The 'salim' phenomenon in Thai politics

The 'salim' phenomenon in Thai politics

In this 2010 file photo, People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) demonstrators prepare to leave Suvarnabhumi airport after they laid siege to the airport in November of that year. The old yellow shirts of the PAD later started to don other colours before morphing into the 'salim'. (Bangkok Post photo)
In this 2010 file photo, People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) demonstrators prepare to leave Suvarnabhumi airport after they laid siege to the airport in November of that year. The old yellow shirts of the PAD later started to don other colours before morphing into the 'salim'. (Bangkok Post photo)

Few phenomena explain and underpin Thai politics more than the rise and decline of what is known pejoratively these days as salim, a metaphorical variation of salim, a Thai dessert comprising multi-coloured thin noodles served in coconut milk with crushed ice. Once socially attractive and politically fashionable, salim have gone out of vogue, looked down upon in a new era of anti-establishment protest for pro-democracy reforms under the new reign. What becomes of these pro-military royalist-conservative salim will have much to say about what will happen to Thailand's political future.

Salim first came to light in 2010 as the reinvention of the yellow shirts who had originally protested in Bangkok's streets from August 2005 and paved the way for the military coup against the Thaksin Shinawatra government in September 2006. Yellow was the colour identified with King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great who reigned from 1946-2016. Donning yellow was believed to reflect and honour the virtues and deeds of the late monarch who was immensely popular with the Thai people. Implicit in the yellow movement was the late king's moral authority that derived not from citizen voters in a democracy but loyal subjects in the Thai kingdom.

The political narrative of the salim was therefore inspired by and revolved around this royally based moral authority and sense of superior ethics, leading to a holier-than-thou assumption and attitude. Translated into politics, salim necessarily looked down on the role of elected representatives and political parties. To them, politicians are nothing but opportunistic and corrupt, characterised by their constant squabbling and vested interests. As a result, elections are not to be trusted, only to be put up with as and when necessary.

Since they did not believe in the popular will and the concept of majority rule, the salim never won an election because they never bothered to win mass electoral support, especially in the populous North and Northeast regions. Their main vehicle, the Democrat Party, lost every poll to Thaksin's party machine since 2001. After losing, salim saw fit each time to overturn election results by all means possible.

It all began legitimately enough under the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) banner in August 2005 when Thaksin and his crew increasingly monopolised parliamentary control and lined their pockets with public policies that favoured their private businesses. The yellows saw themselves as virtuous and righteous, the so-called khon dee or good people in a Manichean and binary conflict with "evil" elected elites who made and delivered promises to rural voters in what was condemned as "populism", such as cheap universal healthcare and rural microcredit schemes.

When the September 2006 coup and a new constitution still failed to stop the Thaksin electoral juggernaut in the December 2007 poll, the yellows came back to the streets from mid-2008. This time, they went on a rampage, occupying Government House (where they planted rice) and later Suvarnabhumi airport (where they played badminton). The portrait of the late monarch was often used as the yellows' rallying symbol, while the reigning queen at the time attended the funeral of a yellow-clad protester along the way. Although they achieved their aims in view of the Constitutional Court's dissolution of yet another Thaksin-aligned ruling party in December 2008, the yellows became so nasty and ugly at such a great cost to Thailand's economy and politics that they lost credibility.

The yellows then started to don other colours, except red, which was confined to the disenfranchised pro-Thaksin street demonstrators in 2009-10 who were likened to "stupid buffaloes". Drawing on the late monarch's pink jacket at one point, more colours entered the fray, all arrayed against the reds. The old yellows became the new salim. One and the same, they are the royalist-conservative minority in Thailand's vast electorate.

Salim hold a deep disdain and disgust for elected politicians who are corrupt but can put up rather well with army generals who do the same. Salim are necessarily in favour of the two coups in 2006 and 2014 because seizing power by force was the only way to win outside the constitution while they keep losing at the polling booth. As they preferred appointees over elected representatives, salim requested a royally appointed government at key junctures over the past two decades.

Naturally, they have no qualms with judicial dissolutions of large opposing parties chosen by the electorate, the latest being the Future Forward Party last February. As they once demonised Thaksin, salim now do the same to Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the former leader of the disbanded FFP. Similar to how they dismissed the reds, salim now claim the young student-led protest movement lacks a knowledge of "Thai history" and is "brainwashed" by social media. Ironically, the salim do not call the dissenting younger generations "stupid" because many of them are their own children.

While generally well-educated, urbane and cosmopolitan, salim can also come from lower rungs of the socio-economic strata. The crucial dividing line is their perceived source of legitimacy and political power. To salim, moral authority in a kingdom supersedes elected office in a democracy. The minority do not just have rights under majority rule; the minority are entitled to the right to rule.

In 2013-14, the salim had to make another comeback to lay the ground for the overthrow of yet another Thaksin-controlled elected government, this time under the leadership of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra. Similar to the PAD yellows in 2008, the salim under the People's Democratic Reform Committee bulldozed their way over the Pheu Thai-led government, rejecting a lower house dissolution, preventing the vote in some constituencies, and urging the army to step in. By coup time in May 2014, the salim lost allure and attraction but gained power and office.

The junta's abysmal rule since then has further eroded the salim's standing. Now few seem to want to be known as salim. Even Sondhi Limthongkul, the PAD's progenitor and yellow pioneer in 2005, has insisted he is not a salim and attributes it to the PDRC. There was a time during the twilight of the last reign that salim could do no wrong and won each time they took to the streets. This is no longer the case.

Although they pretend otherwise, salim do not subscribe to the ideal of equality. They have to be morally superior to look over the inferior rest. It is unthinkable to them that rural folks in the farm and menial street sweepers in Bangkok and countless others who are less privileged without university degrees or financial means should be electorally counted on the same par with them.

But Thailand's tide is shifting. Without the fount of moral authority from the previous reign, salim now tread on loose and shaky ground. Their heyday has passed. The extent to which salim resist the unfolding force of history in Thai politics will determine how much pain and grief Thailand will go through in the months ahead.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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