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.

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."

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.

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.

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".

05 May 2009

Quote of the day...

Bangkok Post
A PAD leader cites North Korea as a political model for Thailand. Previous quotes of the day: the ICT Minister openly admits to violating the Computer Crime Act, and a patronising Ministry of Culture official.

02 December 2008

"The Court had no other option..."

This afternoon, the Constitutional Court announced its verdict in the vote-buying and fraud cases against three ruling coalition parties. All three parties (Chart Thai, Matchima Thipataya, and the PPP) were found guilty, and are thus automatically dissolved. Their executives, including PPP leader and Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, are now banned from politics for the next five years.

Somchai, Thaksin Shinawatra's brother-in-law, had been PM for only three months. He was appointed following the disqualification of Samak Sundaravej earlier this year. Samak's removal emboldened the PAD, who had been occupying Government House. On 5th and 6th October, the PAD also blockaded parliament, though they were dispersed by riot police on 7th October. One protester was killed by an exploding tear gas cannister; Queen Sirikit presided over her funeral on 13th October, in an apparent signal of support for the royalist PAD.

The head of the nine judges defended today's decision, saying: "The Court had no other option". The judgement marks the third guilty verdict against Thaksin's parties, after Samak's disqualification and the dissolution of TRT. Today's decision seems suspiciously like an attempt to placate the PAD, and it has already been described as a judicial coup.

01 December 2008

People's Alliance for Democracy

The good news: today will be the final day of the People's Alliance for Democracy's occupation of Government House. The bad news: the protesters will go directly from Government House to join the PAD's blockades of Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports. Both airports have been declared emergency zones.

Meanwhile, with Suvarnabhumi closed for a whole week due to the demonstrators, there has still been no serious attempt by the police to remove the PAD. The Prime Minister is in hiding, and army chief Anupong Paochinda has called on him to resign (in an interview with Channel 3 on 16th October). Anupong surely deserves dismissal for insubordination, though sacking him could provoke other army generals to launch another coup.

In what it called a "final war", the PAD occupied Government House for three months, completely unopposed by the police. At the start of the occupation, one of the PAD's core leaders, Sondhi Limthongkul, gave an interview to the Bangkok Post newspaper in which he irresponsibly goaded the army to launch a coup ("soldiers today are cowards") and self-righteously positioned himself as the protector of the monarchy ("If we don't do it, the monarchy might collapse").

Despite its name, the PAD's policies are absolutely undemocratic. Sondhi has called for a "new politics" which would result in only 30% of MPs being elected, with the other 70% being appointed.

09 September 2008

Tasting While Grumbling

The Constitutional Court announced today that Samak Sundaravej's term as Prime Minister must end, effective immediately. The Court ruled that he violated the constitution by hosting a cookery show, Tasting While Grumbling, on TV earlier this year. The constitution forbids a serving Prime Minister from receiving private income; it also stipulates that the entire cabinet must resign following the PM's disqualification. The disqualification of the Prime Minister and the cabinet, over something as trivial as a cookery show, follows the dissolution of TRT last year.

Samak had been under pressure to resign for over a week, following the People's Alliance for Democracy's continued occupation of Government House. However, he had repeatedly refused to step down, arguing that an elected PM should not give in to mob rule. The Election Commission voted unanimously to recommend the dissolution of the PPP last week. Their decision was based on the Supreme Court's conviction of PPP deputy leader Yongyuth Tiyaphairat, following the EC's investigation into vote-buying during the 2007 general election. Yongyuth was found guilty of vote-buying by the EC in May, though they had initially endorsed him, in a rush to approve sufficient MPs to enable the parliamentary session to begin.

04 April 2006

Thaksin:
"If His Majesty whispers in my ear..."

Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party won the election held two days ago. The result was hardly unexpected, as the Democrats and other opposition parties boycotted the election. In fact, TRT was unopposed in many northern constituencies (TRT's heartland), and many voters in Bangkok and the south (the Democrat's stronghold) abstained as there were no Democrat candidates.

There have been street protests by monarchists in Bangkok for the past few months, eventually leading Thaksin to dissolve parliament in February. The protests started after Thaksin sold a 48% stake in his Shin Corp. business to Singaporean company Temasek. Thaksin's government had increased the legal limit on foreign ownership of national assets to enable the Shin sale, and changed the tax code to avoid paying any tax on the deal, a blatant manipulation of the law for personal gain.

Thaksin has announced that despite winning a majority, he will not accept the position of Prime Minister. He had earlier joked that he would quit "If His Majesty whispers in my ear", a remark that further angered his opponents as it showed an apparent lack of reverence towards the King.