Stage artists feel fettered by censorship
There is a song going around. The Song of Commoners, it is called.
Images captured from the video clip of 'The Song of Commoners' on YouTube appealing for the release of two theatre artists Patiwat Saraiyaem and Pornthip Munkong.
A handful of people have been posting videos on YouTube of themselves singing the song, penned by Chuveath Kaewsai, in support of two young theatre activists charged with lese majeste and other political prisoners.
Inspired by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the Song of Commoners tribute project has been going on for about a month. As of print time, there were fewer than 50 videos on YouTube. Unlike the Ice Bucket Challenge, which were widely participated in by celebrities in Thailand, most performers in these videos do not excitedly challenge their friends or famous people. Some sing in the candlelight, some without showing their faces or revealing their real names.
Since the May 22 coup, 15 activists and non-activists have been charged for allegedly violating Section 112, or the lese majeste law.
On Aug 14, police arrested Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, on charges of lese majeste.
The next day, Pornthip Munkong, 25, was stopped by police at Hat Yai International Airport and arrested on the same charges. Their requests for bail have been repeatedly denied by the Bangkok Criminal Court.
Last year, a play called Jaosao Mapa (The Wolf Bride), in which Patiwat and Pornthip were involved, was staged as part of an event at Thammasat University to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the October 14 student massacre. The production was also broadcast on the Asia Update channel.
The staging of The Wolf Bride was a reunion for the Prakaifai Karnlakorn. Founded in 2010, the troupe performed at political protests and in rural villages free of charge. Members went their separate ways in 2012 due to differences in vision.
The Wolf Bride marks the first time a theatre production has been accused violating lese majeste. Unlike film and television, theatre in Thailand is not subject to a rating system. There is no law requiring theatre productions to go through the state censorship board.
And as the majority of theatre companies in Thailand receive little corporate sponsorship and attention from the media and prefer to stay away from government funding, stage artists have enjoyed more freedom in tackling sensitive subjects than their counterparts in other fields of art.
Since the arrests of the two theatre activists, however, there has been no shortage of small theatre performances. At least 15 productions will have been staged in venues across Bangkok by the end of October.
The incident has not visibly stirred any fearful reactions among the theatre artists; no shows have been cancelled.
Few have spoken out in support of the theatre activists. The non-commercial theatre professionals, who largely operate as a community, have not together issued any official remarks in response to the incarceration of Patiwat and Pornthip.
But there are artists on whom the incident has an impact. One of them is Wichitra*, who runs her own Bangkok-based theatre company.
"I don't know [them] personally," writes Wichitra in an email, "but [this incident] makes me feel like my space and the work that I do have been trespassed on."
Like many other lese majeste cases in recent years, it was fellow citizens who filed charges against The Wolf Bride cast.
According to a report in Prachatai, two weeks following the staging and broadcast of the play, The Royal Monarch Alert Protection Network held a meeting attended by several hundred members to screen the clip of the play and discuss plans to take legal action.
Members of the media also spoke against the play. Hosts of the programme Tee Sak Na on ASTV, for example, encouraged legal action against those involved.
"Frankly, I don't feel safe to communicate because I don't know how my work will be interpreted," writes Wichitra. "This law is dangerous to everyone regardless of how much you revere the monarchy. If someone interprets your intention the wrong way, that's the end of you."
Piti*, a playwright, expresses similar anxiety. "I'm afraid, but I'm also interested in the challenge of how to handle this topic in my work," he says in an email. "My goal is to share my thoughts with those who think differently. If I am able to communicate with those who disagree with me and get them to understand and accept our differences, then I've done my job."
Thailand's political divisiveness has only grown more violent over the years. People speaking out in defence of basic human rights, expressing opinions critical of Section 112 or showing sympathy for those who have been charged and convicted with the crime are often accused of being anti-monarchy or labeled as red shirts regardless of their political leanings.
Similarly, those who criticise Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, speak out against corruption, or demand that politicians uphold moral standards are pigeonholed as anti-democratic, out-of-touch urban middle class, or salim (the word is the name of a multi-coloured Thai dessert and a pejorative for people with views perceived to be diametrically opposed to those of the red shirts). In short, there is little room for complex discussions.
For Karnjana*, an art administrator who runs her own art space in Bangkok, the recent arrests of activists shine the light on the age-old problem of the art of activism in Thailand. "There is a lack of diversity in the approach to protest and activism in Thailand," she says. "Direct confrontation seems to be the prevailing method, while in fact many other approaches are also available."
When Karnjana opened her art space five years ago, it quickly became a venue for artists and academics whose seminars and art-related activities were not welcome in universities and prominent art spaces because of the political nature of their topics.
"I had always wanted to open up a space for people who were being censored," Karnjana explains. "Many places were censoring themselves […] I have always been careful about my programming though. I never see the point in being confrontational with anyone and resistance can be constructive. There's no need to offend anybody or destroy anything. It can be about creating a dialogue or opening a space for that."
What Thailand needs, she says, is a space where people are allowed to have violent arguments. "It's a space of productive conflict."
And with constant political unrest in the past decade and the ever-tightening grip of state censorship, the theatre scene has only thrived and diversified. "I think theatre artists are stepping back to see how the situation will unfold," says Piti. "And after that, they will produce works on this subject that will be even subtler than before. I feel limitations always give birth to interesting creations."
*All names have been changed.
Amitha Amranand writes about theatre for the Bangkok Post.