Old Thai schoolbook illustrations revived in satirical cartoons

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 19, 2013 Old characters from well-known Thai schoolbooks have been revived with a topical twist in a recently launched series of satirical cartoons on Facebook, reflecting and lampooning current political events.

"Manee. Manee has eyes." These are the first simple words most Thai children in the 1970s and 80s (and possibly every foreign student learning Thai) read in school. Created by the Ministry of Education and published in 1977, the books - plainly titled "Thai Lesson Book" - aimed at primary school students became a recognizable childhood item for introducing them to reading Thai and also a stable of characters such as the young girl Manee (มานี), her older brother Mana (มานะ) and also a dog called Toh (โต).

Many adults fondly remember the simple phrases and the colorful illustrations reflecting simple rural life. But newer generations do not get to see and read these stories in school anymore since the books have been out of print and the curriculum for almost 20 years now.

However, Manee and her friends made an unexpected comeback this summer on Facebook - but things have somehow changed: Toh the dog is suddenly wearing a "Guy Fawkes" mask, gleefully runs after tanks instead of searching for crabs and whereas the formerly well-behaved Manee used to nurse Toh when he got pinched by said crab, she now ends up regularly whacking him with a folding chair. Here's an example of one of these new lessons:

บทที่ ๓ / Lesson 3

โต ไม่ชอบ เลือกตั้ง / โต ชอบ รถถัง / แต่ โต ต่อตัาน เผด็จการ / มานี ตีโต ให้แม่ง หายงง

Toh does not like elections. / Toh likes tanks. / But Toh protests against dictatorship. / Manee whacks Toh out of his confusion.

This is definitely not the Manee from your childhood, but rather the work of an ongoing series of topical and satirical cartoons using the characters and the art style of the old school books to comment current affairs in Thailand.

The Facebook page "มานีมีแชร์" ("Manee has a chair") has as of writing over 84,000 'likes' and was launched in June in response to the reemergence of anti-government and ultra-nationalist protesters, who have rebranded themselves to the so-called 'White Masks', in reference to the "Guy Fawkes"-masks popularized by the Occupy protest movement, also known from the 2005 movie and earlier comics "V for Vendetta".

"The reason why I set up this page is that 99 per cent of my Facebook friends are salim [a Thai dessert, but also the slang term for an ultra-conservative, mostly associated with the multi-colored shirts group of ultra-royalist Dr. Tul Sitthisomwong], so I needed an outlet because I wouldn't have been able to express it as myself," said the unnamed creator in an interview with Prachatai.

Apart from the obvious nostalgia factor of the illustrations, there is another reason for the popularity of the Facebook page: be it Egypt's military coup as an 'inspiration' for Thailand (read story here), the scare over Thailand's rice safety (read story here), the fistfight between two Thai badminton athletes at an international tournament (read story here), the dismal findings of the NHRC over the 2010 crackdown (read story here) or the stupendous threat by the Thai police to monitor the mobile chat app LINE (read story here) - these strips are produced and published almost immediately after these stories happened.

But there are a few 'lessons' that tackle some political and cultural issues in a less obvious way: in one strip, Toh blows up Manee's house with a tank saying it has rats in it, but promises to build a new one for her. In the next picture, Manee beats Toh over the head with the tank's main gun since the new house is nothing but a door and sanitation-less dirty shack, but still has rats in it - a reference to the 2006 military coup and the problems they promised it would solve, but ultimately didn't.

Another one shows Toh convincing Manee, who sees tanks and other military hardware on the horizon, to put on the Guy Fawkes-mask. Suddenly, as she sees the world with Toh's eyes, the scene turns into a sea of glorious Siamese celestial beings - a less than subtle knock on the ulta-nationalists' view of the military's role in Thai politics. Subsequently in the following strip, Manee encourages Toh to put on a red shirt. The result: Toh is overwhelmed by what he's seeing and drops dead on the spot.

The artist gave no particular reason why she chose a 20-year-old school textbook to counter the political views of her Facebook friends, and also leaves the interpretations of what each character and element represents to the readers themselves, including the violent beating of Toh with folding chair at the end of almost every strip (which she acknowledges might irk some readers, but insists - as a dog lover herself - is purely a satirical element). However, it is very clear in the 56 published illustrations so far what stands for what and the creator herself made very clear in her initial motivations where she's coming from.

"Manee has a chair" adds itself to an ever-growing line of politically themed pages on Facebook, covering nearly all sides of the Thai political spectrum, mostly catering to politically like-minded people - and that's something even a chair to the face would hardly be able to change that.