Thai political slang explained: ควายแดง or 'red buffaloes' (1)

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the killings of the red shirt protesters. Thai Political Slang Explained explores a word which justified the 2010 crackdown and, in a forthcoming second part, how it changed meaning in an unexpected twist to become a pejorative nickname of the Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Army.

Even though we do not know exactly when the pejorative nickname ควายแดง (khwai daeng) ‘red buffalo’ emerged, the term is thought to be almost as old as the red shirt movement itself. To understand its original meaning, we have to go back to 14 years ago when the decade-long political crisis started. 

In 2006, Thailand's political situation was not much better than now. The yellow shirts started gathering on the streets to oust Thaksin Shinawatra, the Prime Minister at the time. They had previously loved him because they were mostly from the middle class and he was a high-profile businessman, but not anymore. They had come to believe that the executive branch elected under the 1997 constitution was too powerful and corrupt, as shown in the sale of Shin Corporation to Temasek Holdings. 

They also feared that Thaksin wanted to overthrow King Bhumibol, the monarch generally said to be beloved of all Thai people at the time. So, with the help of a military group, they kicked him out and had the elite draft a new constitution for them in 2007. To constrain the executive branch, promote the rule of "good people", and eliminate threats to the monarchy, they gave more power to independent bodies appointed by the King on the advice of unelected officials. Thanks to their so-called "political reform" aimed to promote "checks and balances", Thailand is today ruled more by unelected bodies than elected bodies.

Isn’t it obvious that voters who elected Thaksin were not happy about it? Thanks to the government they voted for, Thai people had single-payer healthcare, public housing, and village development funds. The economy was growing fast and Thailand paid off ahead of schedule all debts to the IMF that were incurred after the 1997 economic crisis. To counter the yellow shirts, Thaksin’s supporters started wearing red shirts to gather on the streets and campaign against the 2007 constitution. They called themselves the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), but not everybody called them that. All Thais must know someone who has called the red shirts khwai daeng. That person may hate the red shirts or be a red shirt supporter who likes to be called that way. 

Why ‘buffaloes’?

In the Thai language, the word buffalo, khwai, indicates stupidity. But if you ask why buffaloes should connote stupidity in Thai, that is probably when answers start to differ among your Thai friends. Some will accept they do not know. Some will tell you that it is because it is an animal. But other species are also animals. Some will tell you that it is because they are domesticated. But other animals are also domesticated. 

The best answer one can find may be that buffaloes are stupid because they let farmers put a ring through their nose to control them. They are led by the nose wherever the owner goes and they plough the land for him unquestioningly until they die. Moral of the story: a powerless being who is vulnerable to manipulation and works hard for nothing is stupid. My hypothesis is that this interpretation may have started in urban areas where the middle class do not depend on buffaloes to get things done. 

Why khwai daeng?

The yellow shirts had Thaksin's government overthrown in 2006. A year later, the new constitution was promulgated and Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party was dissolved. An election was held and Thaksin’s MPs, under a new party name, won the election.  The next year that party was also dissolved and its MPs regrouped under a third party name, the current Pheu Thai Party, but one faction, with the backing of the establishment, changed sides to form a coalition government under Abhisit Vejjajiva, their erstwhile political rival. A government was formed under Abhisit, who had never won an election, but its legitimacy was questioned by the population at large.  

Thaksin was still beloved by his supporters. After all, his was the only government in Thai history to complete a full term in office and to gain an overall majority in an election. To restore democracy and return justice to Thaksin, who faced multiple court cases, the red shirts gathered in Bangkok in 2010 to oust the Abhisit government. It was one of the biggest demonstrations in contemporary Thai history. To stop their momentum, the yellow shirts and the elite needed to find ways to discredit Thaksin’s supporters. And one of the most convenient ways was to call them khwai daeng.

Instead of treating their rivals as fellow citizens, they labeled the red shirts as uneducated villagers from rural areas. The epithet implied that the red shirts were easily manipulated by elected politicians and vulnerable to vote-buying. When the red shirts gathered on the street to protest for justice, their opponents said that they had been hired to burn cities for the sake of a corrupt politician. The heightened rhetoric was matched by lethal action. In April and May 2010, the military shot dead 90 red shirt protesters to end the political demonstrations. That’s when the search of the term khwai daeng peaked according to Google Trends. 

The searches of the term 'khwai daeng' peaked in April 2010, right before the killings of the red shirts. 

Source: Google Trend

Why was it successful to label the red shirts less educated? The idea can be traced back to the 1990s. In A Tale of Two Democracies, a political work that many consider a classic, Anek Laothamatas, an intellectual turned politician who later helped to found a yellow-shirt party, proposed that the political crisis of the time was predicated on a rural-urban division. The less educated rural voters, who constituted the political majority, tended to participate in vote buying and enjoyed personal relations with local politicians. They were able to form governments, but they could not shape policies or overthrow governments because they were manipulated. The more educated urban middle class, on the other hand, were influential in shaping policies and could overthrow a government by means of intellectual activism and protests, but they were not numerically strong enough to form a government. 

Anek wanted to design a political system in a way that the middle class could form governments via normal channels and the rural voters could shape government policies and overthrow governments. For example, he proposed constituency reform, making them either larger, to make it more difficult for a local politician to buy votes, or smaller so that the middle class could have their own representatives. A proportional representation voting system should also be introduced so that a dispersed middle-class population could have their own MPs in the parliament. To empower the rural population to shape policies and change governments, he proposed ideologically-based political parties and decentralization so that the rural voters could learn a genuine alternative to vote-buying. 

Many of his proposals did go into the 1997 constitution, but the idea that the rural voters are less educated than urban voters was embedded in the discourse. By the time the yellow shirts ousted Thaksin in the 2006 military coup, the rural-urban division had become controversial. The yellow shirts claimed that the red shirts were poor, uneducated, foolish, and vulnerable to vote-buying. Many intellectuals spent years debunking this idea. For example, Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker argued that vote-buying claims were nothing but dangerous nonsense. Kasian Tejapira and others argued that the political conflict was not rural vs urban as much as it was between the upper middle class and the lower middle class. And people in rural areas knew more about the world thanks to the globalization of media. 

Unfortunately, this intellectual endeavour failed to prevent a military crackdown. 

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.

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.