Wading into the replies section on any political tweet or Facebook post is almost always like intentionally jumping into a well filled with poisoned water. Social media has never been the arena for intellectual discourse and well-reasoned arguments, but rather a breeding ground for angry insults and cheap shots.
Thai social media, however, may be particularly toxic. In many ways, these replies are a microcosm of Thailand’s divided society, although intensified by the screen that blankets us and the anonymity of online presence. (Go on Twitter and you’ll notice that so many Thai accounts do not use their real name and face).
Some insults, however, have a certain ubiquity to them. Just like how Trump supporters regularly label Democrats as ‘snowflakes’, the Thai political lexicon is not lacking in derogatory slang words. Terms such as these are often sprinkled liberally in our political discourse. But words have power. Their commonness should not make us numb to its meaning. It may be worth spending some time examining the most common ones.
If you are a Thai partisan, then you will find some of the content in this piece disagreeable as I will analyze derogatory terms from both sides of the political aisle. I believe, however, that a refusal to listen to what the other side is saying is one of the root causes of the polarization today, and it’s important to take at least some time for everyone to try to understand how both sides think.
The most common political label, perhaps, is that of salim. It originates from the word sarim, a Thai dessert containing colorful bean noodles served in coconut milk. Regularity of careless use has meant the original spelling has long since been bastardized. It is often used by those who support former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to refer to those who are anti-Thaksin and support the current premier, Prayut Chan-o-cha, instead.
How this term became the go-to when referring to anti-Thaksin crowd is a bit of a mystery to me — my best guess is that the anti-Thaksin PDRC crowds did not stick to a single color (unlike the yellow or red shirts), which meant labels had to be a bit more creative. This cannot be completely correct, however, as this term has been in use long before the PDRC formed. Regardless, salim is now definitely derogative. An opinion piece in (the red-leaning) Khaosod last year wrote:
Being a salim is not easy. It’s normal for middle class people to hate Yingluck or Thaksin. But if that hate means they label anyone who disagrees with the coup, or wants to have elections, as ‘Thaksin supporters’ or ‘bought by Thaksin’…then if we don’t call you salim, what should we call you?..[Salim] must believe they are intelligent, have superior morals, and act without regard for the rules…they must be educated, but be ignorant of how to use reason…they must live luxuriously and materialistically while crying out for a plain lifestyle and calling farmers who want better lives as ‘victims of populism’…Khaosod
This, of course, is a broad stereotype of middle and upper-class anti-Thaksinites. Anyone anti-Thaksin is typically labelled salim, with all of the aforementioned weight the term carries.
On the flip side of the political divide, Thaksin supporters are often labelled as kwai daeng (“red buffalo”). The origins of this insult is no mystery — buffalos have since time immemorial been used by Thais as slang for stupidity, hence making kwai daeng a natural outcome. A Facebook page called the ‘Thai Political Dictionary’ explained the meaning of kwai daeng as follows:
The term ‘kwai’ suggests that red shirts tend to hail from the provinces, are uneducated, lack maturity and do not hold any true political ideology. They are easily misled and tricked into joining political movements, despite the fact that those movements will eventually benefit only a former prime minister [Thaksin]. They are akin to buffalos that are led by a master to be sold in different markets.Thai Political Dictionary
It is true that the term smacks a little bit of urban snobbery, as many fervent Thaksin opponents believe that red shirts tend to be uneducated and sell their votes to the highest bidder. It leads, inevitably, to the conclusion that Thailand is not ready for democracy because the majority of voters are, to put it bluntly, too ignorant. The theme running in the whole concept of kwai daeng is foolishness and being misled by Thaksin. One tweet from a few days ago captures the mood well: “Kwai daeng like to ask why the PDRC won’t stop talking about Thaksin. Why don’t the kwai daeng acknowledge that whenever the Pheu Thai party needs something, they have to fly and see Thaksin?” (Pheu Thai’s new leader recently flew to see Thaksin to discuss candidates for local elections, despite Thaksin claiming for the umpteenth time to have washed his hands of politics).
The recent rise of the progressive Future Forward party has also led to the adoption of the term kwai som (“orange buffalos”). But more interesting, although less commonly used, is the term yuwachon som (“orange guard”). Echoing the Chinese red guards, the term is used to describe the Future Forward party’s youthful following. Matichon quoted a professor writing:
[Future Forward supporters] have been roused by misleading political rhetoric, and now they are fervent ideologues. They are ready to gang up and insult anyone who expresses contrary opinions on social media, and are unwilling to absorb any true information. Some people have labelled them the ‘orange guard‘…Matichon
It was also pointed out that the so-called “orange guard” has a sharp generational difference, dismissing and insulting older people (just like the Maoist red guards during the Cultural Revolution) . The term, however, is especially effective as it insinuates that Future Forward voters are really closet communists, a damning accusation in Thai politics.
These derogatory terms, of course, should not be used. Calling people salim and kwai daeng does nothing to elevate our political discourse. There are some who take it in good humor, like writer Win Lyowarin who wrote that “being called a salim is actually very cool!”. But in almost all instances, it simply polarizes society more by denigrating the value of diverse political opinions. Parlance such as kwai daeng should not be considered acceptable in society, and to link Future Forward supporters with communism without evidence is disingenuous (demanding greater democracy is hardly communist, after all). Likewise, although less offensive in nature, calling all pro-Prayut supporters a ‘stupid salim‘ is unfair and ignores the fact that there are very valid reasons to have opposed Thaksin.
Instead, we need to reflect on those terms and recognize the rationale behind their current use. Both terms reflect both sides’ prejudices and the number of divides that separate the two sides, from urban and rural to educational to economic. Thailand must move beyond name-calling and instead try to understand better what motivates both sides. Why is it that some of Prayut’s supporters hate Thaksin so much, and have doubted the benefits of democracy to the point where they are willing to ignore all of the current government’s flaws? On the other hand, why do many red shirts stick loyally to Thaksin despite his documented excesses and corruption? Painting with broad stereotypical strokes never leads to a pretty picture. Not all red-shirts (in fact, it is impossible for all red shirts) are brainwashed and bought by Thaksin, and not all coup enthusiasts have utter contempt for democracy and the poor.
There must also be greater acceptance of the fact that politics is often not black and white. Politics is a nuanced business. Someone tweeted recently that “If I do not like Future Forward and Pheu Thai, I am a salim. If I don’t like the military and Prayut, I am a kwai daeng. But I dislike both, so am I a salim-colored kwai daeng?”
Any step towards reconciliation in Thailand needs to begin with an attitude of compassion and understanding. A better politics starts with the recognition that every Thai citizen, yellow or red, pro-Prayut or anti-Prayut, does not deserve to be belittled for their political opinions.