Drawing and crossing the line
Thailand's political cartoonists are in the business of cutting very close to the bone, but now more than ever they must watch their step.
Sakda “Sia” Sae-eaw, 62, was not surprised when he was called in for attitude adjustment at the Royal Thai Army headquarters a few months ago. His job as an editorial cartoonist at Thai Rath newspaper has given him a platform to criticise politicians, policies and governments for the past 22 years.
But he has never felt more famous than when he was summoned by the National Council for Peace and Order in October. “I felt they gave me some sort of notoriety. If they just let me be, nothing would have happened.”
Sakda “Sia” Sae-eaw, also known as Sia Thai Rath
Sakda, also known as Sia Thai Rath, was met by a large crowd of reporters minutes before he entered the army premises on Oct 4. He was accompanied by the newspaper’s senior editor and a team of legal consultants. “I must apologise if my work offends anybody,” he said. “A cartoonist doesn’t want to be in conflict with anybody; I just want to express our point of view. If I don’t touch on current issues, my work is irrelevant.”
For fans of his cartoon on page three of Thai Rath, his interview was simple and striking, much like his political and social critiques. There is no beating around the bush when it comes to expressing his long-standing pro-democracy stance.
“After the attitude adjustment, I have to make sure my work does not contain anything too risky,” he told Spectrum.
‘LAND OF FEAR’
It was not the first time Sakda had been summoned by the military. Two weeks after the coup, he was called in under martial law to meet with the NCPO’s reconciliation committee head Gen Kampanad Rooddit. It was clear he was on the military’s watch list, even before the May 22, 2014, coup. Nowadays, Sakda still gets a “warning”, on a daily basis, from his employer to “tone it down”.
Sakda says the pages of Thai Rath do not escape the eyes of those in power. His employer has told him he is being watched by a “phu yai”.
“Every time I receive a warning from the office, I try not to worry too much. After all, the content of my cartoons is based on the news I read. It’s not like I am making it up.”
Sakda rarely visits the Thai Rath office. He reads news, analyses and columns from every newspaper and online sources, before spending about two hours drawing each day. When his cartoons are completed he scans them and sends them in, usually before 7pm.
The art of political cartooning requires subtlety, and nuanced points are conveyed through caricatures, wit and humour, to evade lawsuits.
But, readers, most notably on internet fan pages, agree the content is as juicy as ever, even after Sakda’s attitude adjustment.
Earlier this month, he drew a picture of a man striking a match who accidentally ignites several men in uniform. The cartoon was published during the controversy surrounding Pol Maj Gen Paween Pongsirin, who investigated human trafficking rings in the South before being ordered to transfer to the area. He flew to Australia seeking political asylum, saying he had received death threats. The cartoon carried the line: “I will be the first to strike a match from across the seas.”
He drew another cartoon showing handcuffed hands doing a thumbs up. On the wrists, he wrote the words “like” and “share”, referring to the perils of using Facebook to disseminate your opinions these days. His favourite characters, two mice passing commentary, utter phrases such as “Amazing land, one-of-a-kind”, “Land of fear” and “Mere clicking will land you in jail”.
“The editorial cartoon is the most important cartoon column for a daily newspaper,” Sakda said. “Each day, readers look at it and instantly understand the newspaper’s stance. Through one picture, they learn what the cartoonist sees or thinks and what he wants to communicate.
“The editor was asked to warn me, and had done. I felt I was being careful, but didn’t realise the government would be that sensitive.”
After graduating from Chulalongkorn University, Sakda cut his teeth on several newspapers in the 1970s when the political climate was far more intimidating.
Despite the fear and loathing, he describes it as the “golden age” of Thai newspapers when it took courage to speak out. “The newspaper was the major means of voicing an opinion back then,” said Sakda, who joined Thai Rath in 1993.
But the fire still burns in his belly today, despite his protestations that he has toned down his commentary. A recent cartoon on the Rajabhakti park scandal had one of his mice commenting: “Who says good people don’t cheat?”
“I cannot change my ideology, but I am being more careful with the work since the attitude adjustment,” said Sakda.
He has had several cartoons rejected for publication and some were adjusted at the request of the editor, including the removal of a “no coup” sign from one work.
Sakda does also impose his own limits on his work. “I observe a few personal rules. I never attack underprivileged people and I never attack any politician’s wife or family because it’s a personal domain and I cannot verify whether accusations against those who hold no political office are true.
“And I never attack anyone based on their gender.”
Other than that, no topic is taboo.
“Thailand is already a broken country,” he said. “What I want is freedom everywhere we go, and equality.
“Sometimes, I want to do more but I cannot. I am only a journalist, I only seek to communicate with people, so that they can be stronger and form their own opinion.”
Chai Rachwat is the pseudonym of Somchai Katanyutanan, 74, the best-known cartoonist Thailand. He started his career as a political cartoonist in 1972 and his comic strips on Thai Rath’s page five have entertained the country since 1979. His characters Phu Yai Ma, Tao Yoi and Joi are all indispensable members of the fictional rural village Tung Ma Moen in the comic series Phu Yai Ma Gap Tung Ma Moen (The Village Chief Ma).
NEW GENERATION: ‘Bangkok Post’ cartoonist Thiwawat Pattaragulwanit, whose work appears left and below, caters to a more international audience and a lot of his work is based on events in other countries.
But his reputation and fame have not sheltered him from the political conflicts of recent years. In May 2013, Somchai made a Facebook post accusing then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra of being worse than a prostitute because “a prostitute sells herself while a bad woman sells the nation”. The quote drew the wrath of red shirts and critique from readers who felt let down by the “tasteless and degrading” remark.
Somchai, who was undaunted by the negative feedback, said it wasn’t the first time he’d been harassed for his work. In the late 1970s, fear of communism and the rise of liberalism saw him under suspicion.
“After the 1979 coup, cartoonists were asked to stop drawing political cartoons, so we turned to comedy,” he said. “One day, I drew the hand of monkey, pointing to a zoo; a skeleton hand, pointing to an X-ray room; and a hand made of bandages pointing to the hospital, just for fun.
“The authorities accused me of trying to organise people to protest at the zoo, and warning them to prepare for clashes and injuries.
“I had to flee to the US at the time.”
Somchai’s page five characters have always represented all walks of life. Despite being around for more than 30 years, they never seem to get old, though some new characters have been added along the way. One thing is certain; the gap between the Bangkok people and those from rural areas never gets any smaller.
“I have a child character, Joi, make comments on thorny issues, so that people don’t see it as being too strong. I have a middle-class husband and wife discuss urban issues like the stock market.
“You wouldn’t think a village chief would comment on these things, would you?”
Sakda and Somchai receive postcards and letters from readers which arrive at the Thai Rath office in huge piles. Both attract hate mail. Both are subjected to comments criticising their parents and families, an off-limits subject for most Thais.
However, Sakda said the negative messages only make up 5% of the feedback he gets from readers.
“I will sometimes see a huge pile of postcards, written with the same handwriting and talking about the same thing,” he said.
Somchai said some readers think he has special powers. “One time, a reader wrote in to say that a cartoon I had drawn about 165 MPs missing from a parliamentary session had inspired him to buy a lottery ticket with the number 165 on it, and he won.
“Another time, a man visited the office with a gift basket for me and asked me to give him a lottery number in return. I told him I had no idea what the lottery results would be. He refused to leave, so I told the security to escort him out.” As well as his work at the newspaper, Somchai gives classes on caricaturing at Silpakorn University. He said that young people nowadays lack the ability to be good political cartoonists, not because they can’t draw, but because they don’t know or care about politics. “They only want to draw caricatures of film stars or singers,” he said.
Somchai said a new generation of political cartoonists has struggled to establish themselves. “Some try drawing political cartoons for a few months and quit to work in an advertising agency because it pays more. Most of them, however, fail to find their own slant on things. They cannot differentiate between negative and positive news and analysis, so they cannot develop a strong standpoint. When their opinions are easily swayed, their cartoons are not funny and they fail to get a grasp of what the readers are feeling or thinking.
“When your cartoons only attack, but do not contain jokes, you cannot do this job.”
How long does it take for him to draw each day? “Less than 20 minutes. But that is after I read every page of every newspaper every day. How can you do the job without doing that?”
MASTER IN THE MAKING
Thiwawat “Mor” Pattaragulwanit’s work has occupied the 10th page of the Bangkok Post for three days a week over the past 11 years. A proficient illustrator and cartoonist, he is one of the younger generation of Thai cartoonists and caters to regional and international readers, which makes the issues he touches on slightly different to his colleagues in other domestic newspapers. His work often refers to wider Asian politics, such as Asean integration, or regional high-speed rail deals. He has been known to draw about the notoriously difficult relations between China and Taiwan, for example.
Closer to home, he has depicted the struggles of transport in Bangkok, with lambs attempting to get a taxi at Suvarnabhumi airport. The taxis were shown with the mouths of crocodiles, and super-sharp teeth, ready to swallow the passengers whole. “My inspiration came from watching a TV documentary on the Serengeti migration,” Thiwawat said.
He started drawing cartoons in 1990 and sees his role similar to that of a news editor who screens, analyses and synthesises news content in his illustrations.
One of his teachers was cartoon master Prayoon Chanyavongs, who taught him that satire must always be paired with respect. “Ajarn Prayoon said we should not attack people who cannot fight back and we should not draw about what we don’t know. Also, we should not behave like those we attack.”
Prayoon was one of Sakda’s predecessors. Thai Rath left the cartoon column on page three vacant for a year after he died in 1992, before Sakda filled in a year later.
“I got to a point in my career where I was tired of just using my drawings to attack,” Thiwawat said. “I realised I had the huge opportunity of being able to publish works in the Bangkok Post and Krungthep Turakij, so the first thing I do when I’m reading the news now is ask questions about why and how something is happening.
“I want my work to be thought-provoking, like you’re reading the papers with me, and I’m whispering in your ear.
“I learned from senior cartoonists that we should not kill anyone with our cartoons. If a newspaper closed down because of me, I wouldn’t be proud.”
Thiwawat doodled a Meechai Ruchupan lookalike recently. He was pictured as a tailor making a military uniform. The idea was, he said, that “tailors must know how to hide stitches well”.
Having spoken to fellow cartoonists in the region many times, he feels he and his Thai colleagues are better off than most. “A Filipino cartoonist disappeared once. Everyone thought that was because of politics,” he said. “My friends in other Southeast Asian countries actually say they envy Thai cartoonists.”