Bangkok Love Letter
Wednesday 23 November 2016, Bangkok
CHANGE IT BACK
Wednesday 23 November 2016, Bangkok
Dear Foreign Friend,
How are you, really? My condolences to the Free World, but in your present state you might mistake such sympathy for glee over this apparent demise of Western moral hegemony. Since I sincerely know how it feels to be oppressed by “democratically-elected” toads, lizards and other reptiles, I can’t quite bring myself to dole out the surprisingly wide-spread Thai fantasy revenge of calling all anti-Trump Americans ‘anti-democratic evil elite’. Unlike you, we don’t think we know all about you better than you do yourself, though we could in fact show you a thing or two. Namely, how to protest with endurance and ahimsa to peacefully and justifiably occupy the streets & public buildings of your capital city to prevent your country from becoming a failed state; how to survive a vindictive, corrupt and corrupting tyrant who poisons and divides; how to deal with poisoned or zombie family & friends; how to put up with preaching foreigners. Watching the Powerpuff Girls take down Mojo Jojo could be cathartic right now.
The Daily News’ bleached Colourful World section
Here in Thailand national mourning continues. TV is finally back in full colour, after the 30-day deep mourning period during which every channel was almost black and white, but everyone’s still in black. Go out any lunch hour, it’s a sea of black. On Monday a man on a motorbike with one giant speaker rode up and down the soi inviting everyone to a local ritual to pay respects to the King. “Can’t get to the Palace? Never mind! Join us in front of the Public Health Station at the top of the soi at 7:30 tomorrow morning!” Simultaneously the whole country would be taking part in their respective hamlet. This worship is for the inhabitants of one short lane in central Bangkok.
It was a sight to behold. I had envisioned a ragged crew, but the medics at our little health station were out in force in their finest black: proper Thai mourning dress with ankle-length pah-sin and long-sleeved jackets, and covered black shoes, as if they were in fact at the Grand Palace rather than on the dusty pavement as traffic rumbled past on Sukhumvit road . In the golden morning sunlight, the black contrasted nicely with the yellow mats that had been laid down so people could prostrate themselves on the ground without getting dirty.
Swearing allegiance on the street
These civil servants were soon joined by solemn local residents including shopkeepers, household servants and lunch vendors nearby, all similarly impressively attired. Led by the director of Public Health Station 10, they sang the national anthem at 8 a.m. & then swore allegiance to the portrait of the King at a black & white draped altar on the pavement: among other things to uphold every Chakri dynasty king until the day we die; to promote ethical governance, rule of law and yes, to protect the environment. The vow was thorough and sounded like it was written by a person with NGO as well as legal experience.
The village mingled briefly after observing 9 seconds of silence (“because everyone has to go to work”) & singing the royal anthem. The optician said she was beside herself. She’d cried & cried. She was still crying. What about the future? Is she afraid? She told me of a friend who said Thaksin would be back in a couple of years; how she argued with him that it’s not going to happen. This small young woman had helped to shut down Bangkok & she’s still ready for the whistle blow any time despite all her weeping. “But who will we fight for now?” wailed a cabbie, a big man who’d been another avid anti-Thaksin protester. He was unable to separate his love for the person of the King from his love for his country, for his own survival & his children’s future. Fight for your children, I consoled him, fight for what is right. But he just shook his head, speechless with grief and defeat.
Yet another acquaintance told admiringly of ‘a friend’ who got so upset with a stranger wearing red the day after the King died, she confronted her. The woman said she had no black clothes. The ‘friend’ followed the offender home from a 5 star hospital & gave her a black ribbon and a piece of her mind. Even as she told her story, she had no idea how chilling it was.
These village conversations are interesting because for over a month we’ve mostly shied away from asking each other directly how we feel. Social media might be full of display of loyalty and emotion, but face to face we respect each other’s private freedoms. It’s in intensely personal crisis.
If you don’t feel as sad as other people, what does this say about your patriotism, your politics, your very soul? What if you felt sorry for the King?--as a tired and sincerely well-intentioned old man, misunderstood and sick, who tried his best to hang on as long as he could & now deserves his rest. “I’ve suffered long enough, Iet me go,” is the haunting refrain from one of his blues, now playing in an endless loop in shops and department stores everywhere, mercifully saving us from the usual bombardment of the Chipmonks’ Christmas Carols.
I did film our heartfelt village ceremony. But as a self-designated witness, obsessively compelled to observe & record these thrilling times, if I were to admit right here that I haven’t gone to film anything around the Palace yet, does this make me a traitor? Or is it because there are so many cameras recording everything there all the time, it feels redundant?
This dapper Swiss man is the height of mourning fashion
Meanwhile right after the King died, the prayer room in red shirt leader & ex-pop star Arisman’s grand residence burned down. People who hate him, and there are many, said it was divine retribution for his past disrespect towards the King. But Arisman emerged from the ashes of his prayer room with a photo of the King together with the Crown Prince, miraculously preserved from the flames. Thaksin’s red shirts have now joined the ranks of donors & volunteers providing food to the mourners at Sanam Luang, soon to be the Royal Cremation Ground.
Red shirt/ex-pop star Arisman’s miracle
(Photo credit : http://kratips.com/5840)
(Photo credit : http://kratips.com/5840)
People feel compelled to be there in person, even though the King is everywhere since the King is meant to be one with the land. There’s actually no need to present yourself there if you sincerely only want to pay respects and say goodbye. You can do it at home or, as someone I know did the night after his death, in a dream of serving him tea and persimmons, a detail so probable and charming that we want to believe its truth. She didn’t have to queue for 12 hours after an overnight bus to Bangkok. She had been blessed with a dream visitation which in Thai life is part of a valid and cherished dimension of reality, though not one that you can take a selfie of.
Spotted on a Bangkok street last week
Cynics assure me it’s just our love of fashion; that part of it is the fact that Thai people are discovering how good they look in black, how trim and flattering the graceful lines of the Thai mourning dress. Across the road from the health centre, our village’s most luxurious bridal & evening dressmaker says his customers are all ordering the same black fitted sarong & long-sleeved high-collar blouse. He can’t sell any wedding & red carpet clothes right now as weddings & gala events have been cancelled or postponed.
Bridal shop display
At Hallowe’en I had a short break from all this in Hong Kong. Artist Sutee Kunavichyanond’s exhibition, ‘Reversed Reality’ was opening at Katie de Tilly’s 10 Chancellery Lane Gallery; I was invited to join a panel discussion there thanks to my defence of Sutee when he was attacked in June (see Bangkok Love Letter #1: ‘Blacklisting Witchhunt’). Because of the sensitive nature of the topic, I asked to read from prepared notes headed ON CULTURAL COLONIALISM & CONTEMPORARY OPPORTUNISM:
“In the art and media world, indeed for all things including politics & the economy, the dominant culture dictates the consensus perception of reality, of validity, of worth.
When everything is seen through the prism of the colonial eye, minority and underdog voices and visions must first identify themselves with a recognisable ‘brand’, according to this lens, ie. by nationality, ethnicity, locality, gender, class, age, religion & politics. These dynamics ensure that people from the dominant culture may express themselves on any other culture, in which they become instant experts, while the minority-defined person is expected to limit him or herself to his or her own situation.
This is such accepted practice that no one ever questions it. Repeatedly, master race academics become the most revered expert on third world politics, art and culture; master race photographers, journalists and writers can publish books on the third world, while third world academics or artists are validated only if they focus on “their own story”, which even then they’re not allowed to freely tell as they must tow the colonial line and stick to the narrative. This is how foreign journalists who skim over a country they hardly know and whose language they don’t speak are routinely more credited than a local journalist who’s actually lived the story for years. The same applies with cinema, which is of course even less free than any other medium since every major film festival in the world is controlled by the same tiny handful of men with a narrow idea of what Asian Cinema should be. Asian films and filmmakers are expected to display particular characteristics. Everyone knows this and proceeds accordingly. We are in fact treated as representation of a species rather than as individuals of equal weight and humanity. This is an indisputable fact.
Far from allowing the cream to rise to the top, such a system of selection encourages the proliferation of opportunistic charlatans and Uncle Toms—the contemporary art equivalent of ‘rice Christians’, whose most authentic talent is their ability to read and confirm the master race’s perception of the world and idea of its superior self.
You can see clearly with women. A woman artist can’t just get on with what she wants to do or say. First she must establish herself as a woman artist, through gimmicks like ‘victimhood’, the womb, motherhood, sexuality. If she happens to be non-white on top of it, her ethnicity must also come in play. Thus, a third world woman artist must project herself as a third world woman artist in a way that is legible to international curators. She is defined by her race, sex, age, class, religion and nationality, not by her humanity, her individuality. You can’t imagine, for instance, a third world Muslim woman artist who doesn’t talk about being a Muslim woman artist.
We have in consequence lost the ability to absorb art by osmosis, to have a direct instinctual relationship with works of art, without preconceived themes and ideas. We have lost confidence in our own responses and reactions, the confidence to understand our own heart. Works of art must be accompanied by an exotic backstory and lengthy & politically correct explanations.
Now everything must have a background. It’s more about the artist or what the artist says rather than about art or even what the artist actually does. The artist must come from the right background, to define and represent that background according to the curator’s set of fantasy and rules. For instance, a Thai artist who grew up in the West may prefer to represent himself as salt of the earth from the poorest region of a third world country.
So instead of searching the world for treasures with an open mind and letting the art speak to them, international curators are burdened by a proscribed and preset agenda, from which they are afraid to stray. Everyone is terrified to commit a political faux pas and/or uncool mistake, so they stick to what they believe is safe, that they can readily brand and sell to the cultural establishment and public.
The curators set the rules, from which colonially-enslaved and insecure local critics as well as foreign ones take their cue. OK, I’m going to have a politically-charged and socially relevant show of third world artists. The essay topic is set and the artists understand the expectations they must fulfill. How is this different from schoolchildren being set a propaganda topic for an art competition: Stop Global Warming Painting Contest, ‘I Love the King’ Photo Contest, Anti-Corruption Short Film Contest? This is propaganda, not art. Instead of discovering anything authentic or original, you’re much more likely to attract the art world equivalent of a teacher’s pet, a poseur who doesn’t care a stick for anything and believes in nothing, who caters to your fantasies of a socially-engaged politically oppressed third world artist.
This is why today there is so little art that is alive. We have created a situation where even artists who are successful in worldly terms are in fact locked up in cages and unfree.
from Sutee’s ‘Reversed Reality’, Chancellery Lane Gallery
A clear and very recent example of such reversal of reality is the sudden trendiness of the October 6 massacre as a creative muse. This refers to a Thai ‘Rwanda’ moment of orchestrated insanity, when anti-communist fanatics stormed Thammasart University in 1976. (Interestingly, much is being made of the Pulitzer-winning Neal Ulevich lynching photograph as inspiration for these artists, but not a single one of them has even mentioned The Other Photograph published in 2 newspapers before the event, allegedly showing the students insulting the heir to the throne, which was used as justification for storming the university. The Other Photograph can be seen on Thai Wikipedia.)
The voice on Army Radio that incited hatred and violent action against “the commies”—the students encamped in a sit-in protest against the return of a dictator, belonged to newspaperman-turned-politician (au Mussolini) Samak Sundaravej.
The man who did the same thing—the voice on Radio RTLM urging people to kill their friends & neighbours in Rwanda in 1994, was tried and convicted of crimes of genocide by the International Court in Nairobi. Samak Sundaravej should’ve been in jail, but in the year 2000 he won the elections to become the governor of Bangkok, the city that he has scarred. Psychically speaking, Bangkok is a city of proud anarchists. It was a great shock for many people.
Hand-wringing analysts blamed it on new young voters who hadn’t heard of, let alone lived through, October 6, 1976, because it was forbidden history, omitted from school textbooks. The 3 of us—Sutee Kunavichyanond, Manit Sriwanichpoom and I were outraged; this was the beginning of our History & Memory series of art exhibitions, the first one taking place at the Chulalongkorn University Art Center in 2001. Vasan Sittiket joined us for the second one, ‘Flashback’76: History & Memory of the October 6 Massacre’ at the Pridi Institute in 2008, which we staged after Samak became the first of Thaksin Shinawatra’s choices as his puppet Prime Minister after he fled a corruption prison sentence into exile in Dubai. Mr Radio Rwanda Thailand Samak had now become the leader of our country. Apart from the four of us, no other artist touched on October 6.
Fast Forward to 2012, the last Thaksin puppet Prime Minister, his own sister Yingluck Shinawatra, banned my horror movie based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a threat to national security. Yes, she banned it; the PM is also the head of the Film Board. Her censors cited one especially problematic scene inspired by the October 6 massacre.
Fast forward to 2016, post-Shutdown Bangkok, post-coup d’etat. All of a sudden so many Thai artists are showing work inspired by October 6. They position themselves as morally courageous fighters for democracy, seriously committed to overthrowing the military dictatorship. They do this even though General Prayut, the said dictator, had nothing to do with October 6 and it was in fact Thaksin the champion of democracy who invited Samak to become his Prime Minister.
But of course foreigners do not know this. When foreigners control the narrative, simplistic scripts are essential for successful branding. October 6 massacre has become fashionable among Thai artists, dramatists and filmmakers, thereby burnishing their aura as third world artists struggling valiantly under a military dictatorship.
The idea of a horrific massacre as a gimmick may offend us on so many levels, but even when that is clearly the case, we shouldn’t judge harshly. The world appears to give them no choice but to follow the path of least resistance. As a career decision, it’s a sensible one, and at least it means another generation will hear the words “October 6”.
As far as the path of least resistance is concerned, the Thai context is especially straightforward. Thaksin is a client of many PR-lobbyist companies, with global political and business connections from Washington to London and here in Hong Kong, to mention the major ones, including Bell Pottinger, the PR agency behind Margaret Thatcher’s success, which is owned by the same company as the Saatchi Gallery. Political and artistic expediency dovetail nicely here. We can’t even begin to think about fighting such a gargantuan interconnected monolith.
When local English language art critics write about these October 6-inspired works (at least one film, 2 plays and so on), when they recount previous works on the theme they never mention Sutee’s landmark History Class (since they’ve already helped to demonise him over the Gwangju episode, when a previously unknown NGO for democracy demanded the removal of Sutee’s Shutdown Bangkok works. They also never mention my Macbeth film that was banned by Thaksin’s sister. It doesn’t fit the agenda. Because here we are under a military regime yet more people are discussing and making Oct 6 art than ever, without any restrictions whatsoever. Yet it was a democratically-elected government that banned a film for invoking October 6, and a democratically- elected government that chose blood-stained Samak to be our national leader. The truth is far more dramatic and obscene than the fiction, but it’s too complicated to be conveniently canned and consumed as fast food.
This natural state of things, this utterly predictable cultural colonialism, can and has been exploited to direct witch-hunts against specific artists who do not stick to the narrative. Knowing how predictable and insecure most curators are, all the corporate colonial camp has to do is get some academic, critic or curator to demonise a work or an artist as “anti-democratic evil elite propagandist”; in fact any artist whose work threatens the illusion of the Wall Street Proxy as Champion of Democracy and everyone else as fascist villains.
This is what happened to Sutee in Gwangju; this is what happened to my film Shakespeare Must Die. When the ban made international news damaging to the Thaksin regime’s democratic credentials, the spin doctors immediately began portraying the film as fascist hate speech that a democratic government is justified to ban. Both Manit and Vasan have also been targeted. Is it not interesting that the Thai artists being labeled anti-democratic are all the very ones who have always been politically and socially engaged and understand the context and complexities of modern Thai history? Whose interest in socio-political themes is a natural expression of their being, not a Hallowe’en trick-or-treating costume. We all lose by this scenario; the loss is not merely the artists’, but our own.”
Hit car sticker: “May I be HM’s grovelling subject in all my lifetimes”.
On our last free day in Hong Kong we walked the classic Dragon’s Back trail, ending the hike at a seafood shack in Shek-O. All the waiters were Thai and all wore the same black t-shirt with the hit slogan: “May I be His Majesty’s grovelling subject in every one of my incarnation.”
With Love from Bangkok,
A pioneer of environmental investigative reporting, Ing Kanjanavanit is a filmmaker, painter & bilingual writer, best known in Thai for the cult classic travelogue/handbook for environmental activism, ‘Khang Lhang Postcard’ (‘Behind the Postcard’) under the nom de guerre Lharn Seri Thai (136)—‘Free Thai Descendent/Force 136’, to evoke the Free Thai Movement against fascist forces during World War 2, which fought for the Allies then after the war was betrayed by the Allies. Sadly, she no longer attends Free Thai merit-making rites, not since Thaksin’s redshirts appropriated the name & equated Thaksin with Free Thai leader Pridi Banomyong, which is a travesty & a sacrilege.