Thailand’s censor shame-Bangkok Post

May 15, 2012


Funeral pyres lit in our dark night of shame

Kong Rithdee

Bangkok Post: May 12, 2012


Light the funeral pyres. Two, not just one. Throw in the conflagration the corpse not of man but of the basic right citizens in any sane society should be able to exercise: the right to speak, and the right to watch film.

Ablaze in the fatal flames are the anatomy of hurt, the testament of intolerance. And we hear sighs of two guillotined heads as vultures set out looking for more corpses in our sunless backyard. To quote Shakespeare in Macbeth: “And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp; is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame …”

It’s darkness and shame, in that order. On Tuesday, Ampon “Uncle SMS” Tangnoppakul died in prison from liver cancer while serving his 20-year jail term for lese majeste. Eight times, the lawyer for the 62-year-old man had tried to obtain bail, but the court wouldn’t hear it for fear of the inmate running away. Tell me, running away where? As his coffin was raised in a cross-town funeral procession, it was more than just Ampon that died: it was the hope that serious consideration to updating the law that was evidently used with self-righteous savagery that died with him. Denying bail to a sick old man for sending libelous text messages is not something worthy of any civilisation, because it’s as good as a death sentence. Tell me again, for I didn’t hear it, running away where?

Then yesterday, freedom of speech was executed by the firing squad at the Ministry of Culture. The National Film and Television Board – officially chaired by PM Yingluck Shinawatra, though she never has time to watch any serious films – upheld the initial verdict of the censors board and banned Shakespeare Tong Tai (Shakespeare Must Die), an adaptation of Macbeth and a political allegory based on our contemporary fracas. The death sentence rests comfortably on a vague justification: the film, which is about a general who kills a king to become king and a politician who lusts after power, will cause disunity among the people. The film’s title serves as its own dark prophecy: Shakespeare must die, and is dead.

I just hope not. I’m not talking about resurrection; I’m talking, perhaps, about the lifting of the spirit from the body to somewhere else. I wonder if the brilliant censors – whose members are mainly bureaucrats – realise that even if you ban and burn a film, the film lives, on a hard disk, on a thumb drive, and on the live stream of the digital cosmos, should the filmmaker chooses to let it live. And indeed the director of Shakespeare Must Die, Ing Kanjanavanit, vowed to fight on, and that “you will see this film”.

Ampon was derided by the royalists as a red shirt slanderer. Ing, meanwhile, is labelled by the red shirts as an anti-Thaksin force. Now, what’s so glaring here after Ampon’s death and Shakespeare’s demise is that they’re actually fighting the same demon. In the two funeral pyres the loudest scream comes from freedom – not the romanticised, politicised, Bolshevikised kind used in manifestoes, but the basic, inborn, God-given freedom to talk, to argue, to think different, and to make and watch movies. If such freedom transgresses others’, let the rule of fair law takes charge, and not the “misguided patriotism” and “immature royalism” in Ampon’s case, as Sanitsuda Ekachai rightly wrote, and not the primitive mindset of blindfolding the public and burning renegade books in the Shakespeare case.

Despite much campaigning a few years back, the current Film Act clutches the ban order like its proof of sanity. Meanwhile, the rally to amend the lese majeste law is a social movement frustrated by the political power. Yesterday, PM Yingluck confirmed that her party would never touch the law despite the harrowing fate of Ampon. “I have already told groups who push for amendment that the government’s urgent mission is to solve economic problems,” she says. Her red shirt ministers, too, have been happily looking the other way, supposedly where there’s no smoke of recent cremations. That’s not surprising given that they’ve adopted Let It Be as their theme song since joining Thaksin in singing an odious version of it on a stage in Cambodia.

Two deaths in four days, and more to come. This is serial murder of the same victim. Royalists or not, Thaksin-lovers or else, our only proof of sanity is not the ban order or the lese majeste law, but to do something about them.


Kong Rithdee writes about movies and popular culture for the Bangkok Post.


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