Will post-2023 culture shock see progressives thrive?
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Will post-2023 culture shock see progressives thrive?

A May 15 photo shows the results of Thailand's general election displayed on a screen during a press conference at the Office of the Election Commission in Bangkok. (Photo: AFP)
A May 15 photo shows the results of Thailand's general election displayed on a screen during a press conference at the Office of the Election Commission in Bangkok. (Photo: AFP)

Move Forward, an off-shoot of the now-defunct Future Forward Party, signifies a wind of change, a new direction for the country. Unlike other parties, the MFP's ambition is broader and aims to change the country not only politically but culturally too. The party has allied itself with young people with a desire for a more responsive democratic process.

Nevertheless, the wishes of the party's young supporters are not something that conservatives can align with or wish to see. One particularly contentious issue is the party's steadfast plan to have Section 112, or "lese majeste", redressed. This flagship policy that the MFP holds to its heart raises anxieties among the far-right wing and ultra-conservative Thais.

Winning an election is one thing. Walking into Government House is an entirely different challenge. The honeymoon period seems rather short for the Move Forward Party (MFP). Right after it won the May 14 election, the ultra-nationalistic camp started a mudslinging mission to paint the MFP's campaign as treason that aims to uproot and erase Thai cultural identity and discount national heritage.

A recent example is the protest right in front of the US Embassy in Bangkok late last month. The protesters -- comprised of radical right-wing and ultra-nationalistic groups -- accuse foreigners of backing and pulling strings behind the successful election campaign of the MFP. In a rare move, US Ambassador Robert F Godec met with the protesters in person. The embassy promptly released an official statement that reads: "the U.S. respects the institution of the Thai monarchy and the great esteem in which Thais hold the Royal Family".

However, the ultra-right-wing group that has dominated the Thai political landscape for decades may not succeed this time because things have changed too much. Since 2020, the younger generation has become more vocal socially and politically, and their engagement has jump-started a reexamination of national identity. Young people have redefined the meaning of Thainess and constructed a new cultural identity. Needless to say, adults, the state, and even conservative clans have little or no control over this new generation in the TikTok era. Under this unique and bubbling social and cultural landscape, the young have found, in the MFP, a political group with values that they can align with.

The May 14 election may have wrapped up, but its ripples will run deep. The post-2023 culture shock has just begun, especially for conservative Thais. That is understandable as social and political backgrounds have groomed them to be wary of the West's export of so-called "liberal democracy". It needs to be said that this sceptical mindset is not limited to Thais. It is a typical perception that can be seen in most Asean nations in reference to the "Asian Values" of the 1990s. Under this value, peace and harmony can only be maintained when everyone knows their place and aligns with the social hierarchy. Hierarchy comes first and supersedes individual liberty and freedoms.

To the conservative Thais, liberal young people are ignorant of Thai traditional culture and values. For them, the new set of democratic values, the quest for equality and liberty that the young generation pursues is a threat to the future of Thai culture and national identity.

Questions have arisen in the aftermath of the national vote: What will happen next? Can the MFP-led democratisation process survive? Can conservative Thais, who still account for more than half of the population, adjust to new values in Thai democracy?

Post-2023 culture shock comes at a crucial moment, with Thai democracy turning 91 years old this month. On June 24, 1932, the Kana Rasadorn Party (the People's Party), which represented young and progressive civil servants and overseas students, launched the putsch that replaced the absolute monarchy with the constitutional monarchy.

The "revolution" in 1932 did not bring instant democracy. Along the way, the country has witnessed political upheavals, street protests -- a few of which turned bloody, scores of coups and constitutions torn up and rewritten time and again -- the current 2017 constitution is the 22nd. Despite the victory of the MFP and change of guard, no one believes the conservative group and establishment will step back easily.

The question is how long the resistance of the old guard will last. In each election cycle since 2019, Thailand has had around three million new voters, and this demographic pattern will continue in the next three electoral cycles, assuming the government can survive its four-year term. Today, young people are fully equipped with information and not easily led or "propagandised". Young Thais are politically active and support the evolution of Thai democracy.

That said, the old guard will find it harder to hold back the power, not to mention turn back time. Thus, another military or judicial coup d'état, or any attempt to dash the hope of the young generation, will bring Thailand to another political confrontation and unrest, which may be different from the past.

It is time for the Thai establishment to allow democracy to evolve and prosper. It is about time for Thais -- regardless of political credos and age brackets to redefine and refresh Thai cultural values and beliefs, and it is about time to infuse the spirit of equal rights and liberty into the cultural identity. Therefore people can be recognised as citizens of the country and not only subjects of the nation.

Titipol Phakdeewanich is a political scientist at the Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University, Thailand. He is currently a visiting researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Norway.

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