20 April 2021

การเมืองโมเบียส

Wad Rawee
Wad Rawee’s book การเมืองโมเบียส: การเมืองและเรื่องเล่าว่าด้วย ศีลธรรมที่ไม่มีด้านตรงข้าม (‘Möbius politics: politics and narratives, morality without opposition’) examines Thai politics and the monarchy since the Thaksin Shinawatra administration. The cover illustration shows Bangkok’s Democracy Monument as a military complex in a dystopian future. Jakkapan Kangwan’s new novel Altai Villa (อัลไตวิลล่า) also features the Monument on its cover. On the cover of the second edition of Sulak Sivaraksa’s book หกทศวรรษประชาธิปไตย (‘six decades of democracy’), the Monument is represented as a jigsaw with one piece—containing the constitution—missing.

18 April 2021

ไข่แมวX

Khai Maew
Happy Boy
ไข่แมวX, by the anonymous Facebook cartoonist Khai Maew, was released this month. The book features the best of Khai Maew’s satirical cartoons from the past four years, including several parodies of the 2019 election campaign. Minimal context is provided alongside each cartoon (as Khai Maew’s work is usually presented without captions, to allow for multiple interpretations), including a reprint of the manifesto for monarchy reform also published in ปรากฏการณ์สะท้านฟ้า 10 สิงหา (‘an earth-shattering event on 10th August’).

At the back of the book are a handful of new cartoons that are too sensitive to publish on the artist’s Facebook page (though even the cover illustration is also potentially taboo-breaking, albeit indirectly). The book’s final image borrows a motif from The Last Monument by another anonymous satirist, Headache Stencil.

Like Chalermpol Junrayab’s Amazing Thai-land series, Khai Maew combines superhero characters and political figures in his satirical cartoons. Both artists’ works are distributed primarily on Facebook, and they have both branched out with exhibitions, calendars, and books. Khai Maew’s first exhibition, Kalaland, was held in 2018, and Chalermpol’s took place a year later.

Khai Maew has also produced satirical merchandise, including soft toys and other items based on his recurring Thaksin Shinawatra and Prayut Chan-o-cha characters. In 2016, he created Happy Boy, a miniature plastic model of the smiling child seen in Neal Ulevich’s photograph of the 6th October 1976 massacre.

21 January 2021

Hakom

Hakom
Remembrances of Red Trauma
Charuphat Petcharavej’s short story Hakom (ห่าก้อม) was first published in an anthology of Isaan literature, มวลดอกไม้ในยุคมืด (‘flowers in a dark age’). It was translated into English last year, and reprinted in Remembrances of Red Trauma: The Tenth Anniversary of the Political Violence of 2010 (1 ทศวรรษ พฤษภาฯ เลือดปี ’53), a collection of articles reflecting on the 2010 massacre and “Thai society’s deep-rooted culture of impunity.” (Pisitakun Kuantalaeng’s Ten Year project also commemorated the tenth anniversary of the massacre.)

Hakom is a supernatural tale of a phi pob spirit possessing an Isaan villager, though the story is also a political metaphor. The fictional village of Dong Bong is a microcosm of Thailand, and its former headman, Wan, is a proxy for Thaksin Shinawatra. Charuphat writes that Wan became persona non grata: “A group of villagers had driven him out of the village, forcing him to make a new home for himself on a hill, far away from the village.” This mirrors Thaksin’s self-exile following the 2006 coup against his government.

Wan’s sister, Buaphan, thus represents Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, and the story describes her futile efforts to protect the village from its attackers: “Against these poisonous animals and fierce beasts out on the streets in a show of full force, the villagers [had] little at their disposal to fight back. So many of them went to see Nang Buaphan for help. But she had nothing to match the power of the attackers. She could only tell the villagers to endure this crisis until one day, the monsters would run out of energy and leave.”

This vivid description of a village under siege echoes the military massacre of red-shirt protesters in 2010, and the 2014 coup against Yingluck’s administration. Ukrit Sa-nguanhai’s short film The Pob’s House (บ้านผีปอบ) also employs a phi pob as a metaphor for political violence. In Ukrit’s film, an elderly woman is beaten by her fellow villagers, who believe her to be possessed by a phi pob. Like Hakom, The Pob’s House was also a response to the 2010 massacre.

24 November 2019

“The Prime Minister.
Show a bit of respect...”

The Cave
Death Wave
The Cave (นางนอน), based on the true story of last year’s miraculous cave rescue, opened in cinemas this week. The film sticks solidly to the facts, with several key participants playing themselves. It’s tense and dramatic, and begins in medias res: the very first line of dialogue is “Let’s go to the cave.” There’s a moment of Ace in the Hole-style social commentary—a vendor selling lottery tickets at the cave entrance—though one scene stands out as comic relief: the arrival of the Prime Minister.

Before the PM appears, he’s formally announced—“The Prime Minister. Show a bit of respect, guys.”—though while he was on-screen, there were chuckles from the cinema audience. The character has a close physical likeness to Prayut Chan-o-cha, and he serves no purpose other than to give gift baskets to the divers. He also uses broken English (like Prayut himself), telling one diver: “Oh! You marry her, visa no problem.”

The Cave is one of only a handful of films to feature Thai Prime Ministers, due to censorship of political content and public apathy towards politics. A biopic of Plaek Phibunsongkhram was abandoned in 1988 due to a lawsuit from his estate. Similarly, a Sarit Thanarat biopic—provisionally titled จอมพล (‘marshal’)—was vetoed by the censors in 2002. Sarit did feature briefly in the horror movie Zee Oui: The Man-Eater (ซี-อุย), ordering the swift execution of Zee Oui for political expediency.

Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s documentary Paradoxocracy (ประชาธิป’ไทย) discusses Thaksin Shinawatra, and the film’s distributor asked the director incredulously: “How can you put a film with Thaksin in the cinema?” Sulak Sivaraksa makes a similar point in the documentary itself, saying: “Your movie shouldn’t waste too much time on Thaksin.” (That line received applause at cinema screenings.)

In Ing Kanjanavanit’s banned Shakespeare Must Die (เชคสเปียร์ต้องตาย), Macbeth is reimagined as a Thaksin-like figure, and the similarity is noted self-referentially when a policeman says: “Your actor looks like our Dear Leader. Is this intentional?” Wisit Sasanatieng’s The Red Eagle (อินทรีแดง) features a Prime Minister who abandons his principles once he assumes office, reneging on a pre-election pledge to ban nuclear power. In a Bangkok Post interview, Wisit claimed that he “didn’t set out to criticise any particular prime minister... I only want to mock those who began as good guys fighting for the poor, then, like Darth Vader, they become villains once they have power.” But that sounds awfully like a description of Thaksin.

The disaster movie Death Wave (13-04-2022 วันโลกสังหาร) features Thailand’s most ludicrous cinematic Prime Minister, portrayed as a holier-than-thou figure who selflessly sacrifices his career for the greater good: “the lives and safety of my people are more valuable than my assumed position... I’m willing to lose everything in exchange for the lives of my people.” He even becomes an action hero, rescuing a busload of drowning children while a news reporter praises “our Prime Minister’s fearless courage.” Needless to say, that PM was entirely fictional.

05 April 2019

Bangkok Joyride IV

Bangkok Joyride IV
Ing Kanjananvanit's epic documentary Bangkok Joyride (บางกอกจอยไรด์) continues with its fourth instalment, Becoming One (เป็นหนึ่งเดียว), playing now at Cinema Oasis in Bangkok. The series, shot on Ing's iPhone, is an exhaustive record of the PDRC campaign against Yingluck Shinawatra. In part four, a protester claims that Yingluck's brother, Thaksin, is "worse than Hitler", echoing an equally hyperbolic quote from Ing's earlier documentary, Citizen Juling (พลเมืองจูหลิง): "We talk of Hitler... But villagers, all citizens nowadays fear PM Thaksin 10 times more."

Bangkok Joyride covered the early stages of the PDRC's campaign in parts one and two, How We Became Superheroes (เมื่อเราเป็นยอดมนุษย์) and Shutdown Bangkok (ชัตดาวน์ประเทศไทย). Part three, Singing at Funerals (เพลงแห่ศพ), covered the buildup to the 2014 election. Part four covers the protests from 26th January to 8th February 2014, including the 2nd February election.

The PDRC sabotaged the election, blockading polling stations to prevent voting. (It was ultimately invalidated, and the military launched a coup before another poll could take place.) Despite this, Bangkok Joyride celebrates the protesters, and in parts three and four Ing herself appears on stage at PDRC rallies. She can also be heard from behind the camera, wishing the protesters luck; in part four, she tells a demonstrator: "We fight the exact same battle."

In part three, Ing accused the mainstream Western media of pro-Thaksin bias, and this conspiracy theory is expanded in part four when she harangues the BBC's Bangkok correspondent, Jonathan Head: "How do you sleep at night, Mr Head?" Bangkok Joyride's fetishisation of national symbols also continues in part four: protesters are filmed while standing for the national anthem, not once but five times.

Part five, Dancing with Death (รำวงพญายม), will be released later this year. Meanwhile, Neti Wichiansaen's documentary Democracy after Death (ประชาธิปไตยหลังความตาย), which highlights the PDRC's anti-democratic agenda, provides an effective counterpoint to Bangkok Joyride. The short films This Film Has Been Invalid [sic], Auntie Maam Has Never Had a Passport (ดาวอินดี้), Shut Sound, Myth of Modernity, and Here Comes the Democrat Party (ประชาธิปัตย์มาแล้ว) also include footage of PDRC demonstrations.

11 March 2019

"The act is deemed hostile
to the constitutional monarchy..."

Thai Raksa Chart
On 7th March, as widely predicted, the Constitutional Court voted to dissolve the Thai Raksa Chart party and ban its executives from political office for ten years. The party had caused a sensation on 8th February by nominating Princess Ubolratana as its candidate for prime minister in the election to be held on 24th March. The nomination was followed by another unprecedented bombshell later that day, when King Rama X issued a statement condemning his elder sister's involvement in politics. On 13th February, the Election Commission ruled that the nomination was invalid, and recommended the party's dissolution to the Constitutional Court.

In the Court's verdict, announced on live television, judge Taweekiat Meenakanit severely criticised Ubolratana's nomination: "The act is deemed hostile to the constitutional monarchy." He also described it as a "devious scheme". Thai Raksa Chart is the third party affiliated with Thaksin Shinawatra to be disbanded by the Constitutional Court, after Thai Rak Thai in 2006 and the People Power Party in 2008.

28 February 2019

Thailand Casino

Thailand Casino
Y Card
Beautiful 6th Oct
Anonymous street artist Headache Stencil's exhibition Thailand Casino opened on 24th February at WTF Gallery, and runs until 31st March. It includes Beautiful 6th Oct, a stencil of the vigilante from Neal Ulevich's famous photograph showing the lynching of a student on 6th October 1976. Most provocatively, "Y" Card depicts the king of spades playing card with the face of coup leader and current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

The exhibition's centrepiece is an installation featuring busts of Prayut and former PM Thaksin Shinawatra playing a high-stakes poker game for the future of Thailand. The installation is replete with symbolic references to the country's political, royal, and military power structures. Prayut is concealing the four of clubs and four of spades, a reference to his unlimited authority under article 44. The cards on the table include the nine of clubs (Rama IX) and ten of hearts (Rama X).

Behind Thaksin's bust is 8th Feb '19, a calendar marking the extraordinary day when one of Thaksin's proxy parties nominated Prince Ubolratana as its candidate for prime minister in the upcoming election. Prayut's backdrop is a map of Thailand featuring the word โกง ('cheat'). Merchandise on sale at the gallery includes the election campaign slogan "STOP DICTATORSHIP", though as the exhibition makes clear, the game is rigged: while Thaksin has more chips (indicating his personal wealth), Prayut has numerous hidden cards.

19 February 2019

"Such action must be
deemed transgression..."

8th February was one of the most extraordinary days in Thailand's political history. That morning, in the first of the day's unprecedented developments, the Thai Raksa Chart party formally nominated Princess Ubolratana as its candidate for prime minister ahead of the 24th March election.

The nomination caused an immediate sensation, as it indicated an apparent deal between Ubolratana (and, by extension, the royal family) and Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin is loathed by Thai royalists, and Ubolratana's association with Thai Raksa Chart, a party linked to Thaksin, caused profound shock. Prime Minister and coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha had long been expected to contest the election himself, and Ubolratana's nomination immediately put his political ambitions in doubt.

The junta's constitution allows the military to appoint all 250 members of the Senate, gives senators the right to vote for the prime minister, and permits a non-politician (namely, Prayut) to be PM. With 250 votes from the Senate, Prayut would require only 126 additional votes from the 500 elected MPs. The constitution also introduced a proportional representation system, seemingly designed to prevent a single party (namely, Thaksin's Pheu Thai) from achieving a landslide.

Parties controlled by Thaksin have won every election since 2001. The 2006 and 2014 coups were both launched with the express purpose of eradicating his influence, though Pheu Thai remains one of the main contenders in the upcoming election. Thai Raksa Chart, led by former Pheu Thai politicians backed by Thaksin, was created as part of a pincer movement: a potential Pheu Thai and Thai Raksa Chart coalition that could subvert the constitution's restrictions on an absolute Pheu Thai majority.

Even if Thaksin's strategy succeeded, the Senate votes would almost certainly ensure that Prayut remained PM. Hence the remarkable nomination of Princess Ubolratana: Thaksin recognised that only a royal nominee could defeat Prayut. (Ubolratana is not technically a member of the royal family, as she became a commoner in 1972 in order to marry an American. After their divorce, she resumed her royal engagements, albeit without a formal title.)

At first, the bombshell announcement seemed like a masterstroke. However, by the evening, it looked more like an act of desperation. King Vajiralongkorn, Ubolratana's brother, issued a written statement confirming his unequivocal disapproval of her nomination: "Any attempt to involve a high-level member of the Royal Family in the political process - by whatever means, would be tantamount to breaching time-honoured royal traditions, customs and national culture. Such action must be deemed transgression and most inappropriate."

The King's intervention was as unprecedented and unexpected as Ubolratana's. In addition to instantly terminating the nomination, it publicly signalled that Thaksin remained persona non grata. (The statement also noted that legal immunity, constitutionally granted only to the King, could be extended at his discretion: "Such provisions should no doubt apply to the Queen, the heir to the throne, and those members of the Royal Family close to the person of the Monarch".)

Following the King's statement, the Election Commission recommended that the Constitutional Court dissolve Thai Raksa Chart. The Court is currently considering the case, though it has previously dissolved two other parties run by Thaksin (Thai Rak Thai and the People Power Party).

15 January 2019

After the Coup

After the Coup
After the Coup: The National Council for Peace and Order Era and the Future of Thailand, edited by Michael J. Montesano, Terence Chong, and Mark Heng, is a collection of essays on Thailand's political situation since the 2014 coup. Contributors include influential commentators such as Duncan McCargo, Thongchai Winichakul, and Puangthong Pawakapan. (Montesano previously co-edited Bangkok, May 2010 and contributed to Divided over Thaksin.)

The political affiliations of Thais from the middle class, the south, the north, and the northeast are examined in four chapters. Middle-class and southern interviewees discuss their reasons for joining the PAD and PDRC, notably their devotion to Rama IX and their anger at Thaksin Shinawatra's "alleged disloyalty to King Bhumibol. Most interviewees cited this issue as a decisive factor in turning them against Thaksin." The book also confirms a widespread and patronising sense of middle-class superiority: "All interviewees stressed a lack of education among Thaksin's supporters as evidence that elections in Thailand lack legitimacy; the uneducated simply succumb to vote buying."

In contrast, two chapters on the north and northeast focus on the red-shirt movement and the UDD, asking two pertinent questions: "Why was there so little resistance to the coup? Why were there so few Red Shirt protests in the twelve months following the coup?" The junta's intimidation tactics provide the answer: red-shirts are closely monitored and coerced into renouncing all political activity, including one interviewee who "had to promise not to wear a red shirt, or even a checked shirt containing red in the pattern."

Other chapters have a broader focus. Prajak Kongkirati expands his earlier essay on the 2014 election (in Military, Monarchy and Repression) to analyse forty years of election-related violence. Surachart Bamrungsuk provides a potted history of Thai coups, demonstrating that, for the military, practice makes perfect: "The absence of external security challenges has left the army free to involve itself in political affairs and to become more skilled in political manipulation." Thongchai Winichakul (updating his essay in "Good Coup" Gone Bad) examines the prospects for royalist hegemony following the succession.

There are two especially interesting chapters on mass media and politics. Aim Sinpeng and Wimonsiri Hemtanon highlight the 'filter bubble' effect caused by Thailand's partisan media, though their essay includes an unfortunate instance of self-censorship. They discuss a 1995 Thai Rath (ไทยรัฐ) corruption exposé "involving a high-profile member of the prime minister's Democrat Party" without naming the politician involved. (Duncan McCargo previously identified Suthep Thaugsuban as "the figure at the centre of the scandal" in his book Politics and the Press in Thailand.)

Puangthong Pawakapan surveys international media coverage of the monarchy since the 1960s, noting how critical reporting has increased since the 2006 coup: "The foreign press was instrumental in constructing a benign image of King Bhumibol in the international arena, and was thus complicit in entrenching the power of the monarchy. However, the political coverage of Thailand changed after 2006. The foreign press began to see the monarchy... as a crucial factor in the conflict that now engulfed Thailand."

28 December 2018

Military, Monarchy and Repression

Military, Monarchy and Repression
Military, Monarchy and Repression: Assessing Thailand's Authoritarian Turn is the first book to examine the causes and consequences of Thailand's 2014 coup. The essays were first published in the Journal of Contemporary Asia (volume 46, number 3; August 2016). In their introduction, editors Veerayooth Kanchoochat and Kevin Hewison summarise the country's volatile political climate since the previous coup in 2006: "Thailand's politics has been marked by multiple military interventions, political mudslinging, spates of violence, a "tradition" of street protests, and repeated civilian uprisings, usually followed by efforts to lay the foundations of electoral democracy."

Chris Baker (author of an excellent Thaksin Shinawatra biography) analyses the causes of the coup, from short-term PDRC demonstrations ("almost six months of constant protest which created the context for the coup") to long-term social trends and traditional power structures. He also argues that the current junta is more repressive than many previous coups ("this was clearly a military government of a kind not seen in over 40 years"), though he is optimistic about the country's political future: "The present generation of the Bangkok middle class, who grew up against the backdrop of the Cold War and the ninth reign, will be replaced by another which grew up in Bangkok as a globalised city."

Other contributors are more pessimistic. Paul Chambers and Napisa Waitoolkiat (editors of Khaki Capital) believe that the military-dominated status quo will continue: "Perhaps only another 1992 military massacre of civilians will sufficiently taint the image of the armed forces to the extent that civilians cohere against them, monarchical support for the military diminishes, and soldiers return to the barracks. More likely, for the foreseeable future, military officers will continue to play a prominent role in Thailand, guaranteeing the resilience of monarchised military". Similarly, Prajak Kongkirati concludes that the 2014 election (later invalidated) and the ensuing coup "plunged Thailand into a state of uncertainty and (potentially violent) instability, possibly for years to come."

Eugénie Mérieau highlights the Constitutional Court's "effective usurpation of sovereign power". (The Court has disqualified four prime ministers from office: Thaksin Shinawatra, Samak Sundaravej, Somchai Wongsawat, and Yingluck Shinawatra.) Mérieau's argument is persuasive, though she refers to the politicised judiciary as a "Deep State", a term more often used by conspiracy theorists. Likewise, Chris Baker refers to an "Illuminati" of influential anti-democratic figures: again, the thesis is reasonable, though the terminology implies paranoia. Paul Chambers and Napisa Waitoolkiat's term "parallel state" is a less problematic description for the pervasive influence of unelected institutions on Thailand's nascent democracy.

17 December 2018

Shakespeare Must Die

Shakespeare Must Die
Ing Kanjanavanit's Shakespeare Must Die (เชคสเปียร์ต้องตาย) was banned in 2012. When I interviewed her about the film in 2016, she didn't mince words, describing the censors as "a bunch of trembling morons with the power of life and death over our films." The Appeals Court upheld the ban last year. Ing and her producer, Manit Sriwanichpoom, are currently appealing to the Supreme Court, though in the meantime, the film remains in limbo.

While it cannot be screened commercially in Thailand, as it remains banned, it was shown yesterday at a members-only event at Cinema Oasis, the venue Ing and Manit founded earlier this year. Cinema Oasis is also the only cinema willing and able to show Ing's Censor Must Die (เซ็นเซอร์ต้องตาย), her documentary about the banning of Shakespeare Must Die.

Shakespeare Must Die is a Thai adaptation of Macbeth, with Pisarn Pattanapeeradej in the lead role. The play is presented in two parallel versions: a theatrical production in period costume, and a contemporary political interpretation. The period version is faithful to Shakespeare's original, though it occasionally breaks the fourth wall, with cutaways to the audience and an interval outside the theatre (featuring a cameo by the director).

In the political version, Macbeth is reimagined as Mekhdeth (also played by Pisarn), a head of state facing a crisis. Street protesters shout "ok pbai" ('get out!'), and the protests are infiltrated by assassins described in the credits as 'men in black'. Ing denies any direct satire on Thai politics, though "Thaksin ok pbai" was the PAD's rallying cry, and 'men in black' were blamed for instigating violence in 2010. Another line in the script - "Dear Leader brings happy-ocracy!" - predates Prayut Chan-o-cha's propaganda song Returning Happiness to the Thai Kingdom (คืนความสุขให้ประเทศไทย).

The climax, a recreation of the 6th October 1976 massacre, is the film's most controversial scene, and the main reason for the ban. A photograph by Neal Ulevich, taken during the massacre, shows a vigilante bashing a corpse with a chair, and Shakespeare Must Die restages the incident. A hanging body (symbolising Shakespeare himself) is repeatedly hit with a chair, though rather than dwelling on the violence, Ing cuts to reaction shots of the crowd, which (as in 1976) resembles a baying mob. Ing previously painted a series of portraits of onlookers from Ulevich's photograph for the Flashback '76 (อดีตหลอน) exhibition.

07 November 2018

"สวัสดีปีใหม่ 2019"

Police officers and soldiers in Ubon Ratchathani have seized copies of a 2019 wall calendar. The calendar features photographs of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, the message "HAPPY NEW YEAR" in English and Thai ("สวัสดีปีใหม่ 2019"), and new year's greetings from the two former prime ministers.

5,553 of the calendars were confiscated yesterday. The seizure came a day after a woman in Udon Thani, who posted photographs of the calendar online, was visited by police officers and soldiers.

Similar calendars were banned in 2016, along with plastic Songkran bowls, which also featured seasonal messages from Thaksin and Yingluck. All political activity has been prohibited by the military junta for the past four years. Thaksin and Yingluck were both removed from office by military coups (in 2006 and 2014, respectively).

23 September 2018

Democracy after Death

Democracy after Death
Democracy after Death
Neti Wichiansaen's documentary Democracy after Death: The Tragedy of Uncle Nuamthong Praiwan (ประชาธิปไตยหลังความตาย เรื่องเศร้าของลุงนวมทอง) is an account of Thailand's recent political history, bookended by the coups of 2006 and 2014. These events are narrated in a voiceover addressed to Nuamthong Praiwan, a pro-democracy protester who committed suicide in 2006. Nuamthong was also the subject of Prap Boonpan's short film Letter from the Silence (จดหมายจากความเงียบ).

The film covers Thailand's polarisation between the PAD and UDD protesters, culminating in the military crackdown of 2010, "the most brutal political massacre in Thai history." As in Thunska Pansittivorakul's The Terrorists (ผู้ก่อการร้าย), former prime minister Abhisit is blamed for the massacre: "Directly responsible, Abhisit Vejjajiva holds Thailand's new record of the number of people shot by the military."

Democracy after Death is significant for its inclusion of sensitive political events excluded from Pen-ek Ratanaruang's documentary Paradoxocracy (ประชาธิป'ไทย). It's also a refreshing counterpoint to Ing Kanjanavanit's Bangkok Joyride (บางกอกจอยไรด์), as it highlights the underhand tactics of the PDRC movement (extorting money and sabotaging the 2014 election). Whereas Bangkok Joyride is pro-PDRC, Democracy after Death is biased in favour of Thaksin Shinawatra, noting sympathetically that he "was forced to leave and has had to remain outside Thailand" though ignoring his corruption conviction.

The film's director is also living in exile, due to a previous lèse-majesté prosecution, and Democracy after Death has been self-censored to avoid further charges. A photograph of the junta and Rama IX on the night of the 2006 coup has been pixelated, and a soldier's pledge of loyalty to the king has been bleeped out. Like the short film Narayana's Arrow Spaceship: Between the Orbits of Mars and Jupiter (ยานศรนารายณ์ ระหว่างวงโคจรดาวอังคารและดาวพฤหัสฯ), the credits are also self-censored.

16 April 2018

About Heroes

Bangkok Joyride I
Bangkok Joyride II
Cinema Oasis, the arthouse cinema that opened last month in Bangkok, will begin a season of political documentaries this month, after the Songkran holiday. The About Heroes season features Bangkok Joyride (บางกอกจอยไรด์), a documentary directed by Ing K. The film, divided into two chapters, is a record of the PDRC's protests in 2013 and 2014 against former prime ministers Yingluck and Thaksin Shinawatra.

Chapter one, How We Became Superheroes (เมื่อเราเป็นยอดมนุษย์), covers the first stage of the protest, when Suthep Thaugsuban campaigned against a proposed amnesty bill. The amnesty was a blatant attempt to exonerate Thaksin of his corruption charges, and was unanimously rejected by the Senate. The film also features extended clips of a parliamentary no-confidence debate against Yingluck. Emboldened after defeating the amnesty bill, Suthep called for the dissolution of parliament and the establishment of an appointed government.

Chapter two of the documentary, Shutdown Bangkok (ชัตดาวน์ประเทศไทย), covers the escalation of the PDRC's protests. Following the playbook of the PAD, the PDRC shut down major roads in central Bangkok and occupied government buildings, yet were unopposed by the police. The anti-democratic nature of the protest was revealed when the PDRC sabotaged the 2014 general election, which may be included in the forthcoming third episode, Singing at Funerals (เพลงแห่ศพ).

Ing has also directed the banned films Shakespeare Must Die (เชคสเปียร์ต้องตาย) and My Teacher Eats Biscuits (คนกราบหมา). Her documentary Censor Must Die (เซ็นเซอร์ต้องตาย) was not banned as, according to section 27(1) of the Film and Video Act, "films of news events" are exempt from classification.

When I interviewed Ing in 2016, she said: "this ruling has set a marvellous legal precedent for all documentary films. I'm going to use this ruling to exempt my next film (another cinéma vérité documentary, called Bangkok Joyride) from the censorship process. Then it's a matter of finding a cinema." She solved that problem by building Cinema Oasis.

Citing the "news events" exemption, she didn't submit Bangkok Joyride to the censors, which explains why she was able to include a protester saying "Long live the King" in chapter one and a snippet of the royal anthem in chapter two. Boundary (ฟ้าตํ่าแผ่นดินสูง) was muted to remove a chant of "Long live the King", which was regarded as politicisation of the monarchy, and the royal anthem was cut from Soi Cowboy (ซอยคาวบอย) for commercialisation of the monarchy.

28 September 2017

"The defendant was found guilty..."

Yesterday, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was sentenced in absentia to five years in prison, after the Supreme Court found her guilty of dereliction of duty in relation to her government's rice subsidy policy. The Court's verdict had been postponed from 25th August, when Yingluck left the country. In its written judgement, the Court said: "The defendant was found guilty of the offences under Section 157 of the Criminal Code and Section 123/1 of the Organic Act on Counter Corruption 1999 and was sentenced to five years' imprisonment."

The guilty verdict was related specifically to contracts with private Chinese companies, arranged by the Thai Ministry of Commerce, which were falsely designated as non-competitive government-to-government deals. Last month, former Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyapirom was jailed for forty-two years for his part in the scandal. In its judgement against Yingluck, the Supreme Court ruled that she was aware that the government-to-government deals were fraudulent, as she had sacked Boonsong on 30th June 2013. Also, the enquiry she established to scrutinise the deals was an internal investigation conducted by Boonsong's subordinates.

Starting in 2011, Yingluck's Pheu Thai government bought rice from farmers at up to 50% above the market rate, intending to withhold it from the world market and thus drive up the price. When other countries in the region increased their rice exports, Pheu Thai was left with vast stockpiles of rice that it could not sell, and that it was unable to pay for. (Yingluck was deposed by the Criminal Court in 2014 on an unrelated issue, and subsequently retroactively impeached.)

Yesterday, the Court ruled that Yingluck was not responsible for the financial losses incurred as a result of the rice subsidy policy itself, thus calling into question the $1 billion penalty she was fined last year to compensate for the scheme. The Court also determined that she was not guilty of corruption herself, and was not accountable for any irregularities associated with the operation of the scheme. The Court's guilty verdict rested solely on her failure to expose the fraudulent government-to-government contracts.

The Court's decision is another instance of déjà vu, as Yingluck's political trajectory precisely echoes that of her brother, Thaksin. They were both elected with majorities (Thaksin in 2001, 2005, and 2006; Yingluck in 2011). In both cases, their elections were boycotted by the opposition Democrats (in 2006 and 2014, respectively). Those elections were both nullified by the Constitutional Court (also in 2006 and 2014). They both faced long-running street protests (the PAD and PDRC) that provoked military coups (in 2006 and 2014). They both had their assets seized (Thaksin in 2010; Yingluck in 2016). Finally, they were both jailed in absentia (Thaksin in 2008; Yingluck yesterday).

18 July 2017

"Good Coup" Gone Bad

"Good Coup" Gone Bad
"Good Coup" Gone Bad: Thailand's Political Developments Since Thaksin's Downfall is an anthology of essays analysing the aftermath of the 2006 coup. Editor Pavin Chachavalpongpun also co-edited a similar anthology, Bangkok, May 2010, which was notable for its (partially successful) attempt to present arguments from both sides of Thailand's political divide.

"Good Coup" Gone Bad makes no such attempt at balance, as the cover illustration makes clear. There are essays on post-coup lèse-majesté, the decline of the PAD, and the rise of the UDD. In his opening chapter (from which the book takes its title), Pavin argues: "The 2006 coup that was staged amid joy among many Bangkok residents - some even calling it a "good coup" - has turned out to be disastrous".

12 July 2017

Divided Over Thaksin

Divided Over Thaksin
Divided Over Thaksin, edited by John Funston and published in 2009, is a collection of essays analysing Thailand's political, religious, and economic instability following the 2006 coup. ('Good Coup' Gone Bad, edited by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, is another anthology analysing the same period.)

In the first chapter, Michael J Montesano (co-editor of Bangkok, May 2010) summarises the various forces opposing former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and provides a useful narrative of the "political events preceding Thailand's dismaying 19 September 2006 military putsch." Chairat Charoensin-o-larn's essay covers post-coup politics, and there are also several chapters on the 2007 constitution and its predecessor.

06 July 2017

Thaksin

Thaksin
Thaksin, by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, is not only the most comprehensive biography of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, it's also the best available account of Thailand's recent political history. Pasuk and Baker capture the divisive nature of Thaksin's reputation: "To some, he is a visionary, even a revolutionary. To others, he is greedy, deceitful, deluded, dangerous."

For better or worse, Thaksin is the single most influential figure in contemporary Thai politics, following his unprecedented landslide election wins of 2001 and 2005. The protest movements that have characterised Thai politics in the past decade - the PAD, UDD, and PDRC - are all defined by their opposition to, or support for, the Thaksin regime. His influence has been suppressed by coups in 2006 and 2014, a Constitutional Court verdict in 2007, and a military massacre in 2010.

In their second edition, published in 2009, Pasuk and Baker conclude that Thaksin's financial corruption and his political populism were inseparable: "Throughout his career, politics and profit-making were entwined around one another like a pair of copulating snakes." (This is a rigorous and unauthorised biography, whereas Sunisa Lertpakawat's Thaksin, Where Are You? and Tom Plate's Conversations With Thaksin are both based on self-serving interviews with Thaksin.)

Bangkok, May 2010

Bangkok, May 2010
Bangkok, May 2010: Perspectives On A Divided Thailand is a collection of essays analysing the causes and consequences of the 19th May 2010 military massacre, when dozens of red-shirt protesters were shot by the Thai army. The book was edited by Michael J Montesano, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, and Aekpol Chongvilaivan; Pavin later edited a similar collection, 'Good Coup' Gone Bad, on the aftermath of the 2006 coup.

Bangkok, May 2010 is significant for the reputations of its contributors: it includes chapters by Chris Baker, Pasuk Phongpaichit, David Streckfuss, Duncan McCargo, and other leading scholars on contemporary Thai politics. Streckfuss discusses the UDD's accusations of double standards, observing that "By striking against double standards and impunity, Thai society has the rare opportunity to make justice and accountability a rallying cry." McCargo compares the PAD and UDD rallies to the Black May protests of 1992, noting that they fit a pattern of "manufactured crisis" and conform to the "Vicious Cycle" previously identified by Chai-anan Samudavanija.

The book is also notable for its attempt to present a diversity of perspectives, though as Montesano admits in his introduction, complete ideological balance was not possible: "Some, maybe most, of the contributions to this volume have interpretive or political agendas. Rather fewer, perhaps, are clearly "yellow" in their point of view than are unabashedly "red"." Firmly on the yellow end of the spectrum, Kasit Piromya accuses the UDD of armed insurrection and compares them with the Communists of the 1970s: "the battle had moved from the jungles to the streets of Bangkok."

James Stent's long opening chapter has a more nuanced analysis: "At one pole are those who say that the protesters are paid to attend rallies, and are heavily infiltrated by well armed "terrorists" under the direction and control of extremists taking their orders from Thaksin... On the other side of the debate are those who would paint the protesters as entirely peaceful, which is obviously not true. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two poles." Stent's assessment of Thaksin Shinawatra is also more balanced than most: "I see him in shades of grey - neither the messiah that his rural followers take him for even today, nor the devil incarnate that the Bangkok elite see him as being."

There is much discussion of the extent to which the red-shirt uprising was determined by social class (the rural 'prai' versus the establishment 'ammart'). Chairat Charoensin-o-larn presents the conventional interpretation that it represents a class struggle: "The unrest of May 2010 was a manifestation of the simmering new politics of desire of unprivileged Thais, and Thailand's ruling elites ought to pay close attention." However, Shawn W Crispin argues against this view: "These interpretations must transcend the simplistic and misleading discourse of class struggle that has been advanced by Thaksin's operatives for propaganda purposes and uncritically perpetuated by many foreign academics."

21 May 2017

Thailand's Political History

Thailand's Political History
The second edition of Thailand's Political History, by BJ Terwiel, was published in 2011 with a new subtitle (From The 13th Century To Recent Times). This edition contains new chapters on Thailand's political origins (the Sukhothai era) and contemporary events (the PAD protests, the nullification of the 2006 election, the 2006 coup, the disqualification of Prime Minister Samak, the dissolutions of TRT and the PPP, the UDD riots, the red-shirt protests, and the 2010 military massacre).

Terwiel, who has been writing about Thai history for forty years, takes a refreshingly skeptical view of the nationalistic accounts of early Thai history, which he calls "national myths." He debunks some of these legends in his opening chapter: "Some of these national scenarios were spectacular indeed and since they were flattering and generated pride in their nation they found their way into the standard history books and became part of national propaganda."

For example, Terwiel compares six different accounts of King Naresuan's elephant duel. While the objective truth remains lost in the mists of time, emphasising that these events are open to multiple interpretations is significant in itself: "It is doubtful whether anyone will unravel the details of this battle in a decisive way. Suffice to say that The Royal Chronicle version, which has had a monopoly in Thai history writing, is only one version among many."

The book's priorities are occasionally questionable - Thaksin Shinawatra's first term as Prime Minister is covered in only two paragraphs, followed by six paragraphs devoted to the 2004 tsunami -
and Terwiel's writing style is sometimes a bit clunky, especially in the new chapters. But the content is always fascinating. For instance, Terwiel hints that King Rama VI had "a decided preference for male company" and was "a confirmed bachelor who relaxed only within a circle of intimate male friends who readily accepted him."

What sets this apart from other histories of Thailand is its comprehensive treatment of the yellow-shirt and red-shirt protest movements. Terwiel provides a detailed chronology of the period from 2007 to 2010, and his account has the necessary objectivity missing from pro-yellow (The Simple Truth) and pro-red (A Kingdom In Crisis) interpretations. The book is also well illustrated, and has detailed footnotes and an extensive bibliography.