Pop culture and protests: new generations in Southeast Asia

Milktea2020, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Southeast Asia curriculum is unique in Italy and allows 40 students to study the language and culture of one of these emerging countries. Thailand and Vietnam are becoming increasingly important on the international stage, not only from an economic perspective but also from a cultural one, thanks to the contribution of great artists.

This region of the world is not as well-known as its more famous neighbours, such as South Korean and Japan. Nevertheless, Southeast Asia is extremely interesting also because of the changes it is going through, with young people engaging in peaceful protests to revolutionise the traditional social structure. Thanks to pop culture ranging from the Milk-Tea Alliance to gestures “borrowed” from The Hunger Games, Millennials and Gen-Z Thai people are challenging power and the status quo.

Young people, culture change, and “pop” protests

People in Thailand and Myanmar are experiencing a turbulent phase from a political perspective. In fact, in both countries young people are leading protests that are starting to change the sociopolitical, economic and cultural scene. 

“What is happening now is almost unprecedented in the region,” says Giuseppe Bolotta, professor of History and Geopolitics in Southeast Asia. “Thanks to the Internet, younger generations can express criticism in ways that were unimaginable in previous decades. In the past, university students used to be the flag-bearers of protests, but now it's underage kids who lead them. They don’t necessarily have a good education, but nevertheless they are able to capture the attention of international media because they use international pop culture, such as symbols borrowed from Hollywood or from Japanese manga, and they use them in very effective satirical ways.

“For these kids, having access to the Internet is essential, not only to organise protests, but also to be able to be connected with “transnational imagination” that can be used to manifest dissent and avoid being accused of lease-majesty – a crime that is still very real in Thailand’s buddhist monarchy.”

“So the King is represented as Voldemort – He Who Must Not Be Named — as kids protest wearing Harry Potter costumes and waving their chopsticks as if they were magic wands that could restore democracy in Thailand. The Death Eaters symbolise the representatives of the army, who seized power in 2014 with a coup.”

Religion and modernity

“Religion plays a very important role in Southeast Asia, where it co-exists with modernity,” says Edoardo Siani, who is a professor of Thai language and an expert in religion and literature in Southeast Asia. “In countries where the majority of the population is Buddhist, such as Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, people of all ages go to temples to accumulate positive karma and secure a bright future.

A lot of men spend part of their youth in a monastery as monks: this is a rite of passage that is necessary for them to be considered mature and ready for marriage. Even the skyscrapers that create the metropolitan skylines were inaugurated on dates that were considered favourable by astrologists.

In cities, believers leave offers at the foot of the statues that are disseminated in many chapels, in order to ensure that gods favour them or in order to keep evil spirits away. In shantytowns, away from the curious gaze of tourists, men and women of all ages work as mediums or psychics that share messages from the gods. Clearly, every person is free to choose which religious practices to engage in.

Religion is “felt” keenly by young people, too, in particular when it can be a way to share messages on social and political causes. For example, in the last two years some groups of students who participated in various protests against anti-democratic governments have used religious practices. In Thailand and Myanmar, young protestors have used divination to choose the best days to protest, and they have used Buddhist symbols of sovereignty to express their political aspirations; they have also organised sorcery rites against those in power.”

The LGBTQ+ community

“Queer communities have taken a primary role in the taunting of power,” says Professor Bolotta. “In Thailand they are very active and they join the protest against the macho ideal of a military man with a submachine gun that represents constituted power.”

“Even though foreign tourists imagine Thailand as a liberal paradise for queer communities, from a legal perspective these people are not protected yet,” says Professor Bolotta. “Certainly if we compare this context to other, Muslim-based ones, we can see that historically a variety of self-expressions have been tolerated, but the LGBTQ+ community is now demanding legal protection when it comes to the recognition of their rights.” 

In Southeast Asia, queer expressions and religion sometimes have things in common, as Professor Siani explains: “Young people often refer to spirit possession to request rights related to gender issues. Members of the LGBTQ+ community sometimes decide to become mediums in order to gain greater social acceptance. In fact, in the context of spirit possession it is acceptable for mediums to assume the resemblance of the god or goddess that they are channelling. These are transgender practices that find meaning in religion. Spirit possession also offers an opportunity to women who are excluded from leadership positions. In Vietnam and Thailand, some women can gain prestige in their community if they act as mediums for the most revered deities.”

TV series, films and music 

K-Pop and Korean dramas are very popular, but Thailand is also becoming prominent in Asian and international entertainment. “In Thailand, national TV series have a lot of viewers,” says Professor Siani. “The series Hormones is a must: it shattered taboos in the way the lives of high-school kids are narrated. Another series that is very popular at the moment is Girl from Nowhere, which is about a mysterious student who goes from school to school and turns into a strange, blood-thirsty karma agent. This series is interesting because it merges orthodox Thai Buddhist notions such as “karma” with the social justice issues that young people feel strongly about. I would also like to mention The Shutter, a horror film that was released about 15 years ago and that is internationally recognised as one of the best ghost stories that have ever been made for the big screen. Cinema lovers will also appreciate Apichatpong, an independent filmmaker who won the Cannes 2021 Jury Prize with the film Memoria, starring Tilda Swinton.”

“I would also like to recommend some Thai musicians. The most well-known is certainly Bird Thongchai, who was raised in a shantytown in Bangkok and has been active since the 1980s. With his catchy tunes he has interpreted various historical periods that the country has gone through, ranging from the hopes and disappointments related to the economic boom at the end of the 1980s to the cosmopolitan influences of k-pop and j-pop in the last decade.”

“Finally, if we consider the recent political protests of students, we must mention Rap Against Dictatorship, a group of young rappers who write protest songs with inflammatory lyrics. This group became famous in 2018 with the song Prathet Ku Mi (My Country Has), which challenged censorship by openly criticising the junta that had seized the government. The song’s video went viral on Youtube and it evoked the memory of a massacre by paramilitary forces in 1976 that is still considered taboo.”

Author: Francesca Favaro / Translator: Joangela Ceccon