Pro-democracy protesters challenge royalists with their own memes

Student-led pro-democracy protests have been going on for months. One of their tactics is to use royalist symbols, quotations and traditions as satirical weapons to challenge and criticize the government, tradition and society overall.

Here, Prachatai reviews examples of royalisms used in the pro-democracy protest.

Redefine the meaning

The pro-democracy protests have adopted the tactic of showing re-engineered music videos of songs composed by King Rama IX. These songs convey patriotism but the patriotism expressed in the original is replaced by new pro-democratic meanings.

One example was seen at the protest on 10 August organized by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration in a re-engineered music video of Yung Thong, a Thammasat anthem, telling what happened on 6 October 1976. The song was composed in 1963 and given to Thammasat University. It has been performed on many occasions including the memorial ceremony for the late King Rama IX in 2016.

Another example of reclaiming the patriotic meaning of songs composed by King Rama IX is a re-engineered music video of The Impossible Dream which was originally a military march. It was shown in one of the biggest protests on 19 September at Sanam Luang.

The song now honours the fight for democracy and commemorates all those who were killed during the red-shirt protest including Nuamthong Praiwan, a taxi driver who committed suicide in protest at the coup in 2006.

Nuamthong survived crashing his taxi into military tank in an attempt to committed suicide on 30 September, 2006. In his second attempt on 31 October 2006, he hanged himself to prove wrong Col Akkara Thiproj, a deputy spokesperson for the military junta, when he said, “no one would sacrifice their life for their ideology.”

The protesters reinterpreted all the verses of The Impossible Dream, just as they have reinterpreted the nation. They show their devotion towards the nation by fighting for democracy in Thailand.

Nuamthong’s statement was used in the music video. He said, “If I am reborn in the next life, my wish is that there will never again be a coup. Goodbye.”

The music video showed Nuamthong’s taxi hitting the tank with the lyrics “To fight...the unbeatable foe .”

In 1969, Queen Sirikit asked Thanpuying Maneerat Bunnag to write a poem to encourage people to work for the nation by translating the song The Impossible Dream of the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha. Thanpuying Maneerat then wrote a poem that was distributed to civilians, police and soldiers. King Rama IX added a melody in 1971.

The most popular verse in this song is “I will be steadfast to correct what is false. I will love the nation until my life has turned to ashes. I am ready to die to maintain dignity. I will do good without anyone seeing,”  which is based on the verse “To right the unrightable wrong. To love pure and chaste from afar. To try when your arms are too weary. To reach the unreachable star,” in Man of La Mancha.

Back in 2009, this song was performed by a pianist Nat Yontararak and his singer wife Pawongduen Yontararak at a People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest. It was one of the nationalist songs used by the National Council for Peace and Order on 22 May 2016. In 2019, Gen Apirat Kongsompong, then chief of the Royal Thai Army, ordered this song played, along with other nationalist songs, in Army bases. 

Parody

Gold frames symbolize sacredness, and are regularly seen on pictures of the King and the Queen. But protesters instead used a gold frame on a picture of Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political scholar whose criticism of the role of the royal family caused him to flee into exile to Japan.

Together with Somsak Jeamteerasakul, his reputation is famous among the pro-democracy movement because of his expertise on the Thai monarchy.

Left : A protester prostrates himself before Pavin’s picture. Right: A protester raises Pavin’s picture in a golden frame.

During Thailand’s Covid-19 lockdown, Pavin created a Facebook group satirically called “Royalist Market Place” that contains information about and criticism of the royal family. It was closed down at the request of the Thai authorities but immediately returned as a new group which attracted more than 1 million members within 1 week.

At the protest on 10 Aug at Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus, a video of Pavin’s speech was shown giving support to the protesters. The video itself mocked royal court news, with an element of a royal anthem video consisting of a gold background, closing with “May it please the King” and “Long live the King” written in a font used on royal banners. During the video, the protesters shouted repeatedly, “Long live the King”

Pictures of the two pro-democracy scholars and exiles Somsak Jeamteerasakul and Pavin Chachavalpongpun and the statement “With Rice. With Kaeng om. I want Pork BBQ” [a parody of the expressions “May it please the King” and “Long live the King”] during the video of Pavin’s speech in the 10 Aug protest.

A remix of another piece of nationalist music, the Royal Guards March by King Rama IX, is frequently heard at protests. People might be familiar with this song from the introduction to royal court news, but protesters have remixed this song in different versions which can be found on YouTube.  

The government’s attempt to disperse the protest at Kiak Kai intersection on 17 November 2020 led to the iconic inflatable rubber ducks being awards pseudo-royal titles.

The protesters used the yellow ducks as shields to protect themselves from water cannon blasts. Several posts on social media expressed satisfaction on how much these ducks could minimize the damage. Netizens later dubbed the inflatable ducks Krommaluang Kiakkai Ratborirak (Prince/Princess Kiakkai, the People's Protector).

A yellow duck in the uniform of a royal soldier. The Thai means “Long Live [the King]”.

Another example is seen in parodies of the King’s words. Since the monarchy seems to have adopted a more flexible behaviour in their public appearances, allowing people to touch them, several videos have appeared on social media of royal family members talking to yellow-clad people. This marks a shift from traditional formal ceremonies to something like celebrity appearances.

On October 23, the King thanked a man who had held aloft a portrait of the late King Rama IX at a pro-democracy protest. The King told him “Very brave. Very brave. Very good. Thank you,” raising concerns about the monarchy’s political stance which have long troubled Thai society.  The hashtags #กล้ามากเก่งมากขอบใจ [#VeryBraveVeryGoodThankYou] and #23ตุลาวันตาสว่าง [#23OctEyesOpeningDay] later trended on Twitter.

Parodies of these words of the King’s have also be seen at protests. The protesters often shout out the phrase to compliment and encourage each other. There is also a video of a woman dancing while people around clap and chant “Very brave. Very good. Thank you,” rather like cheerleaders at a sports competition.

A banner reading “Very brave. Very brave. Very good. Thank you,” displayed in the protest march to the German Embassy on 26 October 2020.

Counter-attack   

While the King’s “Very brave. Very good. Thank You.” was ridiculed, his later words also went viral but were used by the pro-democracy protesters as a counter-attack in response to brutality in society.

At a royal public appearance on 1 November 2020, pro-monarchy people wearing yellow shirts gathered to meet the King. Several pro-monarchy figures were there and had the chance to have short conversations with the King. These included Warong Dechgitvigrom, who revealed on Facebook that the King told him, “We must help each other to bring out the truth.”

The hashtags #ต้องช่วยกันเอาความจริงออกมา and #ต้องเอาความจริงออกมา [#BringOutTheTruth] topped trends on Twitter. A lot of information and criticisms were expressed, claiming to follow the King’s words. Many Twitter posts questioned the cases of several Thai political exiles who were the victims of enforced disappearance and even murder.

A photo of memorial ceremony in Nakhon Ratchasima with #BringOuttheTruth calling for the truth behind the disappearance of Wanchalearm Satsaksit.

The King’s words in his short impromptu interview with Jonathan Miller, a reporter from Channel 4 of the United Kingdom, also topped trending. The King responded to Miller’s question about protesters calling for monarchy reform by saying “We love them all the same. We love them all the same. We love them all the same.” When Miller asked if there was any possibility for compromise, the King answered “Thailand is the land of compromise.”

Again, his words were used as hashtags on Twitter by pro-democracy protesters to criticize the government's intolerance of opposition and dissent. Some posts on Twitter showed a cruel history that the authorities want to be forgotten.

 #Welovethemalthesame is used sarcastically showing how pro-monarchy and pro-democracy groups were treated differently on 17 November 2020.

One of the most famous pictures of the Oct. 6 1976 Thammasat Massacre using #LandOfCompromise.

Thidatep Piboon is an intern from Mahidol University International College (MUIC)

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