We're dying to know what's there beyond the cloud, but the proverbial silver lining, if there ever was going to be one, was obscured from our airwaves.
Last Friday night, newspapers and the social network were abuzz after a lightning move by Channel 3 to remove _ ban, in another word _ the TV series Nua Mek 2: Mue Prab Jom Kamangvet (literally, "Beyond the Cloud: The Sorcerer Buster") amid rampant speculation that the decision was political string-pulling. The tale of a prime minister, corrupt politicians and necromancing strategems is said to have rattled the powers that be, and the series was killed practically mid-air, with at least three more episodes left un-broadcast.
Since then, none of the parties involved in the saga have offered any explanation. Channel 3, suspected of either self-censorship or kowtowing to an order from politicians, remains tight-lipped. The series' producers and stars _ since they still have to do business with Channel 3 _ opted for cryptic Instagram and Twitter messages rather than some sort of disclosure. Meanwhile, representatives of the government staunchly denied any foul play.
That only leaves conspiracy theorists, who have had a field day with all sorts of unofficial explanations. More strikingly, however, is the reaction of the public who have taken to the social network with shock, anger, war cries and demands for the government to show its sincerity.
One poll reports that 96% of those surveyed disagreed with the ban. The Thai Constitution Protection Association petitioned the Central Administrative Court to take action, while the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission will investigate if this qualifies as a case of media interference.
The reaction from some TV viewers is particularly intense, because this is an opportunity to attack the Yingluck Shinawatra administration. From another angle, this is a culture factor: TV soaps are such a crucial part of our cultural flavour and family pastime that the ban feels like a grave violation _ in contrast to, say, when ban on movies rouse much smaller sympathy from the public.
"Television series are such a huge part of Thai family life that we feel so involved with everything that happens on screen," says Nirattisai Kaljareuk, executive at Kantana and director of several TV series over the past 35 years. "Today because of the social network, we can feel and hear the viewers' frustration and the anger seems more in-your-face."
Nirattisai speaks from experience. In 1984 his TV series Sarawat Yai ("The Chief Inspector") was removed from Channel 7 after the then-Committee of Radio and Television Administration (known in Thai as kor bor war) ruled that the story about a corrupt cop and dubious dealings of people in uniform was detrimental to society.
Kor bor war, set up in 1975, was a legacy of the dictatorial military era and functioned as a strict censor board until it was abolished in 1992 after the Black May democracy uprising. Since then, each TV channel is responsible for filtering _ or censoring _ its own content.
"I got a document from them telling me that my series was to be stopped _ despite the fact we only had a few episodes left to air, just like Nua Mek 2," says Nirattisai. "We thought that it would be better when kor bor war was scrapped, but maybe not, maybe it's better to have it because at least then we knew why we were being banned."
The case of Nua Mek 2 constitutes the first television ban under the Broadcasting Act 2008. In a report, Channel 3 told members of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) that Nua Mek 2 was banned under Section 37 of the new law. But according to Assoc Prof Pirongrong Ramasoota of Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Mass Communications, content that could be axed under that section must be seen as undermining the monarchy, national security or pose grave social consequences such as pornography.
It's pretty safe to say that Nua Mek 2, a fantasy story featuring people who have a tendency to unleash laser beams from their weapons, hardly falls into any of those categories.
"The colour-coded politics is one of the factors that blew up the story," says Assoc Prof Pirongrong, adding that the people who sympathise with the red shirts and Pheu Thai Party see the series as a thinly veiled attack on the government.
"It's the obscurity that makes it worse. Channel 3 should explain what really happened. Meanwhile, the NBTC has a responsibility to protect the rights of viewers, so it has to do something about it."
What some people may want to do about the Nua Mek clamour is to take the argument beyond the scuffle between a TV drama and certain politicians, and discuss the larger issues such as free speech, the ghost of self-censorship, and the promotion of a constitutional benchmark when dealing with differences in opinion. These are some of the topics raised by activists and filmmakers when movies were censored or banned, especially in the past six years, such as in the case of Syndromes And A Century, This Area Is Under Quarantine, Insects In The Backyard, and the latest, Shakespeare Must Die.
In those cases, the campaign against the ban and the promotion of freedom of expression doesn't seem to rally much support from the public. But with this TV series, the reaction has been vociferous, and it remains to be seen if the initial furore will translate into a lasting attitude against censorship.
"TV dramas are an institution in Thailand," says Apichatpong Weerasethakul, director of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Syndromes And A Century. Not especially pertaining to the Nua Mek case, Apichatpong says that the authorities "regard what they see on television and movie screen as fiction _ not truth. So when there's something that may resemble truth, something that makes us think, some people just can't accept that.
"Still, I'm not surprised about what happened to Nua Mek. There are worse things [that can't be shown].
"This case could probably become a bridge towards more discussions and to make the rules clearer. Right now, everybody lives in fear, and that's not good for anybody."
CENSORS AND SENSIBILITY
Here is a list of some TV series that fell under the axe of the now-defunct kor bor war , a TV censor board set up in 1975, but abolished in 1992 after the Black May democracy uprising. Since then each station has taken care of its own filterin
The novel by Laksanawadee _ another pen name of respected author Dhammayanti _ is a royal love story set in a fictitious country in what seems to be Central Asia. It involves palace intrigue, political power play among states, and a strong-willed princess who ascends to the throne.
IMAGE FROM LOKE DARA MAGAZINE COURTESY OF SUPHACHAI KAMPEERA
The version most Thai television viewers are familiar with aired in 2001 and starred Jessadaporn Poldee and Piyada Akraseranee. But the earlier version made in 1984 starring Saranyoo Wongkrachang and Wasana Sitthivej never went on air. It was a Channel 3 production.
Ma Ma Ma
The series from 1979 ("Dog, Dog, Dog") was directed by Adul Green and starred Aranya Namwong. The story, in which the actors dress up as dogs and interact with humans, was labelled perverse and inappropriate. The series was pulled off with just 10 episodes left to run. In an interview with Loke Dara magazine in January of that year, the director said he meant the series to be a social satire but Channel 3, under pressure from kor bor war, pulled the plug mid-air.
Taharn Sua Phra Chao Tak
The onscreen depiction of King Taksin _ Phra Chao Tak _ has often run into a storm. The 1984 version on Channel 3 starred Kamthorn Suwanpiyasiri as the titular general/king and Somphop Benjathikul as the future King Rama I, but the series was cut short just as it headed for its climactic finish. The final episode portrayed the execution of King Taksin.
This episode from Thai history was made into another series and aired on Channel 3, Taksin Maharaj ("Taksin the Great"). It starred Chatchai Plengpanich and Sinjai Hongthai _ both are embroiled in the Nua Mek fiasco _ but the series chose to portray King Taksin's life up until his victorious battles and left out his problematic execution.
The series aired on Channel 7 in 1984 starred Likhit Ekmongkol. The novel it's based on was written by Wasit Dejkunchorn and the plot revolves around a newly transferred policeman who's exposed to corruption and the shady side of the force. It was a hit, but since the story portrays the police in a negative light, the kor bor war ordered Channel 7 to take it off the air.
About the author
- Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Deputy Life Editor