The Arab Spring’s most successful participant, Egypt, has now become one of its least stable; Detroit has claimed bankruptcy and it is the largest city in American economic history to have done so (roll on the deficit discussions that will likely do “huge damage to prospects for economic recovery” in reminiscence of Greece, as the New York Times notes); according to a recent Al Jazeera report, more American troops die each year from suicide than warfare.
This is a still from Paradoxocracy which demonstrates the directors’ use of censorship.
Thailand: the land of over-the-counter anti-depressants, daily drug busts and a particularly sensitive censorship board.
This much is unequivocally true, but where do Thailand’s political problems really stand in the international scheme of things?
Law firm Amsterdam & Partners recently sheathed Thailand’s democracy problem in an international context when, in their white paper released on July 14th, they mused over “how fragile democracies can be, particularly in countries where a lack of civilian oversight and accountability holds sway.” Here, they refer to current happenings in Egypt, and forecast a similar situation in Thailand should the international community not “throw its full-throated support behind the Yingluck government as it strives to advance true democracy in Thailand.” More generally, however, the white paper incites a definite pro-Thaksin tone. A white paper is a (supposedly unbiased) document produced by a legal authority in an effort to stir up concern about a political situation it deems unacceptable, but I would hardly call this attack balanced.
This London- and Washington-based law firm might come all guns (and law degrees) blazing to the Thailand party, but they’re not Thai. And, essentially, it’s not up to them. Nor is it up to the hallowed ‘international community’ whose capacity is often held in too high esteem.
However, small and secretive steps are being taken by Thais in Thailand to prick up the public’s ears to the democracy problem.
From the forefront of Thailand’s television commercial industry, Pen-Ek (Tom) Ratanaruang emerged onto art house film territory in the late nineties. Now – the best part of two decades on – he does not fall short of international acclaim for his artistic ability and integrity, with Cannes appearances aplenty attached to his filmography. However, his most recent cinematic venture, Paradoxocracy, relies less upon his artistic vision than the research he undertook jointly with the film’s co-director and producer, Pasakorn (Ake) Pramoolwong.
The film’s Thai title (Prachatipa’Thai) is a play on the Thai word for democracy: it basically means “Democracy, Thai-style,” and whilst both Tom and Ake have admitted to their lack of prior understanding of the democracy debate in Thailand, they use the film-making process to probe at the matter via an array of sensible and efficient questions: When was democracy born into Thai history? Does it, and did it ever, really exist? What even is it?
Rather than answers and closure, Tom and Ake carefully seek to extract clues and ideas from the brains they wrack throughout the film (those of academics, historians and witnesses to the atrocious student massacres which mar Thai history).
I caught a viewing of the film at the tail end of its opening two weeks. In Bangkok’s Paragon cinema – one of only two locations to show the film – interest and pressure visibly mounted as the directors explored the landscape of Thailand’s past. Never do they speculate or decide, they simply enquire. As such, the film cleverly turns the question of democracy into a riddle. Riddles can be solved, but require logic and patience to do so – two things that are hardly synonymous with politics.
The quietly released Paradoxocracy suffered some difficulties prior to what turned out to be a successful and fortunate run in Bangkok. Why customers wanting to buy tickets to the Major Cineplex showings were stunted from doing so (both online and at the box office) is a riddle in itself.
As a student of Thai studies, the film fascinated me. I was lucky enough to meet Tom and Ake in the capital to chat about the difficulties they encountered when making Paradoxocracy. Indeed, they spoke with more zest about unaccommodating cinemas than the harsh censorship board.
The duo humbly claimed that they were unsure as to what reception the film – themselves included – would be met with. Their modestly is admirable, given their successful careers, however a film of Paradoxocracy’s caliber and reach will always generate enough interest to do well. Even in Thailand.
Tom’s and Ake’s joint decision to choose Paradoxocracy as the film’s English title was influenced by academic Thongchai Winichakul. In the film, he offers a definition of democracy in Thailand as paradoxical, yet is he really able to incite the notion of paradox in reference to something that has never truly existed? Never-really-there-in-the-first-place-ocracy might have been a more fitting (although, admittedly, a less catchy) title. “All I did was to talk about history to the camera,” Thongchai told me in a separate correspondence.
Thongchai recently gave a lecture at Thammasat which harshly critiqued the Thai education system. Read about it here.
Upon leaving Paragon after watching Paradoxocracy, I stumbled across a swell of Guy Fawkes mask-yielding who-knows-whats outside Bangkok’s Art and Culture Centre in the Siam district. An Ajarn I spoke to who is the secretary of the so-called National Democratic Movement (a Google search for the NDM will yield few results, since the V for Vendetta/Guy Fawkes/white mask movement has now become little more than a complicated mesh of confused activists).
‘An opportunity,’ I thought, ‘I’ll ask him about the film! What perfect timing? I’ve just walked out of the cinema!’ But Ajarn Samarn knew nothing about the film; its content is unassuming, but I’ll chance that the majority of those who’ve enjoyed its ideas are well-established Thai academics, students whose dress mirrors that of their 1970s (massacred) counterparts, and the odd opportunistic farang (myself included).
Ajarn Sarmarn’s goal: “To turn the mobs into the masses,” he told me. However, as Thai history has dictated, the “mobs” consist of the military and their political counterparts, and the “masses” the disenfranchised public. Ajarn Samarn’s movement – whose members barely understand its intentions – cannot conglomerate the two.
This is a problem that tangibly transgresses silly (non-)issues like censorship and ‘broken’ box offices. Democracy shouldn’t be personalised, but it has been to the nth degree in Thailand. There’s no ‘I’ in democracy, accept there is in Thailand – there are plenty of them. As such, the Thai public relies upon colour-coded politics, a hidden discourse dappled with references to the royals, and movements masquerading as a 17th century English arsonist. And until someone (i.e. the Thais themselves, and not the (imagined) international community) imposes a genuine understanding of this mess upon the people, Thailand will slip back into the slipstream of its past. It’s inevitable.
A fiercer stance must be taken than that offered by Tom and Ake, as they sit understandably – if not comfortably – on the wall. The Paradoxocracy masterminds revealed to me that they were reluctant to submit to the censorship board’s requests, but they did. Sort of. This much is evident by their decision to leave in the censored segments of the film (the speech is muted, and the subtitles are crossed out). A great artistic device, if you ask me. However, some degree of self-censorship must’ve been at work, too. After months of careful research, Tom and Ake would have been capable of asserting a stance that displayed a little more vivacity than the completely neutral one they convey via the film.
The Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire once said that “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” This idea rings true for the Thais: sitting on the wall is ultimately easier, as Tom and Ake admitted to me. They wanted their film to reach the light of cinemas, so they sat on the wall and let the censorship board work its relatively innocuous magic. Paradoxocracy is still a feat, though it could have been more than a cinematic success. It could have been a political one.
Maybe indifference is as democratic as things get in contemporary Thailand, though.
Because despite the falsities that fill the textbooks of Thailand’s schoolchildren and unshakably follow them beyond the schoolroom to the workplace, real (i.e. lasting) democracy has not existed in Thailand since 1932 (with the abolishment of the absolute monarchy… and the rest). It cannot have, not when the definitive events in Thai political history have existed as follows: a series of tidal waves, guided by the elite few and converging in on the masses; momentums, built-up over time until they heap down in the form of lawless coups and the deaths of innocent people; the bad weather is constant.
Where are the Thais at now, then? They’re at the peak of a very pent-up crest, and it’s angrier than ever. An ambiguous al-Qaeda video made its way onto Youtube at the weekend, for example. Three Arabic-looking and Arabic-speaking young men threaten Thaksin’s life, blaming him for the deaths of thousands of Muslims in the south of Thailand. Paradorn Pattanatabut of the National Security Council has blamed the white-masks (remember, this is not one but several groups) for this allegedly (and probably) fake video.
The idea of international intervention is therefore nonsensical to me. These happenings are distinctly Thai – they’re impervious to a more universal interpretation. However, should this (imagined) international community intervene – as Amsterdam & Partners’ white paper advices – then it must take a stance that is governed by the facts, and not personal interests or colour-coded bias.