The demonstrations have
ended in Bangkok, but the Thai script wars continue. This reflects the fact that
both the government and the Reds Shirts are deeply divided. There is one thing
that binds them. There are certain universal tropes used to silence or dismiss
their critics (Thailand isn’t unique in using them). In waging the propaganda
wars, the advantage is to the government as they have more resources to bring to
bear to censor their critics. For example blocking websites for not telling what
they deem to be truth.
There is the rub. The
truth. How it is told and who tells it and what is to be done with those who
seek to tell a different truth? Different truths like ambiguous heroes can cause
confusion. Thus the official justification for bans, censorship and
This is not a time of
tolerance for differing views and opinions in Thailand. The consensus is that if
you follow one side or the other, then you show your loyalty by following the
official script of received truth.
To go off script or raise
questions about the truthfulness of the official script of either side is only
done by various ‘troublemakers’ who are like wannabe film makers who see a
different movie from the one the director, writer and producer have envisioned,
follow the pathway.
This monopoly of truth
model works off an officially sanctioned script. During Thaksin Shinawatra’s
term as prime minister, the government used a similar process and tropes to
silence critics. Thai governments have a history of guarding the script of the
movie they want others to see and believe about Thailand.
As with any big feature
film, resources are allocated to ensuring that approved script is the one that
gets made. In the political realm, the censor is like an assistant director
whose job is given to see that the cast is on script and outsiders trying to
alter the script are marched off the set.
So who are these
troublemakers, those wanting to question the script, the director’s decision
about a scene, and details of who is the hero and who is the villain? If you
watch enough movies and live in Thailand for twenty years, you understand that
one man’s hero is another man’s villain. And politics becomes a kind of
I’ll like to share my
observations about these critics of another side’s cast and script.
Class. The middle-class in Bangkok and Thailand is quite large. But it
is only a segment of this class that you find the influential chattering class.
These are Thais who are willing to publicly express their political views
publicly. This chattering class is, itself, divided. A large number believe that
the government has a brilliant, truthful script that goes to the heart of the
matter. These are supporters (not critics) and they have no problem getting
airtime and print media exposure to sing the praises of the government’s script.
They wouldn’t change a word. The heroes and villains emerge with clarity and
conviction. They believe in the movie being made like film financiers. If they
have doubts, they kept them to themselves.
Then there are critics of
the second group who want to overrun the set and make a different movie.
The second group of the
Bangkok Chattering Class who nest among the intellectuals, academics,
journalists, NGOs – the same educational background as first group. But the
second, smaller, group from this pool wants to rewrite or tear up the
government’s script and substitute it with their own script. They support those
who want to shoot a movie with a different cast of heroes and villains. The
government resents the interference, dismisses the alternative script as shoddy
and dishonest, and brands it as dangerous heresy. The government does
everything in its power to make sure that its supporters come out to sing the
praises of their script and demonize the alternative one.
government censorship follows a similar pattern the world over, there are
cultural specific techniques that each government employs. How does the Thai
government sideline the unaccommodating Bangkok Chattering Class whose members
are on the opposite side of the script wars?
More often than not, when
a member of the critical member of Bangkok Chattering Class was educated abroad,
his/her views are ignored. This foreign exposure means they really can’t
understand the Thai script. Such a critic is dismissed as not being a ‘real’
Thai and so he or she has no business commenting on a script that only a true
Thai would understand. It is an excellent mechanism for exclusion of another’s
opinion or evidence, and it is often effective. The foreign educated Thai critic
may be tolerated as a maverick suitable to make a small budget art house film,
but nothing about the big budget, big audience film that has been written and in
the process of being shot.
Chattering Class. As we have learned from recent events, the Upcountry
Chattering Class have found their political voice. Given that the Upcountry
Chattering Class is substantially larger than the Bangkok Chattering Class,
there is a constant battle to patrol what the Upcountry Chattering Class is
saying, where they are saying it, who is saying it and who is listening. Not
just in Bangkok but for the entire country. They have laid their cards on the
table. They don’t like the government’s script. They don’t believe that is a
movie that works. Like the foreign educated Bangkok Chattering Class, these
critics need to be sidelined. The justification is that the Upcountry Chattering
Class is too uneducated and therefore their opinions and ideas should be
dismissed. These people shouldn’t get ideas that they know how to make a movie.
Critics. The foreigners. This is a Thai movie. What business do
foreigners have coming onto the set, reading the script, ripping it apart,
asking why the casting was done in this way, and not that way. A headache for
any filmmaker: the invasion on the set from outsiders. How to sideline the
non-Thai critics? Reach for levers that are connected to the Nativist Instinct.
This is a surefire way in Thailand and in most countries works on the emotions
of a significant number of people. Foreigners who have lived in Thailand for
many years, no matter how fluent in Thai or how deep their understanding of the
Thai culture and society, remain an object of suspicion. It is bad enough
they’ve wandered onto the set, and now they want to sit in the director’s chair.
That’s bound to cause some friction by butting in and inviting themselves to the
script writing session.
Foreigners. There is always an exception to celebrate certain non-Thai.
When a foreigner says this is the best script ever written since Iron Man2, he
will be celebrated as someone who can read a Thai script and absorb all of the
complexity of the plot, story and characters – forget that he may not read a
word of Thai or have never even lived in Thailand. As long as he appreciates the
script that matters.
Wars. The Land of Smiles movie isn’t being remade. The question is what
will this new movie look like? The script remains in rewrite. These script wars
have been around for many years in Thai politics, as one set of cast, an
entirely new cast and crew replace writers, directors and producers, sometimes
by a coup, sometimes by an election. It is a crazy way to make a movie. But all
movie making activity is a little crazy, risky, and controversial. In terms of
staking out and defining the official, authentic movie to make, the government
follows a long tradition. And if the Red Shirt side were returned to power in an
election, the probability is great that they would use their mandate to write a
very different movie. And the whole process would start over as if on a
perpetual loops. Before a movie has mass audience appeal, it needs to connect
with the mass audience. Both sides make the mistake of defining the audience as
composed only of their supporters.
After having lived for
couple of decades in Bangkok, I don’t pretend to have the answer to how that
loop is closed or to expand the audience or end the script wars between rival
factions. What I believe, though, is this. Such battles over what belongs in the
script and who plays the role of the hero and who is the villain will not end
We are limited in what we
can know and we are limited in how we know things. Humility is acceptance of
those imitations. An awareness shaped by humility tells us that a script can
always be made better; but know that some people will always hate whatever movie
you make. That’s life. If you are making a movie, and millions of people are
complaining that they are being assigned the role of extras in a terrible movie,
you can deflect the criticism by pointing to an evil offshore alternative
moviemaker, or you can listen to the objections made by the critics, and address
them on the merits. Who gets speaking parts and who gets screen time is always a
headache for any moviemaker. Politicians have the same problem.
Political scripts like
movie scripts can never please everyone. But a political script is not an
entertainment that last an hour and a half and you can walk out of the cinema
and into your real life. Political scripts are about your real life every day.
That’s why they are important to recognize that in a democracy everyone can and
should be a critic of the movie making process. Because they have to live with
the results long after the popcorn has run out.