Photo: Silpakorn University
Photo: Silpakorn University
Bangkok Love Letter
10 June 2016, Bangkok
Dear Foreign Friend,
How nice to hear from you. Thank you for your lovely email. I have no civilized excuse for not responding sooner. I’ve been meaning to tell you that I did finish the Shakespeare Must Die chapter for the Asian Shakespeare Association’s book but then got cold feet & didn’t send it in. Understandably, they’ll never forgive me. But how do I write an academic study of my own lynching? The only way to tell that story is to tell it freely, but who would believe it? I want to write about Shakespeare, not Thai politics—an impossibility. So after finishing it well before deadline, I laid it aside, turning my back on futility to work with the focus of a blinkered horse.
Reliving the ordeal while writing the chapter, I came face to face with the hate campaign against Shakespeare Must Die—my film of Macbeth that was banned by Thaksin’s sister as a national security threat, then after the ban made international news damaging to Yingluck’s democratic credentials, subsequently and conveniently vilified, sight unseen, by at least one Asian Studies website, Australian National University-based The New Mandala, as “Klu Klux Klan [sic] hate speech” which a ‘democratic’ government is justified to ban. The research forced me to actually read the heinous lies of some seriously nasty strangers. And the knowledge that they really have locked every gate to monopolise the narrative, made me see what a futile exercise it is to convince the world otherwise. They own this space and time, and the victims of their slander run out of time and heart.
That’s how I broke my word to the ASA, even though deadlines are sacrosanct to me. After all, at their conference in Taipei, a British Shakespearean told me I’d “asked for it”, while an American political academic from a Singaporean university praised Yingluck’s rice-pledging scheme as if preaching to me. I had to listen to all this as images of farmers hanging themselves dangled before my mind’s eye. The publisher is Western; can I trust them to edit something so sensitive? Won’t they pass it by some Thai Studies expert who’s had a grant from Thaksin perhaps through some foundation, who will say it’s all lies? Who would they believe then?
How can the truth prevail against such apparent paragons of integrity and liberalism as Asian Studies academics, the BBC & the New York Times (did you notice their rehab of Modi & Duterte? Such as in a piece with no byline about Duterte’s pro-women work which appeared as he was elected), & the biggest PR/lobbyists in the world? No one who doesn’t live here will believe us. The Thai people have seen into the future. Soon you’ll catch up, what with protests in France etc., but by then it might be too late. We’re Troy’s Cassandra, and by Troy I mean the world, doomed by a god’s curse to know the worst but never to be believed, helpless to change the predestined outcome.
For instance, with much fanfare Thaksin’s supporters, redshirt leaders and former Yingluck cabinet & party members, have just set up an anti-fraud centre. Their regime’s extreme, bare-faced megalomania: distortion of the parliamentary process & power abuses including corruption on an inconceivable scale; forced disappearances, thousands of dead & maimed victims of violence; is the cause of all the protests & demands for electoral & other reforms in the first place. Their corrupt practices, outrageous lies and arrogant threats have led to massive protests; their violence has brought on the coup d’etat. Well done! It’s not easy to provoke millions of normally apathetic people to risk their lives to occupy a whole metropolis despite fly-by-night sniper & RPG attacks, and to endure for over 7 months. They have only themselves to blame for all this. Blaming the masses that refused to be docile as their homeland descended into a failed state is to add grave insult to injury.
But what is the narrative here? No one local believes a word of it; we know it’s designed to provoke the military into the usual predictable stupid response so they can say the junta is suppressing a corruption watchdog. We know this because even without any such reaction the Bangkok Post still managed to come up with the expected headline in advance: “UDD’s [United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship] fraud watchdog under fire” (main headline Bkk Post front page 7 June 2016).
But the story wasn’t designed to convince the natives; it’s for the outside world especially the master races. It’s effective because it brazenly exploits the West’s culturally in-bred contempt for the “third world”, its guilty insecurities and preconceptions, which in the final analysis are really no more sophisticated than “2 legs bad, 4 legs good”.
If you pause to think about it, the corporate colonial empire of which Thaksin is but a part, is treating the Western public with as much contempt and cynicism. The spin-doctors know how predictable their target groups are—just as predictable as the military. Everyone’s their victims but everyone’s being harvested to rail against people who are trying to set them free.
Like artist Sutee Kunavichyanont, who has recently become the target of a similar campaign of character and career assassination, this time by a previously unknown entity named CAD – Cultural Activists for Democracy. Apparently artists bravely fighting against fearsome military rulers for democracy, CAD is demanding that the Gwangju Museum of Art in Korea remove Sutee’s “antidemocratic” art (exact same word used on me; not “undemocratic” but “anti-democratic”, as in Anti-Christ) from their exhibition to commemorate Korean democratic struggle.
I’ve known Sutee for decades. We’ve exhibited together in our ‘History & Memory’ series of exhibitions (‘History & Memory – The hook, the line and the sinker of Thai History 101’ in 2001; ‘Neo-Nationalism’ in 2005; ‘Flashback’76 – History & Memory of the October 6 Massacre’ in 2008), all reflective of forbidden Thai history & cultural fascism. Like me, his interest in history and politics is not contemporary opportunism, but lifelong and genuine.
Though the Gwangju Museum has decided to stand by him for now (after messages of support from Thai artists & others poured in, including an open letter signed by over 500 people, many of them well-known and normally skittish about signing petitions, including movie star Sinjai Plengpanich, an outspoken Thaksin critic who recently suffered a similar slander witch-hunt herself), just as Toronto & Berlin film festivals “decided to stand by” Citizen Juling, my film on the Southern Unrest (which can hardly avoid being unflattering to Thaksin who’s caused the deaths of thousands there & elsewhere, but do not be surprised if you’ve never heard of Takbai, Sabayoi or Kreuseh), after it was attacked by emails from Western Thai Studies experts, according to the curator, as anti-democratic evil elite royalist propaganda.
For now Sutee’s work remains on show in Korea, just as Citizen Juling was shown at Toronto and Berlin, but its festival circuit ended there: despite great audience response & good reviews, festivals that had expressed interest in it, including the human rights film festival in Nuremberg, suddenly didn’t want it any more, not to mention the lucrative academic market. Both of my films since then have been effectively banned from festivals despite their self-evident curiosity value (Shakespeare Must Die as the only Thai film adaptation of Shakespeare, furthermore a version of Macbeth banned as a national security risk; Censor Must Die as the only documentary as far as I know that shows firsthand the experience of a filmmaker being banned). Even when I went all the way to Beirut, which I’d naively assumed to be beyond the reach of Empire, the festival publicist said a journalist told her that I was part of the royal family and so my films were anti-democratic propaganda. She asked me if it was true at a long table in the middle of a smart festival lunch, which is hardly the place to be explaining that King Yul Brynner had over 80 children (none with Anna) and his great-great grandchildren, of whom I’m one, would probably fill a football stadium. No Versailles here.
For our professional credibility, the damage is done in the eyes of most curators & critics who, lacking confidence in the evidence of their own eyeballs, are petrified of appearing politically incorrect, at best. I could go off on a tangent here about the links between the Saatchi Gallery and Thaksin’s UK PR agency Bell Pottinger (same parent company), all the way to the YBA bubble, but that’s so well known any child can get the picture which would explain to the layman the international art market’s apparent infatuation with Tracey Emin’s spermy bedsheets.
The slavish, colonial mindset of local critics then completes the burial of the blacklisted & witch-hunted. They see no contradiction or irony, or indeed disappointment, in Palme d’Or winner Apichartpong Weerasethakul signing his name on a petition to censor another artist’s ‘anti-democratic’ work, even after Sutee had defended himself with clarity and reason. They just see the colonially approved artist fighting for democracy in a benighted third world country. Surely if he says so, Sutee must really be a fascist and deserves to be banned, just as my films deserve to be banned from the world as well as here in Thailand, because some white men far away who teach about my country in bastions of Empire with names like the School of Oriental & African Studies say so.
In Sutee’s case the attack is in the open, so he’s at least been able to confront it head-on. Of course even after he held a well-attended press conference, all Thaksin-linked media ignored it or stuck to their story, omitting everything that contradicts their script, even uploading brazenly edited video.
In the Age of Branding (and of willing, obedient slaves), who has time to check people’s track records? It’s what people say, not what they do that matters! Who has eyes and the guts to see that most if not all of the people staging these blacklisting witch-hunts in the name of freedom have never fought for freedom, truth, beauty or justice; and that what they’re doing is the reverse of democracy.
Neither Sutee nor I have ever tried to ban anything of theirs. Shrugging or laughing is the appropriate response when faced with such timely, fashionably-engaged work on the theme of censorship, eg. the words “99.89 % of this light has been blocked” projected on a gallery wall. No local artist has been censored (unlike in Spain where a puppeteer was recently thrown in jail for a terrorism reference), yet here they are, politically engaged in—what? Self-censorship. Why don’t they actually push the limits to say what they really want to say and see what happens, which is what so-called ‘fascists’ like Sutee and I have always done, regardless of consequences. Are you fighting for freedom with your content & intent, or are you posing as a freedom-fighter?
The art world here, already small, shrinks further, divided now by a rift unlikely ever to heal. Enemies’ galleries and openings are shunned. It would be funny if it were not so sad, that even artists, who surely of all people have self-sufficient outlets for their rage, find it impossible to breathe in the same room. Never mind the rest of soceity.
As a walking corpse of many years’ standing, I can testify that victims of such witch-hunts are “killed alive”—“Kha Tang Pen” in Thai. You’re alive but your career has disappeared; a lifetime’s worth of work is viewed as nothing. Worse, you’re not a hero or even a martyr, but vilified as the oppressor, by the very people who are oppressing you.
The Thai saying: “Slit a cock’s throat to scare the monkeys” comes to mind. This appears as a warning to Thai artists, filmmakers, and any other storyteller and shaper of culture to tow the line. The threat is implicit: if you don’t stick to the script—worse, if you bloody-mindedly insist on writing an independent script, your reputation and career will be killed alive. No need to send a van with blackened windows. You will vanish anyway.
Sutee’s crucifixion has found ready echo chambers. The international contemporary art magazine Art Forum is already quoting from Thitipol Panyalimpanun of ‘Asian Correspondent’ (online news service? Art Forum doesn’t say. Googling only brings up Hybrid News Limited as the owner, but who owns that and where it’s based is hard to know): “The curator of the show Jong-young Lim was shocked by the overwhelming response from Thailand.. More than 200 activists [!] have issued an open letter to the Gwangju Museum of Art expressing concern over the political views and artistic practice of a Thai artist and the museum’s decision” to show Sutee’s work. The piece helpfully adds that the open letter was “originally signed by 112 artists but grew to 209.”
Think for a second about people whose job it is to destroy another human-being. It must be something to drip with so much malice. Perhaps that’s too humanistic a view. Perhaps this kind of thing is approached like any other job. Imagine the power to “kill alive” a person in your hand. Wooo what a trip! As a caveman & barbarian I can survive most things, but Sutee is a gentle soul with the purest heart and the face of an angel. What a travesty this is. Shame on you. It’s like watching a bunch of bullies at work on a small boy—enough to make anyone half-decent want to wade right in with fists of fury flying.
Far from being an exaggerated picture of Sutee’s plight, I’ve left out some serious back-story, which no doubt will soon emerge anyway: what all this is really for. It’s also interesting that this kerfuffle was sparked by an event in South Korea, a land dominated by ‘chaebol’ clans of oligarchs related mostly by blood, and the home country of K-water Corp. which Thaksin Shinawatra visited twice before K-water won a handsome share of the 350 billion baht loan for water projects deemed necessary after the Great Flood of 2011-12: Building Reservoirs: budget 50 billion, K-water’s winning bid was 49,999 million baht & 98 satang; Floodway Project budget 153 billion, K-water’s winning bid was exactly 153 billion baht. And so on.
Don’t be so impressed. I’m only able to pull up these white rabbit factoids out of the top hat brimful of Shinawatra corruption scandals because I’m actually subtitling a scene from the last No Confidence debate in parliament (that was so abruptly shut down, leading to Shutdown Bangkok), which I shot with my phone through the TV screen (chasing it from channel to channel as the live broadcast was censored & some stations fought back), now edited into a documentary with footage from the streets to become ‘Bangkok Joyride’ (Part 1: How We Became Superheroes).
The Koreans have been most welcoming to the fugitive from a corruption prison sentence. Thaksin’s last media splash occurred at an “international forum” in Seoul in May 2015, “where key guests explain their visions on Asia’s future”. Try as I might, I can’t find any actual mention of the conference’s host or organizing entity, which is absent from the resulting harvest of news. The Who and Why of Journalism 101 are missing, but who cares? “Former Thai PM worried sister won’t get fair trial,” headlines a CNN.com video. Indeed, the “International Forum” coincided with Yingluck’s date with the Court over the rice-pledging scheme corruption charges. The Nation, 18 May 2015: “Everything about it is too familiar: The timing is conspicuous.. There has also been speculation that it is his [Thaksin’s] publicists who arranged his participation in the Seoul conference for political purposes.”
The echo chambers continue for poor Sutee. MatichonOnline today (10 June): “US AMBASSADOR INVITES ‘JOEI’ APICHARTPONG ALONG WITH CMU ACADEMIC TO TALK ‘THAI ART & POLITICS’ - June 10th at 10.15 hr Mr Glyn Davies, US Ambassador for Thailand and Mr Michael Heath, United States Consul-General for Chiangmai [Shinawatra hometown], invited Mr Apichartpong Weerasethakul, internationally famous film director, and Mr Tasnai Sethaseree, lecturer in Media Art & Design of Chiangmai University School of Visual Arts, to discuss and exchange views on art and politics in Thailand, a meeting which lasted over 2 hours. Mr Tasnai said this conversation was an exchange of opinions on the state of art and politics in Thailand, which Mr Davies and Mr Heath wanted to better understand, but [Tasnai] asked not to reveal [what was said] in detail.” I have quoted verbatim the entirety of this momentous news.
Meanwhile we find solace where we can: the hypocrisy over Mediterranean refugees and Trump, for instance. We can’t wait to call all anti-Trump Americans “anti-democratic evil elite fascists”. Imagine how that would feel. That’s how it’s been for us for years and years and years.
All we can do is embrace the bitterness and turn it into something useful & beautiful. Amidst all this false witnessing, it’s more vital than ever that truthful and factual records are kept. I did get the headless chicken message; in fact I’ve been the chicken. I know of course that if Sutee’s Shutdown Bangkok protest t-shirts & posters have elicited such a witch-hunt, they won’t be thrilled with a film of Shutdown Bangkok, in which millions of ordinary peaceful people stubbornly and courageously occupied the main streets of this city as well as seats of government including the Finance & Interior Ministries, for almost 8 months only 3 years ago, of which, remarkably, no film has appeared.
Thanks to such spin and sabotage, Shutdown Bangkok is becoming forbidden history as well as forbidden art. When the time comes to (try to) release the film, a process which itself is fraught with obstacles even if by law a film “made from events that really happened” is exempt from the censorship process, not only will we have to contend with the usual narrow-minded bureaucrats and the military government, but also with the much more ruthless and wide-reaching spin machine. For Thaksinite witch-hunters of course, it just confirms my leper identity as evil elite propagandist, which is precisely the wrong reason to refrain from making a necessary film. Unfortunately my un-evil forebears didn’t raise me to be a moral coward. Fear of dire consequences haunt us all every waking breath & even as we sleep, but the consequences of silence are more terrifying still.
Sorry for my long silence. Working like crazy is my only cure & I don’t connect much with the world. I must confess that one side effect of all this is an aversion to discussing Thai politics with foreigners, now sadly not an uncommon allergy among Thai people with foreign family & friends. After all, this is how lies divide us so that we can be conquered. I do miss you, but no longer have the patience to talk to you, hence this love letter. Hope all’s well with you too & your pack of dogs. Both our dogs are well & sweet as ever but getting old.
I’m attaching files from the on-going Sutee battle, in case you’re interested.
With Love from Bangkok,
[A pioneer of environmental investigative reporting, Ing Kanjanavanit is a filmmaker, painter & bilingual writer, best known in Thai for the cult classic travelogue/handbook for environmental activism, ‘Khang Lhang Postcard’ (‘Behind the Postcard’) under the nom de guerre Lharn Seri Thai (136)—‘Free Thai Descendent/Force 136’, to evoke the Free Thai Movement against fascist forces during World War 2, which fought for the Allies then after the war was betrayed by the Allies. Sadly, she no longer attends Free Thai merit-making rites, not since Thaksin’s redshirts appropriated the name & equated Thaksin with Free Thai leader Pridi Banomyong, which is a travesty & a sacrilege.]
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