In mid-October, candy, soda, and sweets filled the mouths of a crowd numbering in the hundreds, who, young and old, marched outside a government building demanding Thai police stop using strong-hand tactics to subdue protestors.
But these were not scenes from the streets of the Thai capital Bangkok, broadcasted across the globe in recent months – this was the Thai consulate in downtown Los Angeles.
The protest’s initiator was 32-year old Pongkwan Sawasdipakdi, a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California. Before coming to the US, Pongkwan was a lecturer of political science at Thammasat University in Bangkok and, before that, a student activist in Thailand’s pro-democracy movement in 2010 at Chulalongkorn University.
“I was actually an activist back when I lived in Thailand, and wanted to continue my activism. My friend told me a group of Thais in New York were protesting, so I posted in the Royalist Marketplace [Thai dissident Facebook] group to see if any Thais in LA would be interested,” she told Globe.
After a positive response from California-based members, what followed was a protest numbering some 200 people on 18 October in front of LA’s Thai General Consulate.
Pongkwan grew up in Thailand and, after moving to the US, she spent time observing Thai-Americans on social media. She discovered a range of political opinions, including what appeared to be an urge to remain loyal to the kingdom’s powerful royal family as a way to preserve cultural identity in a country where Thais are a small minority.
At the same time, just like Thais in the homeland, those in Los Angeles who disagree with the country’s history of military-backed coups and suppression of criticism of the monarchy are standing up to make their voices heard.
In private, every Thai person I know has something to say about the current king
Though thousands of kilometres away from their country of origin, many in the Thai community of southern California experience similar tensions and societal divides as those back in the homeland. And while US politics usually dominate their newscycle, local Thai-Americans still feel the pull of the ongoing, pro-democracy demonstrations roiling Bangkok and pulling traditional norms into a critical spotlight.
“In private, every Thai person I know has something to say about the current king,” said 39-year old Vanda Asapahu, who owns a Thai restaurant in Los Angeles. Vanda was born in Bangkok, but grew up in Los Angeles after her family immigrated to the US in the 1980s in search of the upward mobility promised by the American Dream. “Many people, such as my mum’s friends for example, just don’t think the protest movements will go anywhere.”
The California metropolis is home to the largest community of Thais outside of Thailand, numbering approximately 80,000. The first mass wave of Thai immigration to the US occurred in the 1960s, drawing middle- to upper-class Thais exposed to American culture through their national alliance during the Vietnam War. More recent waves, beginning in the 1980s, have consisted largely of working class Thais immigrating for better economic opportunities.
Local Thai-Americans are proud of their roots, and organisations like the Los-Angeles-based Thai Community Development Center now promote such cultural landmarks as “the world’s first and only Thai town”, located in the city neighbourhood of East Hollywood.
But even as Thais have entered the American “melting pot” of cultural assimilation, some members of their communities still maintain a firm connection to their point of origin. Today, as youth-led protests have roiled the Thai political establishment, their reverberations are felt as far away as Los Angeles – a city regarded as one of the more liberal-minded in the US.
Those from different generations and classes feel the clash between tradition and modernity. While that can be expressed in reverence for the monarchy and Thailand’s political establishment, it also translates into views on issues that are distinctly American.
“Some Thais in [Los Angeles] who have been here longer may think that their success comes directly from hard work, and newcomer Thais simply need to work harder for the ‘American dream’,” Vanda said. “Opportunities afforded to everyone living in America today is very different from those in the past. Deep systematic inequality makes it difficult.”
It was a chance for me to educate my friends from other Asian communities about Thailand’s issues. They were like, ‘Oh I didn’t know you had a king!’ and I’m like, ‘yeah that’s just the beginning!’
The turnout at the mid-October protest proved successful in educating non-Thais about the kingdom’s political turmoil. 29-year-old Andy Cabena-Vuera, a Thai of mixed heritage who works in marketing, drove his friends to the protest from their home city of San Diego.
“It was really a chance for me to educate my friends from other Asian communities, such as the Lao community, about Thailand’s issues. They were like, ‘Oh I didn’t know you had a king!’ and I’m like, ‘yeah that’s just the beginning!’” he said.
A group including Pongkwan, Andy and Vanda then organised a second protest on 27 October that attracted roughly 100 people. At that one, the group presented a letter to the Thai consulate in Los Angeles that Pongkwan drafted with a friend.
The letter emphasised the three pressing demands of Thailand’s current protest movement: For Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who initially came to power through a military coup, to resign; for parliament to draft a new constitution; and for reform of the country’s all-powerful monarchy – which Thai citizens can be imprisoned for publicly criticising under the kingdom’s harsh lese majeste laws. The letter garnered 400 signatures from a mix of people from Thai and other backgrounds in support of democracy in Thailand.
As Thai students take to the streets to chant for these changes, their compatriots in California are organising themselves around similar goals. After Pongkwan’s Facebook post initiated the first protest, she and a few others have since founded a group called LA for Democracy in Thailand.
The group’s ten members have pledged to organise demonstrations and events in support of the demands and concerns of protesters in Thailand. Besides a chance for activism, the small organisation provides members with emotional support, particularly when their families disagree with their activities.
“I think it’s not just an activist group, but a support group as well,” Vanda said. “The group allows for everyone who wants real change in Thailand to come together and speak openly. For many, it’s a support they have never had.”
Like Vanda, Pongkwan also sees resistance to change among older Thai-Americans.
“As a Thai who grew up in Thailand, what I noticed upon moving to the US is that for many Thai-Americans, as a minority group, having pride in the king and the royal family is how they maintain their identities as Thais,” Pongkwan said.
Vanda agreed with Pongkwan, adding that this need to maintain identity may be more pronounced in a city like Los Angeles, with the pressure of a larger Thai community.
But like the movement in Bangkok, the group’s egalitarian structure is challenging Thailand’s hierarchical society, where class divides still heavily dictate society. Vanda said that members also don’t ask each other the kinds of probing questions often used in Thailand to determine peoples’ social status. Though Pongkwan initiated the group with her Facebook post, the nascent movement has no official positions or leaders.
The group had plans to showcase Thailand’s state brutality at Los Angeles City Hall on 5 December, but a surge in Covid-19 cases forced the cancellation of that event. The young organisation is now considering how its activism can be moved online.
Despite the tense circumstances for the demonstrations in Los Angeles around the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, organisers say the events are peaceful and hopeful for change.
“Many of my friends were pleasantly surprised at the vibe,” Andy said. “Some of them had attended Black Lives Matter protests, which were quite emotionally fuelled. But at our protest there were people handing out food, people were having a good time, it didn’t feel like a normal protest.”