Here are four scenarios. I wonder if you can guess what is similar about them all:
1. An honest cop discovers some of his counterparts are corrupt and refuses to join them.
2. A group of doctors in a rural hospital sit around drinking whisky, discussing the day's cases.
3. Flight attendants bicker and fight as they compete for the attention of a handsome pilot.
4. A Buddhist monk strums a guitar while a younger monk fools around with a remote-controlled flying toy.
Four slices of life out of Thai society, all of them pretty innocuous. Crooked cops? Commonplace. Dirty politicians? We sell 'em by the dozen here.
So what's the big deal?
That's just the point. There is no big deal. In fact each of these scenarios is so tame I daresay a few of even my most ardent readers have already moved onto Voranai or Crutch.
Perhaps things will appear a little clearer if I add a fifth scenario to our list:
5. A corrupt politician rises to power through ill-begotten means.
Here's the common thread _ the above scenarios were all played out in either a Thai movie or TV series.
Each was deemed so offensive, it led to the movie or TV series being banned.
The first scene came from a TV soapie back in the early nineties called Sarawat (The Police Inspector). Thai TV dramas tend to run for 30 or so episodes, but this one suddenly disappeared from our screens after just six.
This was the pre-internet era, when Thai audiences were far more malleable than they are today what with their new-fangled smartphones and social network campaigns for justice and, perish the thought, better education.
High-ranking police took exception to the soap which dared to suggest high-ranking police may be corrupt. I swear I wrote that last sentence with a straight face. The show was yanked.
The second scene comes from Apichatpong Weerasethakul's movie Saeng Sattawat (Syndromes and a Century).
The censorship board demanded that a scene, the second scenario, be cut since it insinuated the esteemed medical profession was full of GPs who liked nothing better to sit around drinking whiskey at the end of the day.
The third scene sparked a very famous controversy, the likes of which we have here in the Kingdom of Thailand with alarming regularity, characterised by a violent thunderstorm taking place in a receptacle reserved for a Lipton's teabag.
The TV series Songkhram Nang Fah (War of the Angels) came and went in 2008, thanks to enraged real-life flight attendants who bristled at the suggestion they fought amongst themselves for the love of pilots, as if that was somehow the goal of many an unwed flight attendant.
And finally, Apichatpong's picture again, in which the censorship board took exception to a monk playing a guitar. Cut it, they said, or the movie will be banned. Go to hell, said Apichatpong.
Showing such behaviour, the board argued, would degrade Buddhism. Worse, monks may start to enjoy guiding remote-controlled flying saucers around temples, wasting valuable time that could be spent dispensing lucky lottery numbers to locals.
So that's the common thread. They all got banned.
I know, I know. What's the big deal? Why can't a doctor enjoy a drink after work? A monk playing a guitar is child's play next to the monks I read about on page one who sell methamphetamines at their temples.
As for the flight attendants, why wouldn't they want to snag a good-looking captain? Where's the harm in that? And if one has to tread on a few heads along the way, what would Charles Darwin say about that?
The latest is the saga that goes on today, more than a week later, involving politicians with their noses out of joint, ordering Channel 3 to kill the soapie Nua Mek 2 right at its thrilling climax.
A Westerner, or any foreigner for that matter, may look upon these strange vignettes, deemed offensive by the local censorship board, and wonder what the fuss is all about. Don't all those scenes reflect reality?
Ah but that's the point. The fact they are true is not the issue. It's the fact they are being disseminated that upsets the applecart.
Make no mistake. Every Thai knows there are corrupt police and politicians.
Similarly, we know Buddhist monks are the same species of animal as Catholic priests. When denied their natural urge to procreate they are more likely to run amok. Priests might do something worthy of tabloid front pages; monks pick up guitars.
But just because it's real doesn't mean we have to show it. In this country, there is one force that is stronger than the quest for truth _ and that is the saving of face.
The real common thread in each of those four _ and ultimately five _ scenarios I portrayed is that in each situation, someone lost face.
Police, monks, doctors, flight attendants and politicians _ five respectable and worthy professions to enter. They are also peppered with men and women taking advantage of their stations for their own personal gain. Nevertheless to offend one group as a whole in such a manner is not what we do in Thailand.
And so logic takes a back seat to face. How does the medical profession lose face by showing a couple of doctors drinking? I kind of like the idea of my GP dancing with a lampshade on his head at an after-surgery party.
Similarly, is the 2,500-year-old religion of Buddhism going to crumble because we see a monk attempt to strum More Than I Can Say out on a guitar? (Imagine if he'd been playing Sister Janet Mead's The Lord's Prayer _ now that would have been grounds for censorship, though not for any religious reasons.)
Even if we concede face-saving as grounds for banning, still the Censoring Powers That Be can be baffling at times.
Three years ago a movie came out called Insects in the Backyard. Or rather, it didn't come out. This was a movie about a single father who raises a son and a daughter. The father is a transvestite, and the school-age son makes money as a prostitute.
"Well no WONDER the movie got banned!" I can hear you say. With such a climate of concern over ethics and losing face, it's little wonder a katoey dad and his wayward son are considered unacceptable.
But stop right there. That's not the reason it was banned.
In announcing the ban, the censorship board said, "There is a scene where a son wants to kill his father. He even stabs his father and there is blood, and that's unacceptable."
It wasn't the violence that was unpalatable. It was the fact it was a child doing it to his own father. Fathers should be worshipped at all costs, even when he puts on a dress and tries to seduce one of your friends, as was the case in the movie. That's irrelevant; respect your elders.
Times are rapidly changing, by the way, as evidenced by the sudden emergence of anti-Channel 3 campaigns in social media last week. Thais are just too technologically savvy and worldly to accept this face-saving point of view much longer.
Or are they just missing their soaps?
I kind of like the way Thais have been spurred to action over this latest controversy. There has been nothing passive about the masses this time around, though I feel disappointed we aren't rallying about an issue of more relevance. After all, it's just a soap opera.
So while America battles with its constitutional right to shoot kindergarten kids dead, the Thais are brazenly demanding their right to view local soap operas, face or no face. One issue may be important and the other trivial, but one thing is for sure; they both leave you with dead brain cells.
About the author
- Writer: Andrew Biggs