When Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square to protest the regime of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, they brought with them a weapon against the guns and tear gas of the military: a sense of humor. They carried cartoons, sang parodic songs, and renamed the central garbage heap after one of the president’s agencies. In the short term, their humor was a powerful vehicle for non-violent struggle against a potentially violent regime, and it followed in the footsteps of similarly antic protests in places as disparate as communist Poland and the Bush-era United States.
Humorous protests are a very sophisticated—and even tricky—tool to deploy against authoritarian regimes. As Hannah Arendt wrote in On Violence: “The greatest enemy of authority…is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.” But laughter has political advantages as well as limitations, as I have discovered while studying its impact in Serbia and in my home country, Thailand.
Serbia offers a striking example of how humor can be used to resist an oppressive government. In the 1990s, this southeastern European nation faced numerous crises stemming from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, including wars with newly independent neighboring countries, international sanctions, surging domestic crime rates, and the fearsome rule of Slobodan Milošević, the president of Serbia and, later, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Many civic groups took to the streets to challenge the rule of Milošević, who retained strong support among rural Serbians. A heavy NATO bombing campaign in 1999 and mounting international pressure had weakened Milošević’s authority.
But it took the subversive humor of the Otpor movement (the Serbian word for “resistance”) to finally oust Milošević. Otpor did satirical street theater, parodic protests, and carnivalesque events—all of which were fun and easy to participate in. One of their most famous street skits was the “Beating of a Barrel.” In the middle of Belgrade’s busy pedestrian streets, activists placed an empty petrol barrel with an image of Milošević on it. They invited passersby to hit the barrel with a stick they provided. Soon people were lining up to beat the barrel to show their resentment toward the regime. These actions conveyed a critical message to the Serbian public: Milošević was not to be feared, he was no longer legitimate as a leader, and there was a political alternative to him.
As the confrontation escalated, Otpor ratcheted up the ridicule. When the regime baselessly accused Otpor of being a terrorist organization, the activists didn’t respond by defending themselves with words, but instead dressed up in theatrical military uniforms and paraded around toting toy rifles. The crews walked through the streets ignoring traffic signs. Afterward, they proclaimed ironically, “This is a terrorist act because we didn’t obey the traffic sign. This is the kind of terrorists we are.”
Otpor also organized rock concerts, and parties (sometimes joined by celebrities) to encourage people across Serbia to imagine a different Serbia without wars, poverty, and political instability. In October 2000, the persistent nonviolent campaigns waged by Otpor and other opposition parties removed Milošević from power. Leading activists from Otpor continued their nonviolent crusades, transferring knowledge of nonviolent protest strategies to other movements in countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon, Iran, the Maldives, Burma, and more recently, Egypt.
One unlikely place where these tactics resurfaced a decade was Thailand, where anti-elite jokes and gossip are considered weapons of “the weak,”. An unlikely place for humorous street protest, but in 2010, just such an organized movement emerged. For decades, Thai society has been politically and economically dominated by the monarchy, army, and aristocratic elites. But since the early 2000s, an alternative, democratic political party has gained increasing support. This movement was led by Thaksin Shinawatra, a Thai businessman who served as the country’s prime minister for five and a half years before being overthrown in a 2006 military coup. His supporters, many of them rural farmers, were known as the Red Shirts.
The political establishment saw this as a threat, mobilizing their partisan supporters—who became known as the Yellow Shirts—to the street, increasing the bitter political polarization that still grips Thailand today. In 2010, pro-establishment government forces cracked down on the anti-establishment Red Shirts, raising fears that the protesters would morph into an armed underground guerrilla group. Others worried that the government’s new draconian laws prohibiting public assembly would silence all opposition.
Out of this frightening moment came the group named Red Sunday. Led by Sombat Boongnamanong, a social activist, freedom fighter, and former theater performer, Red Sunday’s activities were intended to create a friendlier public face for opposition activities that wouldn’t run afoul of the government. They fused everyday activities (such as dining, donning certain outfits, shopping, and exercising) with political protest. In this way, Red Sunday’s demonstration did not look exactly like a conventional protest, except that they often used the color red, which is associated with the anti-establishment.
One of Red Sunday’s most memorable skits was an aerobic dance at the biggest public park in Bangkok in July 2010. Around 400 participants dressed in red sports outfits and ghost makeup intended to remind the public of the crackdown that had taken place few months ago. Like other park visitors, they gathered for a group aerobic dance routine popular among Thais. But theirs was unusual. The “instructor” led them in dancing to Red Shirt songs and in different silly steps that made the multigenerational crowd laugh and captured passersby’s attention. At other times, protesters would dress as ghosts, walk downtown, and hop on the monorail to ride with other passengers reminding them of regime repression. Protesters would also meet up for a picnic in a public park, go shopping at the mall en masse, or ride bicycles through Bangkok streets.
These small acts of resistance carved out a space for Red Sunday’s political activism in a time of repression and despair and normalized the act of resistance for Thailand’s middle class, which has traditionally supported the political establishment. The regime would have appeared ridiculous if if had cracked down on a bunch of aerobic dancers. This tactical advantage, called the dilemma action because of the bind it places on the leadership, is particularly useful for activists trapped under an authoritarian—and dull—rule. Red Sunday’s playful actions paved the way for the resurgence of the anti-establishment movement, which won an important electoral victory in 2011.
In Serbia, Otpor used humorous protest actions in a more systematic way due to its well-crafted strategy of nonviolent defiance and nationwide franchises attracting broad-based support. As a result, the number of actions quantified, and effects of humor maximized. In contrast, Thailand’s Red Sunday was an ad hoc group working on a smaller scale. More importantly, the two groups used humor to achieve different goals. Otpor wanted to step up its political momentum to topple Milošević and transform Serbian political landscape. Red Sunday considered humor useful for sustaining nonviolence as a movement when it was on the brink of becoming militarized.
But they also were effective for many of the same reasons. They helped reduce fear among the populace and induce participation in protest activities. They also drew media attention to a protest movement, increasing publicity and political momentum. And they reversed the effects of repression by exposing the incongruity between a regime’s accusations and the reality.
Finally, humorous events can offer a space for utopian enactment—encouraging people to imagine other political possibilities through parties, concerts, and festivals. This ability to imagine is extremely crucial for social change. People can be politically submissive if they think there is no alternative, and change is not possible.
For activists, there are no limits to the supply of humor—after all, it comes from deep within our different cultures—but there are limits to how it can be used. Joking “with” others rather than “at” others is important, as is knowing what crosses the line and violates norms, and what does not. Jokes do not fly if they are out of context. Activists who know what culturally triggers laughter can use that knowledge to their advantage, even against the most seemingly omnipotent governments.
Janjira Sombatpoonsiri is an assistant professor of the political science faculty at Thammasat University in Bangkok and author of Humor and Nonviolent Struggle in Serbia.