunity, Prof. Kanok Wongtrangan proposed that the Democrat Party should consider the ‘cockroach theory’ as an approach:

“Political reform should use the cockroach theory as analysed from the behaviour of the cockroach. It adapts well. It has radar in its antenna to detect things. It has a brain and nervous system which coordinate parts of its body. It has 6 legs to walk on and 2 wings to fly with in emergencies. When it runs, it runs quickly, but for a short time. Then it stops, then continues. Another strong point is that it can reproduce very quickly, so cockroaches have survived for billions of years without becoming extinct. This can be applied to political reform in 4 ways. (1.) Learn to listen. But if you listen and get angry, then it turns nasty. (2.) Learn to think. (3.) Learn to manage, meaning learn how to solve problems and situations. (4.) Learn to do, meaning use the information that you have to act correctly. These are the lessons which cockroaches use, unlike dinosaurs which were unable to adjust and became extinct. Politics in the age of reform is the same.”

Left to right: Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suranand Vejjajiva
Source: 411-11.com

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the moderator of the event, must have felt somewhat malevolent. So, he used the cockroach analogy to criticize his political opponents:

“I am taken with the cockroach theory. I am afraid that rival parties may criticize me, but looking at it now, this government behaves like a cockroach in the sense that they like dirt and the dark. What is important is that they have spread very quickly.  In just over a year, they have spread a lot. I think the principle of genuine reform is that everyone must understand about rights and liberty. If politicians think only about power, reform will never succeed, because reform needs a handover of power, not the arbitrary use of power and the fear that there will be an investigation within the framework of the law.”

It was expected that his comment would provoke strong feedback. However, it was not expected that Suranand Vejjajiva, spokesperson of the Thai Rak Thai Party, would bring a can of Baygon cockroach repellent to the podium to respond his cousin’s comment:

“We have been elected by the people to bring this can of Baygon repellent to suppress cockroaches who like to do things in dark corners and to make them break out of their nest so people can see that every dark corner has something bad. The government has come in to block these creatures from eating up the country. On the other hand, only a cockroach will properly understand these creatures which are also cockroaches, and know how they behave and what they like. The opposition now are like cockroaches breaking out of their nest, because they are being hunted down and we will see that their criticisms don’t have any new recommendations or policies for the people.”

After Suranand’s comment, no one in the Democrat Party mentioned anything about cockroaches ever again. But the term spread, and the general public has been using it ever since as a pejorative nickname of the Democrat Party.   

Justification and usage

Justification is a different matter from etymology. The use of the term is justified in many ways, but most people attribute it to the fact that the party is not only old, but also has a distasteful degree of adaptability for political survival. They are at worst half-correct considering the fact that the Democrat Party has led the government 6 times, in 1946, 1975, 1976, 1992, 1997 and 2008, but only half of the time by winning an election.

Year

Prime Minister from the Democrat Party

Method of taking office

1946

Khuang Aphaiwong

Appointed by junta leader Phin Choonhavan

1975

Seni Pramoj

Won election

1976

Seni Pramoj

Won election

1992

Chuan Leekpai

Won election

1997

Chuan Leekpai

Defections or ‘cobras’

2008

Abhisit Vejjajiva

Defections or ‘cobras’

In Thai contemporary politics, it also understandable why the term lives on. The Democrat Party has not won a single election since 1992, but it successfully formed a government twice in 1997 and 2002. The Democrat Party is also criticized for leading the government that killed 93 red-shirt protesters in 2010 and being behind the demonstrations which led to Prayut Chan-o-cha’s military coup in 2014. This may explain why the Google trend shows an undying interest in the term since 2008.

Google trend shows an undying interest
in the term 'cockroach party'

The most recent usage has reached another peak after the Democrat Party under its new leadership joined the government coalition led by Prayut Chan-o-cha in exchange for cabinet seats, despite the promise of Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has now resigned as party leader, during the election campaign in March 2019, that the Democrat Party would not vote for junta leader Prayut to be the prime minister. The Democrats’ distasteful adaptability to seize power is highlighted by the usage of the term.            

About this section:

Thailand is a country with one of the most complicated political systems in the world, and one way of understanding it is through Thai political slang, which for the uninitiated can be just as complicated. Perhaps as you read this section, you will see how crazy Thai politics is and be inspired to work as hard possible to avoid it from happening in your country.

The Bangkok Post has had a Learning English from the News for years and Prachatai English thought it might be a good idea to do something a little more advanced and cutting edge by explaining Thai political vocabulary to an international audience. If you like it, please subscribe or donate.