21 September 2022

“Shamefully presents a negative image of Thai society...”


Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture

As incredible as it may seem, thirty years ago a dictionary was burnt in the streets of Bangkok and banned by Thai police. The Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture was published in 1992, and soon attracted controversy in Thailand, as its entry for Bangkok described the city as “a place where there are a lot of PROSTITUTES”. (The capitalisation indicated a cross-reference; it was not for emphasis.)

This mention of the city’s somewhat seedy reputation (on page 79 of the hardback edition) infuriated some Bangkokians, who burnt the dictionary in protest, and it was officially banned on 4th July 1993. The publishers quickly removed the offending text, in time for the paperback edition.

Censorship in Thailand is frequently a face-saving measure, a form of reputation management to ensure that negative images are whitewashed from cultural representations of the country. As discussed in Thai Cinema Uncensored, this results in media, literature, and films “that present a rose-tinted view, rather than holding a mirror up to society.”

This has been the case for almost a century, as the silent film Suvarna of Siam (นางสาวสุวรรณ) was censored in 1923 to prevent the portrayal of capital punishment in the country. Similarly, one of the reasons given for the censorship of Syndromes and a Century (แสงศตวรรษ) was that it “shamefully presents a negative image of Thai society for foreign audiences.”

Bangkok Inside Out was banned here for the same reason, after the Ministry of Culture objected to its photo of a go-go bar. More than fifty years ago, the travelogue Bangkok After Dark (written by Fred Poole under the pen name Andrew Harris) was also banned for its focus on the city’s red-light districts.