Thai TV series give ugly truths a rosy hue
As I've been following progress of the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Myanmar, I can see the project receives little attention from the mainstream Thai media, despite the fact the contentious project involves a big investor, the Thai government -- and human rights violations.
So it really amazed me when I found out that a number of scenes in My Husband in Law, a Thai rom-com currently on Channel 3, were set in Dawei SEZ, although I heard the actual shooting took place elsewhere.
The series revolves around "Muey" (Nittha Jirayungyurn) and "Thian" (Prin Suparat), who met in Dawei, where Thian leads the engineering team of a Thai company that is building the SEZ -- including a deep-sea port and a highway that connects it to Kanchanaburi at the Thai border.
While the story is fictional, the SEZ is real. The project is developed by Italian-Thai Development (ITD), whose chief executive, Premchai Karnasuta, made headlines back in 2018 for wildlife poaching in Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary in Kanchanaburi.
One big difference between the TV series and reality lies in how the SEZ is portrayed. In the series, the project is projected as a positive thing -- in reality, however, the entire scheme is riddled by protests and petitions filed by ethnic communities who have to bear the brunt of the impact from construction. Residents have been evicted, and the project's developers neither bothered nor cared enough to ask about those who were affected by the SEZ. There were even reports the public hearings for the project were cosmetic.
The SEZ's development began in 2008, led by ITD in collaboration with the Myanmar government, with the aim of transforming a 250-square-kilometre coastal area in Dawei into Southeast Asia's largest industrial zone. However, it was delayed for many reasons, including a policy change during Myanmar's political transition, financial difficulties and protests.
Several families across 19 villages were evicted from their homes in 2011 during the land clearance process and members of indigenous Karen communities also complained of unfair compensation. Prompted by the incidents, a civil society group in Dawei petitioned the Thai National Human Rights Commission in 2013, which recommended the ITD settle. Although beset with delays, the project is slowly moving forward. However, the conflict between ITD and affected local communities remain unresolved.
Last year, the Myanmar government invited international businesses and corporations to invest in Dawei SEZ. However, Myanmar media say, the project will be stalled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
These complications do not appear in My Husband in Law, although the omission may not be deliberate.
Nevertheless, netizens were intrigued when a list of "10 Facts" about the hit series surfaced online last week. What this shows is how ignorant Thai TV series are, as producers tend to repeat conventional plots while avoiding controversies and politics. It's meant as pure entertainment -- not for education or promoting changes.
Some series, in fact, have become a tool of state propaganda, whether intentionally or not. For example, the 2017 Channel 7 drama series Love Mission, which tells the story of four military men trying to win both in battle, and love. These stories reflect discourses and stereotypes which can leave a long-lasting impact on the audience.
These series often portray people from Myanmar and Laos in a certain way -- with broken Thai accents, Thanaka powder smeared all over their faces and mismatched costumes. They are often relegated to the roles of household helpers, such as in the 2010 series Thara Himalai.
A decade has passed since Thara Himalai, but such stereotypes can still be found in My Husband in Law, even though Thai society talks a lot about respect for different cultures.
There are various efforts by independent filmmakers to make a difference, such as Chartchai Ketnust's From Bangkok to Mandalay and Blissfully Yours, directed by director/writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which portray characters from Myanmar as equal to any other nationality. But in the bigger picture, Thai TV drama, which forms a major part of Thailand's entertainment industry, can hardly compete with progressive content in the international market. Young audiences are looking for alternatives, such as South Korean drama series which dwell on tough subjects like social injustice and class divisions.
But the popularity of those TV dramas may reflect ignorance on the part of the audience who tend to love feel-good stories with happy endings. As long as the mainstream audience remain unchanged, the entertainment industry can't become more progressive. We can expect the same stories to be retold again and again.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.