Thai police stand guard outside a military compound before former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra arrives to report to Thailand's ruling military. Photo: Getty
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Myths that have kept Thailand together now risk tearing it apart following military coup

The danger now is that myth, not sense, will come to define Thai citizenship in the wake of the army’s latest intervention.

For more than 80 years, Thailand has been struggling to build a stable and functioning democracy. On the afternoon of Thursday 22 May, that process was set back again with the country’s 12th military coup. Once again, Thailand has seen its constitution torn up, and its political leaders detained.

The military announced it was taking control of the government, banned political gatherings of more than five people, and imposed a nationwide curfew. Explaining the move to the nation, army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha claimed that the purpose of the coup was to bring peace to the streets and unity to the people.

But Thailand is far from united. The danger now is that myth, not sense, will come to define Thai citizenship in the wake of the army’s intervention. And even worse, with political rights curtailed, calls for unity will do nothing but destabilise the nation and threaten the security of all Thai lives.

High pressure

Political rights in Thailand have been hard-won indeed and while most of the country’s coups have been peaceful, others haven’t. In 1973, 1976 and 1992, protesters who fought for wider participation and democratic government were gunned down in the name of protecting the nation. Since 2006, many more have lost their lives fighting for a stronger democracy.

But the country has ultimately failed to build a strong civil society that can support a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and economically segregated mix of communities. And that failure has left Thailand ripe for military intervention on the pretext of “unity”.

This idea of Thai unity is based on a historical myth, one that puts enormous pressure on people to conform and leaves little room to express themselves freely. Thai students are taught a national history based on the premise of historic independence; unlike its South-East Asian neighbours who were all colonised by Western powers, Thailand has supposedly been able to maintain its distinctive traditions and its unique way of life.

Radio and TV shows regularly discuss the reasons why foreigners love Thailand, Thai food and the Thai “character”. Interspersed throughout all TV schedules are endless depictions of the Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, projected to the country as a stabilising influence – and for the most ardent royalists as “the father of the nation”.

Uniquely Thai

All of these ideas have a basis in history, but they have also long been used to restrict what it means to be a citizen of the Thai nation. During the Cold War in particular, the idea that Thailand was defined by a unique set of cultural and social markers was propagated both by the military regimes that governed the country and by the United States, which sought to support authoritarian rule.

Maintaining stability was everything; the myths that bound all Thais together became tools for building a civil religion to protect the country from communism. In this climate, ideas of cultural citizenship became dominant. With political freedoms restricted, the commitment to securing a unique Thai way of life became a key way to unify the country’s fragmented political and economic constituencies.

It was also used on numerous occasions to sanction violence, most notably in 1976, when students protesting the imminent return to military dictatorship were gunned down within their university walls.

The charge that they were “not Thai” struck a powerful chord in a society that had been swamped with pro-American, pro-Royalist, pro-Thai propaganda for over a decade. With civil liberties suspended, hysteria reigned, and violence against those accused of defaming the monarchy and the nation was accepted as legitimate.

Just keep quiet

The world has changed since the Cold War, but many of the myths about what it means to be Thai remain. While Bangkok, home to the United Nations in Asia, frequently holds conferences and seminars about the importance of universal rights, the rights of Thais themselves come with heavy qualifications.

Most notable among these is the lèse-majesté law, which condemns Thais to up to 15 years in prison for remarks deemed critical of the monarchy. It fails to receive the level of international criticism that similar laws earn elsewhere.

Conventions like these are dangerous, not just because they impede citizens' freedoms, but because they maintain a climate of uncertainty and fear. Their ultimate effect is that Thai political life, which in principle is governed by a constitution, is just as much controlled by deep cultural taboos that limit behaviour, thought and speech.

Refusing to show respect for the king, to take pride in the country, to maintain the image of harmony to foreign tourists can all too easily be deemed “un-Thai”. At a time of crisis, particularly with the formal constitution suspended, these taboos risk dominating the lives of all Thais.

In the coming days, there will be many reactions to what has happened in Thailand. Some Thais will celebrate what they hope to be the end of a political conflict that has lasted years. Others will be angry at the suspension of their rights, but will be kept from articulating how they feel for fear of the consequences.

The ultimate tragedy, though, is that the myths that have been perpetuated to keep Thailand together will now be used to tear it apart.

The ConversationMatthew Phillips has received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Millennial Man: How Emmanuel Macron is charming France's globalised youth

At the French presidential candidate's London rally, supporters cheered for a reformist. 

If it weren’t for the flags – the blue, white and red of France, but also the European Union’s starred circle – the audience’s colourful signs and loud cheers could have been confused with those of a rock star’s concert. There even were VIP bracelets and queues outside Westminster Central Hall, of fans who waited hours but didn’t make it in. This wasn't a Beyonce concert, but a rally for France’s shiny political maverick, the centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. He arrived on stage under a thunder of applause, which lasted the full minute he took to salute the first rank.

Since he resigned from his position as François Hollande’s economy minister last August, the 39-year-old relative political newbie – he used to be a banker and only joined the French government in 2014 – has created his own movement, En Marche, and has been sailing in the polls. In this he has been helped by the fall from grace of Conservative candidate François Fillon. Macron, who can count on the support of several Socialists, the centrist François Bayrou and the unofficial backing of the Elysee palace, is seen as the favourite to face hard-right Marine Le Pen in the election’s run-off in May.

A screen displayed photos of supporters from around the world (Singapore, Morocco, United States, “We’re everywhere”) as well as the hashtags and Snapchat account for the event. Rihanna’s “Diamonds” played as a team of young “helpers”, en anglais dans le texte, were guiding the 3,000 French expatriates to their seats. “We’re about 90 helpers tonight,” said Pierre-Elie De Rohan, 23. A History student at University College London, he joined the youth branch of En Marche via a school group.

The movement has been very active among students: “We’re in all London universities, King’s, Imperial, UCL”, he said. “It’s exciting”, echoed fellow helped Arcady Dmitrieff, 18, from UCL too. “We feel like we’re taking part in something bigger than us.”

Hopeful millennials are flowing to En Marche en masse. Macron is young, attractive, and though, like most French politicians, he is a graduate of the elite École Nationale d'Administration school, voters still see in him a breath of fresh air. “He’s neither left-wing nor right-wing," praised helper 18-year-old Victoria Tran. Her friend Adele Francey, 18, agreed. “He transcends the political divides that have confined us for the past thirty years," she said. “And he looks sincere," added Lena Katz, 18. “He really believes he can make a change.” The Macron brand, a mix of smart marketing, cult figure (the first letters of En Marche are Macron’s initials) and genuine enthusiasm previously unseen on the French campaign trail, has given him momentum in a political system highly based on the leader’s personality.

For Katz, Tran and many of their friends, France’s 2017 presidential race is their first election. “I want to be invested and to vote for someone I like," Tran said. “More than the others, Macron represents our generation.” Their close elders are hoping for a political renaissance, too – perhaps the one that was supposed to come with François Hollande in 2012. “I really believe he can make it," said Aurelie Diedhou, 29, a wholesale manager who has lived in London for two years. “On many topics, he’s more advanced than his rivals, a bit like Barack Obama in 2008. In France, when a politician has the pretention not to be corrupt, or to have held a job before entering politics, they’re accused of marketing themselves. But it’s just true.”

Macron occupied the stage for a good hour and a half – during which his supporters never failed to cheer, even for boring declarations such as “I want more management autonomy”. He passionately defended the European Union, and pleaded for its reform: “I am European, and I want to change Europe with you.”

Such words were welcomed by French expatriates, many of whom have feared that their life in the UK may be turned upside down by the consequences of the Brexit vote. “Britain has made a choice, which I think is a bad choice, because the middle classes have lacked perspectives, and have had doubts," Macron said. He promised to stand for the rights of the French people who “have made their life choice to settle in Britain”.

As far as Macron's UK co-ordinator, Ygal El-Harra, 40, was concerned, that the candidate would make a trip across the Channel was self evident: “We’ve got people in Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, in Cornwall. And they’re not just bankers and traders: some work in delivery, restaurants, many are students... They perfectly represent French society, and we want to keep in touch with them.”

In 2012, London’s French community opted for Nicolas Sarkozy over Hollande, but the vote was very close (48 per cent to 52 per cent). Just as within France, where he appeals to both left and right-wingers, Macron’s internationally-minded liberalism, coupled with his fluent, fairly well-accented English, could win big among the expat. And they matter - there are about 100,000 votes to grab. “For us who are in London, it’s important to have an open-minded, international candidate," the teenager Tran said.

Rosa Mancer, a 45-year-old strategist who has lived in London for 20 years, agreed. “I loved what he said about Europe. We must reform it from the inside," she said. But she admitted her support for Macron was “a choice by elimination”, due to the threat of the far-right Front National and the corruption case surrounding Fillon. “He’s got no scandal behind him," she said. Unlike their younger peers, voters with more experience in French politics tended to choose the dynamic Macron because he was the least compromised of the lot. “It’s certainly not Marine Le Pen, nor Benoît Hamon, the sectarist Fillon or the Stalinist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who will rebuild our fossilised France”, said Roland Stern, a Frenchman in his sixties. “In 1974, Giscard D’Estaing didn’t have a party, either. But once he had won, the others followed him.”

British politicians had come to see the French phenomenon, too. Labour’s Denis MacShane and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg sat among the VIPs. For the latter, the enthusiasm around a promising and brilliant politician rang a bell. Looking back on the 2010 general election, the former Liberal Democrat leader reflected: “Although my platform was very different at the time, the basis was that the status quo was letting people down and that we needed something different.” Clegg’s advice to Macron? “Make sure you seek to set and manage people’s expectations.”

As Clegg knows too well, there is a danger in bringing everyone together, and that is keeping everyone together without disappointing them all. If his name comes first on the evening of May 7, Macron’s real challenge will begin: forming a government with his supports for a broad political spectrum, and dropping vague pledges and marketing slogans to map out a clear way ahead.

In Westminster, hundreds of supporters were literally behind him, seated in tiers on stage. A massive screen showed a live close-up of Macron's youthful face. Something in his picture-perfect smile seemed to wonder what would happen if the crowd stopped cheering.