BANGKOK: When the death of African American George Floyd during his arrest fuelled the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, 16-year-old Pollisa “Polly” Tien-iam-arnan was observing the unfolding series of news developments in Bangkok.
She noted that the events had engaged so many social media users in Thailand, especially among people her age.
The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, a gesture of defiance against injustice and racial discrimination in the digital community, was seen plastered on Thai social media, where netizens condemned what they believed were acts of injustice.
So on Jun 4, when news broke about the alleged kidnapping of Thai political dissident Wanchalearm Satsaksi in broad daylight outside his Phnom Penh residence in Cambodia, followed by widespread allegations against the Thai government, Polly expected an equally robust response on Thai social media from her peers.
But all she witnessed was silence.
“A lot of Instagram users I was following, who are Thai, decided not to post or put in any hashtag of any sort. A lot of enthusiasm that I saw over the Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t reflected in Wanchalearm’s disappearance,” she recounted.
Thirty-seven-year-old Wanchalearm was among several Thai political activists summoned by the authorities after a military coup in 2014. He fled Thailand for a life in exile before he was reportedly seen grabbed by armed men and taken away in a vehicle in early June.
Until today, he remains missing. And to Polly, not enough has been said about his disappearance. She believes it is evidence of a clear disconnect between many Thai youths and socio-political issues involving their own country, particularly among her cohort, who include the children of some of Thailand’s wealthiest.
“I think that this choice to disconnect stems from the fact that Thai people are scared to touch on politics in fear of offending someone and situations where they have to defend their own opinions,” she said.
The fact that they can just drown out everything that’s going around outside of them is really scary.
This was something Polly and three of her close friends aspired to change. In April, they founded a digital platform called Choose Change to encourage an exchange of views on politics and social issues both in Thailand and abroad.
The four founders – all school students aged 16 and 17 – hope the platform will help expose more teenagers like themselves to current affairs, generate more discussions and a sense of social responsibility, and inspire them to change their society for the better.
Current affairs may not be a common topic of discussion for many young Thais but for the likes of Polly, youths should be more aware of key issues affecting their society and get involved in finding solutions.
“If these people are to grow up to be some of the most influential people in our country, I think it’s very important to work with what we have and try to make them at least aware that there are other people that are actually going to be affected by the policies they implement and change that they place in this world,” Polly said.
Currently operating as a website with an Instagram account, Choose Change has gained more than 1,000 followers since its launch. The platform allows people wishing to share their opinions on any issues they are passionate about to submit articles, which will then be discussed, edited and published on the website and social media.
The aim is to reduce the gap between young people and socio-political developments around them by sharing short and colourful articles written with a personal tone and mostly by people their age.
Each month, Choose Change comes in a different theme, for example, Black Lives Matter and Pride for June. So far, it has published more than 20 articles, with topics ranging from mass shooting to abortion and mental health.
“When you’re not constantly reminded there are these issues, even though you can be very passionate or really want to care, not being exposed constantly makes you forget about it,” said co-founder Pimnara “Fin” Boondoungprasert.
Just because it doesn’t affect us doesn’t mean it’s not there. It doesn’t mean it’s not important.
Since the launch in April, the team behind Choose Change has grown from four to 25 members. Most of them are Thai school students who want to use their voice to bring about change in society.
Some issues have attracted more discussion than others, and comments reflected both agreement and disagreement. But regardless of the feedback, the four founders are happy to see conversations already beginning to spread among young people, no matter how big or small the circle is.
“A lot of people are silent because of the cancel culture. If your opinion isn’t like the majority of the media, you’re not accepted, which I feel is totally wrong,” said co-founder Rosalyn “Rosie” Bejrsuwana.
Interest in social issues and Thai politics does not come naturally to everyone at Choose Change. For Rosie, she said it only hit her recently when she went to the US to study.
Calling herself “ignorant”, the 16-year-old said she experienced a different kind of society in the US, where she attended a public school and got to know many people who can access fewer resources compared to what she had in Bangkok.
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“I lived in a bubble,” said Rosie, referring to her fine lifestyle and education at an expensive school in Thailand.
In the US, Rosie lived by herself and worked part-time at a restaurant to earn money after school. Without her family’s constant support, she took a new look at the world around her and became more interested in social problems as well as politics.
“I experienced a lot of racial discrimination and all that. And that shocked me,” she said.
“Then I realised that if I’m back in Thailand, I actually can do something about it.”
FROM DISCUSSIONS TO ACTIONS
Besides publishing articles, Choose Change also plans to organise social events and collaborate with university students and other organisations to further expand the conversation. The team members are talking workshops and gatherings where participants would leave with new ideas on how to change society for the better.
According to co-founder Akkarasorn “Ang-Ang” Opilan, the team members are also discussing producing podcasts and video clips on current affairs for their audience.
“Choose Change has created discussions. The next step is to take action, which is what we’re trying to develop,” she said.
We don’t want them to just know because only knowing doesn’t help. There’s no outcome. We have to begin with choosing to change.
For Ang-Ang, change can start here in Thailand. Citing how many young Thais called for justice for George Floyd but chose to ignore problems in their own country, she said it is a result of various factors, including how family upbringing and the educational system in Thailand fail to engage youths in political discussions and expose them to social problems.
“In our society, politics is never a dinner table conversation,” Ang-Ang said.
“Many parents don’t want their children to study political science because they don’t think it affects them. Many people feel it’s not necessary,” she added.
For her, politics is closer to young Thais than many of them think, and they should learn about it in order to understand what is happening in their own country and how it affects people in society.
“It’s complex and isn’t just about rich people sitting on their chairs in the parliament,” Ang-Ang said.
“When we take the sky train, that’s politics; it’s the country’s infrastructure. Or when we have a bowl of noodles and the price goes up from 30 baht (US$0.96) to 35 baht, that’s also politics.”
With Choose Change and its future projects, Ang-Ang and her friends are hopeful that politics and social issues will appear more in discussions among Thai youths and their growing awareness would lead to better solutions and greater change.
“To think we have everything and that we’re not affected is like living in a bubble of privilege. It’s so detached and shameful,” said Ang-Ang.
“If we have everything we need, why don’t we reach out or step out to see the outside world, given that we can help other people?”