22 September 2021

Luk Thung: The Culture and Politics
of Thailand’s Most Popular Music

Luk Thung
Luk Thung: The Culture and Politics of Thailand’s Most Popular Music, by James Leonard Mitchell (published in 2015), is the first English-language study of luk thung, a genre that’s usually characterised as Thai country music. Luk thung takes its name from a 1964 television show, and this period was the genre’s golden age, mostly due to the popularity of Suraphon Sombatcharoen—“the King of Thai Country Song”, whose most famous single was สิบหกปีแห่งความหลัง (‘sixteen years past’)—and the success of the blockbuster musical film Monrak Luk Thung (มนต์รักลูกทุ่ง).

Mitchell’s revisionist history covers the genre’s origins in Isaan during the Phibun and Sarit era, when “censorship combined with better economic conditions encouraged songwriters... to abandon social commentary and move into writing commercial and sometimes nationalistic luk thung.” These included a series of stridently nationalistic songs such as เขาพระวิหารต้องเป็นของไทย (‘Preah Vihear Temple must be Thai’), protesting the 1962 judgement that the Preah Vihear Temple was part of Cambodian soil.

The book concludes with an account of the politicisation of luk thung by the red-shirts and yellow-shirts, and provides a detailed analysis of the pro and anti-Thaksin songs played at their respective protest rallies. This final chapter (expanded from Mitchell’s excellent journal paper Red and Yellow Songs) is both a fascinating study of popular culture as propaganda, and a groundbreaking recognition of luk thung’s political dimension. It also situates luk thung within the tradition of Thai ‘songs for life’ following the 14th October 1973 uprising (a tradition that continues today with protest songs in support of the anti-government movement).

04 September 2021

Wildtype 2021

Wildtype 2021
Official Trailer
Rajprasong
Prelude of the Moving Zoo
The Bangkok Bourgeois Party
Please... See Us
Wildtype 2021, a weekend of film screenings curated by Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa, takes place today and tomorrow on YouTube. The screenings will also be shown at Ar(t)cade, a venue at the Arcade Market in Phayao. Both days include Politix, a selection of short films commenting on Thai political events.

This evening’s Politix strand begins with Veerapong Soontornchattrawat’s Official Trailer (อนุสรณ์สถาน), which intercuts footage of the 6th October 1976 massacre with clips from Love Destiny (บุพเพสันนิวาส), a popular historical lakorn. This is followed by a film referencing another massacre: Nil Paksnavin’s Rajprasong (ราชประสงค์), which ends with a black screen and the jolting sound of eighty-seven gunshots, representing the victims of the 2010 military crackdown in downtown Bangkok. (Rajprasong was previously shown at Histoire(s) du thai cinéma, another two-day film event programmed by Wiwat.)

The highlight of the evening is a more recent film, Sorayos Prapapan’s Prelude of the Moving Zoo, which begins subversively with a cylinder recording of the royal anthem, accompanied by footage of penguins seemingly standing to attention. (It was previously shown at ANIMAL KINgDOM, also programmed by Wiwat; and it was selected for the 24th Short Film and Video Festival.)

Wildtype concludes tomorrow, and the second Politix strand includes Prap Boonpan’s The Bangkok Bourgeois Party (ความลักลั่นของงานรื่นเริง), in which a group of yellow-shirted Bangkokians murder a man merely because he disagrees with their ideology. Less than a year after it was first shown, this dystopian satire became a reality when Narongsak Krobtaisong was beaten to death by PAD guards in 2008.

Chaweng Chaiawan’s Please... See Us, which highlights the displacement of ethnic minorities, will also be shown tomorrow. This new film includes an extended sequence in which a pig is killed and dismembered, the helpless animal being a metaphor for the plight of ethnic minorities in Thailand. It will also be shown later this month as part of Signes de Nuit, hosted by Documentary Club.

18 August 2021

เหมือนบอดใบ้ไพร่ฟ้ามาสุดทาง

Human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa was the first anti-government protester to call for reform of the monarchy, at a rally in 2020. He was arrested earlier this month, following a speech marking the first anniversary of that event. His portrait was painted by Witawat Tongkeaw, who dubbed him Captain Justice (ทนายอานนท์).

Arnon published a booklet outlining his proposals for a truly constitutional monarchy, สถาบันพระมหากษัตริย์กับสังคมไทย, and he cowrote a booklet with a manifesto for monarchy reform, ปรากฏการณ์สะท้านฟ้า 10 สิงหา. They have recently been translated into English by PEN International online, as The Monarchy and Thai Society and The Day the Sky Trembled, respectively.

Arnon’s first book, however, was a poetry collection published in 2011. One poem, เหมือนบอดใบ้ไพร่ฟ้ามาสุดทาง (‘we subjects, as if mute and blind, have found ourselves at the end of the line’) also provided the title of the collection. It describes the legal persecution that followed the 2010 Ratchaprasong massacre, when red-shirt activists were charged with arson.

Arnon defended many of the accused, and the poem highlights the injustice of their trials. It concludes with a call to arms, which was eventually answered last year when the student-led anti-government protests began in earnest:

“So the law has turned to the rule of dogs;
We subjects, as if mute and blind,
Have found ourselves at the end of the line:
Submit or die—no other way.

History must be written in lives
To get the wheel of time unstuck;
Fly the red flag, friends, show your pluck:
Revolt! Bring down the robber regime!”

The book’s cover, by Kullawat Kanjanasoontree, reimagines Picasso’s Guernica as a depiction of the 2010 massacre. It was included in the Art for Freedom (ศิลปะเพื่อเสรีภาพ) exhibition at the Pridi Banomyong Institute in 2013, under the same title as the book and with an alternate English translation, As Blind as the Dead End. The Sanam Ratsadon website features two poems from the collection, newly translated by Peera Songkünnatham.

27 July 2021

Tetra Hysteria Manifesto

Tetra Hysteria Manifesto
Tetra Hysteria Manifesto was released last week on cassette by Chinabot. The album includes a new track by Pisitakun Kuantalaeng, 18.05.2010, which features audio of military gunfire recorded (as its title suggests) on 18th May 2010 and a man desperately calling out for a nurse to attend to the casualties.

Abhisit Vejjajiva authorised the use of live ammunition by the army for its violent suppression of red-shirt protesters. Pisitakun’s 10 Year: Thai Military Crackdown [sic], shown at the Conflicted Visions Again exhibition, included a poster documenting the victims who were shot on 18th May 2010. His album Absolute Coup was released on cassette by Chinabot last year. (Tetra Hysteria Manifesto celebrates Chinabot’s fourth anniversary.)

10 July 2021

Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok

Journalist Emma Larkin’s first novel, Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok, was published in May. (Born in Thailand, Larkin uses a pen name to avoid scrutiny from the authorities while she reports from Myanmar.) The eponymous Aeon is a former Communist insurgent, who fled to the jungle following the 6th October 1976 massacre.

Aeon has since returned to Bangkok, though he (like the city) remains haunted by state violence against civilian protesters. Working as a history teacher, he sees first-hand how 6th October has been whitewashed from the national curriculum—a point made by Vasan Sitthiket in his video Delete Our History, Now! (อำนาจ/การลบทิ้ง)—and searches for what little evidence remains, “the seldom-seen photographs of semi-conscious students burned on funeral pyres made of tyres, and dead bodies hung from the tamarind trees on the parade ground.”

The novel is set in 2009, when red-shirt protesters instigated violence during the Songkran holiday. As one character says, “Did you hear they attacked the Prime Minister’s car?”—Abhisit Vejjajiva’s motorcade was mobbed, an incident recreated in Wisit Sasanatieng’s film The Red Eagle (อินทรีแดง). The red-shirt protests culminated in another state crackdown, in 2010, though the novel focuses on the aftermath of the 1992 ‘Black May’ massacre.

In the days following ‘Black May’, there were credible rumours of military vehicles disposing of hundreds of bodies, who were omitted from the official tally of victims. Larkin recounts the “talk of an army truck driving into a bone mill on the outskirts of Bangkok late one night, the cargo heaped under its tarpaulin conspicuously absent when it drove out again, and reports of military helicopters flying east from the city towards the border with Burma, dropping bodies into the impenetrable jungle below.”

The story’s starting point is a fictional incident that seems to confirm these rumours: bodies found in a sunken shipping container and buried in wasteland. The novel presents these grisly discoveries as proof of “an operation to deal with the ‘excess collateral damage’ resulting from the crackdown on protesters at Sanam Luang”, though a government spokesman dismisses the matter out of hand: “Gazing wearily at the nation, he appeared to ad lib as he took off his spectacles and said in a more casual, almost avuncular tone, ‘So, it’s best that you all go about your business now and forget this incident.’”

Larkin was inspired by two works of political history: William A. Callahan’s Imagining Democracy (now scarce, but the best account of ‘Black May’ in English) and Thongchai Winnichakul’s Moments of Silence. (Aeon “tracked down some of the leaders of the right-wing gangs that had massed in Sanam Luang”, in an echo of the Silence of the Wolf chapter in Thongchai’s book.) Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok is one of several recent novels set in times of Thai political conflict, including Sunisa Manning’s A Good True Thai, Duanwad Pimwana’s ในฝันอันเหลือจะกล่าว (‘indescribable fiction’), Uthis Haemamool’s ร่างของปรารถนา (‘shadow of desire’), and Jakkapan Kangwan’s Altai Villa (อัลไตวิลล่า).

26 June 2021

The L/Royal Monument

The L/Royal Monument
Intersection of Wills
Interregnum
Captain Justice / The Unforgiven Blues
Creation-Conclusion / Jojo and the Bookstalk
The Masterpiece
Prior to 2014, Wittawat Tongkeaw was known primarily for his landscape paintings, though since the coup his art has become increasingly political. The works in his new exhibition The L/Royal Monument (นิ/ราษฎร์) at Subhashok Arts Center in Bangkok, displayed in four themed sections, provide a commentary on modern Thai politics expressed through coded metaphors and symbolism.

The exhibition’s first room, Interlude, draws on Wittawat’s background as a landscape painter, though these landscapes have political subtexts. Two of the paintings refer to the 2010 massacre of red-shirt protesters: Intersection of Wills (ราษฎร์​ประสงค์) shows Ratchaprasong, the focal point of the protest, and Interregnum (สิ้นสุดพุทธาวาส) depicts a relief sculpture from Wat Pathum Wanaram, a temple sheltering six protesters who were killed by military snipers. Like Pachara Piyasongsoot’s Anatomy of Silence (กายวิภาคของความเงียบ), these paintings represent politically-loaded locations; to use Dutch painter Armando’s term, they are ‘guilty landscapes’. The theme of this first room is transition, symbolised by expansive sunsets and tiny details (a traffic light about to turn green). The political significance of this transition is suggested by the exhibition’s other rooms.

The second room, Imagining Law-abiding Citizens, features paintings of four pro-democracy campaigners, all of whom have been charged with lèse-majesté. They include Captain Justice (ทนายอานนท์), a portrait of Arnon Nampa, who led protests last year calling for reform of the monarchy; and The Unforgiven Blues (หมอลำแบงค์), a portrait of Patiwat Saraiyaem, an actor who was jailed for his performance in the play เจ้าสาวหมาป่า (‘the wolf bride’) and later appeared in Ten Years Thailand. Each portrait has a blue background, in an allusion to that colour’s idiomatic and symbolic meanings: blue indicates the artist’s sadness at the persecution of the four subjects, though it also traditionally represents the monarchy, as in Wittawat’s previous exhibition, 841.594.

The other two rooms, Memorabilia and The Artist’s Trial, feature installations and projections. In the latter room is Jojo and the Bookstalk (โจโจ้ผู้ฆ่ายักษ์), a precarious pile of books and journals, the texts that led to Wittawat’s political awakening, known in Thai as ta sawang. The book stack includes the notorious banned issue of Same Sky (ฟ้าเดียวกัน). Two other installations in the same room are especially provocative: Creation-Conclusion (เริ่ม-จบ) is a painting of the sky on an upturned easel, and The Masterpiece (มาสเตอร์พีซ) is a weather-beaten painting hung back-to-front. The Thai word for ‘sky’ (fah) is a metaphor for the monarchy, and the upturned easel resembles a guillotine. The subject of the back-to-front portrait can be guessed from its propagandistic original title, พระเกียรติคุณ กว้างใหญ่ไพศาล (‘his honour spread far and wide’), which is still faintly visible on the reverse.

The L/Royal Monument opened at SAC Gallery in Bangkok on 22nd June, and was originally scheduled to run until 18th September but has now been extended to 31st October. Its opening coincides with the anniversary of Thailand’s 1932 transition to constitutional monarchy and, as Wittawat writes in the exhibition brochure, the “physical components—names, plaques, monuments” commemorating this have been systematically removed from public spaces.

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.

09 November 2020

Two Little Soldiers

Two Little Soldiers
Two Little Soldiers
Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang has produced a new short film for the Bangkok Art Biennale 2020 (บางกอก อาร์ต เบียนนาเล่). The film, Two Little Soldiers (สาวสะเมิน), begins with an homage to Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry, though in this case the body in the woods is only resting.

The film’s seemingly idyllic scenario, in which two young soldiers and a local woman relax by a river, is contrasted by its soundtrack: a government statement (heard via a transistor radio) announcing a crackdown on protesters at Phan Fah in Bangkok. (Except for the radio announcement, the film is silent, with intertitles rather than spoken dialogue.) The film’s release coincides with a new wave of anti-government rallies: yesterday, protesters marched from Democracy Monument to the Grand Palace, to deliver an open letter to the King, though riot police used water cannon to prevent them from entering the Palace grounds.

The crackdown at Phan Fah took place on 10th April 2010, with the military deploying automatic weapons against red-shirt protesters. Twenty-five people were killed. Two Little Soldiers shows how military propaganda misrepresented the incident, with the radio announcement accusing the protesters of “the intent to incite violence” and denying the use of live ammunition: “False rumors have been spread that the military have used live fire on protesters and that the prime minister has ordered the killing of civilians. These are not true.”

This form of propaganda, broadcast via military-owned radio and television stations, has been utilised by successive Thai miltary governments for the past fifty years. Just this afternoon, army chief Narongpan Jitkaewthae held a press conference at which he accused yesterday’s protesters of inciting violence. Like Two Little Soldiers, The Terrorists (ผู้ก่อการร้าย) also shows how Thailand’s military propaganda demonised red-shirt protesters. Like Sayew (สยิว) and The Island Funeral (มหาสมุทรและสุสาน), Two Little Soldiers represents military crackdowns via radio broadcasts rather than reenactments.

Two Little Soldiers represents the first direct reference to contemporary politics in one of Pen-ek’s films. His documentary Paradoxocracy (ประชาธิป'ไทย) ended with Thaksin Shinawatra’s first term as Prime Minister, thus omitting the political crisis that followed his re-election. When I interviewed Pen-ek for my book Thai Cinema Uncensored, he expressed some solidarity with the red-shirt movement: “If the ‘redshirt’ people can separate themselves from Thaksin, then I would become completely a ‘redshirt’.”

11 July 2020

10 Year: Thai Military Crackdown

10 Year: Thai Military Crackdown
10 Year: Thai Military Crackdown
10 Year: Thai Military Crackdown
For the current Conflicted Visions Again exhibition, Pisitakun Kuantalaeng created a series of posters and stickers to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the military massacre of red-shirt protesters in 2010. The twenty posters show maps of the protest sites, with markers to indicate the spots at which individual protesters were killed. Pisitakun also drew portraits of each victim, on sixty-three stickers. The project focuses on the last week of the crackdown, from 13th to 19th May 2010. (Tawan Wattuya painted portraits of protesters killed in April 2010.)

Pisitakun’s posters and stickers are available as a box set, limited to fifty signed and numbered copies (mine being no. 2). The set, 10 Year: Thai Military Crackdown [sic], also includes a sticker album and a certificate of authenticity. Pisitakun is also a musician, and his provocative new album Absolute Coup will be released (with more stickers) at the end of this month, as a limited edition cassette and bullet-shaped flash drive.

13 May 2020

Il Re di Bangkok

Il Re di Bangkok
Il Re di Bangkok
The graphic novel Il Re di Bangkok (‘the king of Bangkok’), was published in Italian last year, and has now been translated into Thai. The book was written by Claudio Sopranzetti and Chiara Natalucci, with illustrations by Sara Fabbri. (The Thai edition has been self-censored—on pages 93, 157, and 205—though the Italian edition is unexpurgated.)

The title character, Nok, is a blind lottery-ticket vendor from Isaan who travels to Bangkok for a better life. Economic migration from upcountry to the capital is commonplace, and was a standard theme of politically-conscious writers and directors in the mid-1970s. Nok becomes increasingly politically engaged during his time in Bangkok, as he lives through the ‘Black May’ massacre, the ‘tom yum kung’ economic crisis, the rise and fall of Thaksin Shinawatra, the 2006 coup, and the ‘red-shirt’ protests. The book ends as the red-shirts are massacred by the military, an event that took place exactly a decade ago.

For its Thai publication, Il Re di Bangkok was retitled ตาสว่าง (ta sawang), which describes the sense of political awakening experienced by Nok. Several of the Thai filmmakers I’ve interviewed have explained their own feelings of newfound political enlightenment. Pen-ek Ratanaruang (“somebody like me, who five years ago had no interest in politics at all”), Yuthlert Sippapak (“I never gave a shit about politics. But right now, it’s too much”), Chulayarnnon Siriphol (“I turned to be interested in the political situation”), Thunska Pansittivorakul (“I started to learn about politics”), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“I was politically naïve”), and Nontawat Numbenchapol (“I was a teenager, a young man not interested in politics so much”) all discussed their personal experiences of ta sawang.

30 July 2019

Temporal Topography

Temporal Topography
Planking
Hocus Pocus
MAIIAM, Thailand’s most prestigious contemporary art venue, has expanded the space dedicated to its permanent collection. In addition to Feeling the 1990s, its more recent acquisitions are now also on show. These works, all dating from the last decade, are being exhibited under the collective title Temporal Topography: MAIIAM’s New Acquisitions; from 2010 to Present (แดนชั่วขณะ: ศิลปะสะสมใหม่เอี่ยมจาก พ.ศ. ๒๕๕๓ จนถึงปัจจุบัน). The exhibition opened on 30th March in Chiang Mai, and will run for exactly one year.

Highlights include Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s video Planking, in which a man lies down incongruously in public spaces while everyone around him stands for the national anthem. Chulayarnnon’s short, silent film is a characteristically satirical commentary on nationalist ideology and social conformity. It also addresses specific instances of state violence, as one of the filming locations, Thammasat University’s football pitch, is associated with the 6th October 1976 massacre. Students were forced to lie down on the pitch on 6th October, and Planking recreates this with an identical pose on the same spot.

Ruangsak Anuwatwimon’s Hocus Pocus (เผาเล่น ที่จริง) also commemorates an act of political violence. The installation includes a cracked pane of glass from CentralWorld, a shopping mall situated near the main red-shirt protest in 2010. There are bullet holes in the glass, physical reminders of the military massacre that took place. (Similarly, Ruangsak’s sculpture No Country Like Home also utilises a bullet-ridden artefact, namely a tablet from Krue Se Mosque, to memorialise another military massacre.)

26 May 2019

Amnesia

Amnesia
Tawan Wattuya’s exhibition Amnesia opened yesterday at 1Projects in Bangkok. The exhibition features his Red Faces series, painted in 2011 and previously shown at the Khonkaen Manifesto (ขอนแก่น แมนิเฟสโต้) group exhibition.

The series of eighteen portraits depicts red-shirt protesters who were shot dead by the military on 10th April 2010. A book commemorating the victims, วีรชน 10 เมษา คนที่ตายมีใบหน้าคนที่ถูกฆ่ามีชีวิต (‘heroes of 10th April: the faces of the dead live on’), was published in 2011.

The exhibition title, Amnesia, reflects the absence of the massacre from the collective memory. Like previous acts of Thai military violence against civilians - in 1973, 1976, and 1992 - the crackdowns of April and May 2010 have been whitewashed from history, with no prosecutions of soldiers or army officers. The exhibition runs until 14th July.

PDF

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."

30 October 2018

Histoire(s) du thai cinéma

Histoires du thai cinema
Gaze and Hear
The Six Principles
Rajprasong
Histoire(s) du thai cinéma, a marathon programme of Thai short films with political themes, took place over a weekend at Bangkok's Dam'n Cineclub earlier this year. The event, split into two twelve-hour sessions (18th and 19th August), was curated by Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa.

The selected films covered Thai politics since the democratic revolution eighty years ago. The Six Principles (สัญญาของผู้มาก่อนกาล), directed by Abhichon Rattanabhayon, examines contemporary public perceptions of the 1932 revolution. Octoblur (ลมตุลาคม), directed by Patana Chirawong, intercuts footage of the 14th October 1973 massacre with the funeral of Thanom Kittikachorn, the military dictator who ordered the attack. Suchart Sawasdsri's "Red" at Last (มนัส เศียรสิงห์) and Manussak Dokmai's Don't Forget Me (อย่าลืมฉัน) both include footage of the 6th October 1976 massacre: "Red" at Last is narrated by a survivor of the tragedy, while Don't Forget Me features incongruous narration taken from a vintage documentary on the Mlabri tribe.

Thailand's recent political polarisation was represented by films examining the PAD, UDD, and PDRC protests. In Prap Boonpan's The Bangkok Bourgeois Party (ความลักลั่นของงานรื่นเริง), a group of yellow-shirted Bangkokians murder a man merely because he disagrees with their ideology. (This dystopian satire later became a reality, when PAD guards killed Narongsak Krobtaisong.) The UDD movement is featured in Red Movie (แกะแดง), directed by the Underground Office collective, which ends somewhat idealistically with John Lennon's utopian song Imagine. PDRC demonstrations appear in Boonyarit Wiangnon's Lice in the Wonderland (เพลี้ย) and two films by Chulayarnnon Siriphol: Here Comes the Democrat Party (ประชาธิปัตย์มาแล้ว) and Myth of Modernity.

The films with the most powerful impact were Nil Paksnavin's Rajprasong (ราชประสงค์), Nontawat Numbenchapol's Gaze and Hear (สายตา รับฟัง), and Re-presentation (ผีมะขาม ไพร่ฟ้า ประชาธิปไตย ในคืนที่ลมพัดหวน) by Chai Chaiyachit and Chisanucha Kongwailap. Rajprasong ends with a black screen and the jolting sound of eighty-seven gunshots, representing the victims of the 2010 massacre in downtown Bangkok. Gaze and Hear is a parody of royalist propaganda, with a hypnotic voiceover and flashing lights inducing a trance-like state of obedience. Re-presentation ends with an artist unsuccessfully attempting to draw Democracy Monument, and tearing up his sketch to reveal a drawing of a Rama V statue on the page beneath, a reference to the established hierarchies underlying Thailand's elusive democracy.

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.

13 September 2018

Storytellers of the Town

Storytellers of the Town
Storytellers of the Town, edited by John Clark, was published to accompany a 2014 exhibition by Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook in Australia. The catalogue includes stills from videos in which Araya addresses female corpses (Conversation I, I'm Living, and The Class), though it also features images of her more recent work, The Treachery of the Moon. For this twelve-minute video, Araya projected footage of the 2010 UDD protests onto her surroundings as she sat watching a lakorn (soap opera) on television. Araya's work was also included in Art and Words (ศิลปะกับถ้อยความ), though Storytellers of the Town has a more comprehensive bibliography.

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".

06 July 2017

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 October 2014

Same Sky

Same Sky
Same Sky
Military and police officers have prevented the sale of three t-shirt designs at the National Book Fair in Bangkok. The t-shirts were being sold at the Same Sky journal's booth at Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, though Same Sky editor Thanapol Eawsakul was told to withdraw them from sale.

One of the shirts depicts a tree whose branches form the Thai words 'absolute monarchy' and whose extensive roots form the Thai words 'constitutional monarchy'. This design was previously used as the cover illustration for an issue of Same Sky (volume 9, number 1; 2011), and that issue was also notable as it included Thai translations of some WikiLeaks cables relating to Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.

Another shirt depicts the logo of the Steven Spielberg film The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which has been modified with the Thai words 'The Lost World of absolute monarchy'. The third shirt features an emoticon known in Thailand as Mr Grateful, with his mouth zipped shut. (This emoticon is sometimes used to parody the emotional responses of Thai royalists.)

Same Sky has faced several previous legal problems. Thanapol was detained by the military, following the coup earlier this year. Same Sky was banned in 2006 due to its interview with Sulak Sivaraksa, though the interview was later reprinted. The journal distributed VCDs of the 'Tak Bai incident' in 2004, although Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared that the VCDs were illegal.

The three Same Sky t-shirts are not the only clothing designs banned by the military. In June this year, soldiers in Chiang Mai prevented market traders from selling t-shirts featuring an illustration of a red buffalo standing on a cockroach. (UDD supporters are sometimes dismissed as buffalos, and the Democrat Party has been nicknamed 'the cockroach party'.)

On 19th November 2010, following continued unrest after the 2010 military massacre, Prayut Chan-o-cha (the current Prime Minister) issued an order banning any merchandise that might cause political conflict. As a result, several vendors were arrested for selling flip-flops bearing images of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Abhisit himself had not been not consulted on the order, and he publicly criticised it; Prayut rescinded it a week later.

22 May 2014

coup d'état

At 4pm today, the Thai military launched another coup. Army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha confirmed the coup in a live television announcement broadcast on all channels, and all civilian broadcasting has been suspended. A night-time curfew has been imposed. The constitution (itself drafted by the military following their previous coup) has been abrogated. Including today's takeover, there have been a dozen successful coups since Thailand's first constitution in 1932.

Since their declaration of martial law on Tuesday, the military had been acting as a mediator between the UDD, the PDRC, the Election Commission, Pheu Thai, and the Democrats, with representatives from each group meeting for negotiations at the Army Club in Bangkok. Prime Minister Niwatthumrong Boonsongpaisan did not attend the meeting, though Niwatthumrong, the cabinet, and former prime ministers Yingluck Shinawatra and Somchai Wongsawat have been ordered to report to army HQ.

This afternoon, Suthep Thaugsuban, Jatuporn Prompan, and other UDD and PDRC leaders were arrested during the Army Club negotiations. Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has also been detained. It's not clear whether the army launched the coup because the negotiations were not progressing, or whether the coup was premeditated and the negotiations were a pretext to detain the protest leaders. The UDD and PDRC protests have now been dissolved.