A sad end to popular online comic strip Khai Maew
Last Thursday, the Facebook page of the famous online political cartoon Khai Maew vanished from the social media site where it earlier had resided on Facebook as "cartooneggcat" for the past one year, eight months and three days. While the page's disappearance was sudden, the cause remains unclear.
Unlike a terrorist attack, no one claimed responsibility. Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam said he does not know whether there was any government involvement in this matter. Yet, he noted the law allows authorities to take down only illegal content.
Launched on 21 April 2016, Khai Maew, translated literally as cat balls, managed to secure more than 100,000 likes and followers within two months. At the time of its vanishing, there were more than 450,000 followers. The page also topped the ranking as the most popular local Facebook Fanpage in Thailand in 2017 with a total of 50,352 votes, according to a survey organised by the Prachatai news website. It was ranked second in the same poll in 2016.
Assistant professor Pirongrong Ramasoota teaches and researches on media, communication and society at the Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University.
This talk-of-town online cartoon featured a four-cell comic strip focusing mainly on post-coup politics.
While void of any narration, speech balloons or thought bubbles, the silent cartoon strips managed to articulate poignant messages about political and social relationships in the post-coup period through symbolism, satire, and artful representation.
Gags expressed in the comic strips usually drew upon current political issues and were presented through regular characters whose looks were similar to well-known political figures.
Since they were silent comic strips, readers could only guess from the resemblance in appearance, the interaction between characters, and the unique message conveyed through the drawing of the characters.
For instance, the male character in a military uniform with a toothbrush moustache (akin to former German leader Adolf Hitler) was generally understood to be Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, possibly because he is a military general who took power in a coup.
The lady with two eye stalks and a claw was understood to be former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra (since her nickname is Poo which means crab). The square-faced man was understood to be her big brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (since he was often mocked for his square face while still in power).
The cartoonist, who kept his identity anonymous, once gave an interview to Prachatai news agency about his intent to keep his cartoon strips silent, saying: "It is from my belief that everyone has a predisposition and preset value. So they use those to interpret the cartoons accordingly and varyingly. I don't want to commit the readers to anything. The silent strip will reveal their political inkling and what is actually on their mind."
In addition, the cartoonist often linked the events in the strip to settings in more famous cartoons or Japanese manga to add humour or dramatic effects. And if the gag alluded to certain political happenings, there might be labels or signs in the background to aid the readers' understanding.
Oftentimes, readers did not get the gag intended and this, according to the cartoonist, sparked discussion and dialogue among followers of the page, while many readers were prompted to do research on their own to try to decipher the meaning of the cartoons.
The Khai Maew cartoon illustrated with this article was published on Dec 13, 2016 and it drew 19,997 reactions and 564 comments, not including replies to comments.
The context was a prelude to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA)'s last reading of a bill amending the Computer Crime Act (CCA). Two days later, the Thai Netizen Network and Amnesty International (Thailand) submitted more than 300,000 signatures solicited through www.change.org, an online campaign website, to the NLA to stop the passage of the controversial law. During that time, the hashtag #stopCCA also topped the ranking as the most tweeted on Twitter.
Nevertheless, on Dec 16, 2016, the bill sailed through the NLA with 168 votes in approval and four abstentions. The new law came in effect 120 days later on May 24 last year.
A reading of this four-cell cartoon strip on the CCA could yield the following meaning. An average person using a cellular phone was under surveillance by the military as represented by a military character (generally understood to be the current prime minister and National Council for Peace and Order leader Gen Prayut). The surveillance became more intense, leading the monitored user to become fearful.
Eventually, everyone is closely watched regardless of the kind of device used or political ideology (signified here by the different colours of the shirts worn -- red versus yellow) and the kind of content they are exposed to.
One of the characters in the last cell was shown to be following a white-haired man who resembles fugitive anti-coup historian and political activist Somsak Jeamteerasakul with whom netizens have been legally barred from having any interaction by an announcement of the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society. Another character depicted is a square-faced man that resembles exiled former premier Thaksin.
Khai Maew's efforts did hit a few snags, however. The Khai Maew cartoonist admitted that quite a few of his drawings were reported and some of them were as a result removed by Facebook. In all these reported cases, there was little or no warning, with no appeal mechanism provided.
According to the cartoonist, the banned pictures were nothing of immoral nature -- pornography or hate speech. The main reason behind the ban was just political taste of those who flocked to report them in high numbers.
Despite the constant risk of getting the page banned, the cartoonist felt that the humour, satire and criticism conveyed through his cartoons had sparked a fair amount of political interest and participation which would have been difficult under the currently restrictive political circumstances. The Khai Maew cartoons, he said, may represent what someone has in mind but dares not speak out.
So sharing the cartoon is a safer option to convey the message. In this way, the cartoons became a political mouthpiece.
Khai Maew's last cartoon depicted one of its usual characters, fugitive Somsak Jeamteerasakul, leaving for France, saying the distance will be further than he ever travelled. This was seen by some followers as a symbolic warning of the cartoonist's intent to leave the scene.
Farewell cartooneggcat. You will be missed.
Chulalongkorn University Professor
Pirongrong Ramasoota, PhD, is a professor of communication at Chulalongkorn University and a senior research fellow at LIRNEasia