Stars get struck for speaking out

The truth is no defence for celebrities who speak about politics or social issues in increasingly intolerant Thailand

OUTSPOKEN: John Winyu says he speaks out about the basic things that should be discussed. Photo: Pornprom Satrabhaya

The social media world has been swept in patriotic sentiment since singer Suthita "Image" Chanachaisuwan, 19, posted a complaint about Thailand's poor public transport last week. After waiting two hours to catch a bus home in Bangkok, she was driven to tweet her frustration: "What's a lousy country. It's not going to improve in 50 or even 1,000 years from now … Now shoot me."

To her surprise, the post went viral. Netizens were fast to interpret her message as an attack against the country's military government, with "shoot me" referring to the violence leading up to the 2014 coup.

Other Thai celebrities joined in the criticism of Suthita. Some netizens told her to leave the country.

Amid the drama, some people raised the question: "Why can't someone speak out about their country in a way that truly reflects how it is?"

Celebrities in the West -- from Meryl Streep to Mark Ruffalo and Stephen King -- have openly and repeatedly voiced their disapproval of United States President Donald Trump. Other stars have taken to the front lines of activism, such as actress Shailene Woodley, who protested about the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota alongside members of the indigenous community and environmental advocates.

It is true, as Suthita implies, that Thailand's public transport could be improved. Many commuters can attest to long hours spent waiting for buses.

The statistics back up these experiences -- Bangkok's traffic has been ranked as the worst place for drivers in the world, according to Inrix Inc's study. The study indicated that 64.1 hours is the average time drivers spent in traffic last year.

Thailand's issues don't stop at traffic. Thailand's corruption ranking plummeted from 76th in 2015 to 101st place in the 176 countries in the 2016 assessment by independent watchdog Transparency International. In its Corruption Perceptions Index 2016, Thailand's score dropped from 38 points out of 100 in the previous year to 35 as government repression, lack of independent oversight and a deterioration of rights eroded public confidence in the country.

Meanwhile, the gap between the rich and poor has recently soared, placing Thailand as the third most unequal country after India and Russia, according to Credit Suisse's Global Wealth Report 2016.

Cases of human rights abuses and the suppression of freedom of speech have also increased in number over the last three years of the military government.

The issues are widely debated among ordinary Thais. But when objection is voiced by celebrities, this can often end with them issuing an apology to the general public. This was the case for Suthita.

"I won't repeat my mistake," Suthita told the Bangkok Post's Life section. "I'll give everything I post more careful thought next time and continue to do my job well."

Celebrities, and the entertainment industry as whole, generally distance themselves from politics.

A silence blanketing the industry and the swift blame issued against any celebrity who violates this shows that it is still not easy to challenge the state of political affairs in Thailand.

THE WAY IT IS

UNDER FIRE: Singer Suthita 'Image' Chanachaisuwan was criticised after complaining about public transport. Photo: Supplied

Several celebrities have contested Suthitha's case that they cannot speak freely.

"[Speaking out] must be thoughtfully done," an anonymous celebrity told Spectrum. When celebrities are interviewed, they are often accompanied by public relations assistants who tune into the conversation and suggest what questions they should or shouldn't answer.

"The entertainment industry is open for expressing opinions, but only insofar as they support conservative ideas -- supporting the way things goes, the authoritarian state or the action of demanding less," says TV news host Winyu Wongsurawat, known by his stage name John Winyu.

"If you talk about human rights, people under threat, attitude adjustment, the judicial system, deaths at protests, red or yellow shirts, or any issues that seem to be against reconciliation, people will say that it's not OK to talk about this."

Winyu has worked in the advertising and entertainment business for many years through which he has encountered the conservative ideology that "seniors pass down to newcomers".

"Some think that people in the entertainment field must only do entertainment."

Phu yai, or seniors, only serve to reinforce the conservative status quo in the industry.

In 2011, Winyu and his sister Janya Wongsurawat launched Joh Khao Tuen, or "Shallow News In Depth", a weekly news programme on YouTube offering both celebrity interviews and news commentary.

The programme has been praised for Winyu and co-host Nattapong Tiendee's unique style of telling stories with signature satire that digs deep into a wide variety of topics, including the military government's and other social problems.

Since 2014, the year of the coup, the number of viewers has soared significantly. But despite its popularity, the programme can hardly be considered mainstream. Winyu said that he pitched the programme to a mainstream TV channel but the show was rejected.

A son of political science professors, Winyu has voiced strong political views, including his disapproval of the military government. He admits that people judged his head-on approach to tackling political topics at first.

People have relentlessly sought to peg down his political colours -- red or yellow -- but he doesn't explicitly reveal his political orientation to audiences.

Several have asked him how he continues to push his agenda in a stubborn industry.

Winyu was recently announced as a co-host for Review Ban Toeng, a prime-time entertainment show on Channel 3 that he believes can survive in the industry due to "professional people who don't mix personal political views with work".

"I speak out about the basic things that should be discussed [such as human rights, the judicial system and state power]. We use global technology like the internet. So why can't we speak out using these global principles?" he says.

But it can't avoid the fact that people in the mainstream entertainment industry with little connection to power abuse and grassroots problems will look at him as an alien.

PLAYING THE GOOD GUY

Having a good image is key in both the Thai entertainment industry and society at large.

The Nine Entertain Awards, hosted annually by public broadcaster MCOT Plc, gives awards to Thailand's best singers, actors and actresses and TV series.

The most prestigious award is the Ban Toeng Thoed Tham (Entertainment in Upholding Virtue), which is given to a person who shows a sense of morality and strong quality of work.

Projecting "goodness" has also been important in protests over the last decade of political crisis.

During the yellow-shirt protests from 2005-06 against Thaksin Shinawatra, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) spoke a message of populating government with good people and preventing bad people from getting powerful in public life.

Several celebrities, such as actress Siriluck "Joy" Pongchoke, showed up at the protests supported by ultra-royalists, the middle classes of Bangkok and southerners.

In 2010, red-shirt protests were also attended by various celebrities like actor Attachai "Dong" Aanantameak. These protests were largely attended by people from the North and Northeast to object to the country's elite and unelected officials populating parliament. They criticised the privilege of the elite and class inequality, as opposed to using more abstract, moral language.

Similar to the PAD, the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protested against Yingluck Shinawatra's government in late 2013 to 2014 to elevate patriotism against a "bad elected government" who "undermine the country's virtue".

Those who joined the protest were deemed "good Thai citizens" who were stepping up to protect the country from its corrupt politicians.

The party called for the launch of Thailand's "pre-election reform", which prompted PRDC supporters to bar voters from accessing polling stations during the general election on Feb 2, 2014. This was organised after Yingluck's parliament was dissolved.

In opposing the election, a benchmark of democracy, the protest was cast as a conservative move.

The "Stage of Stars", one of the sites of the PDRC's Bangkok Shutdown campaign in Chidlom, saw mainstream celebrities show their support by both performing and delivering speeches.

The participating celebrities kept followers updated with frequent social media posts. Actor Sorawit "Kong" Suboon wrote: "Today the feeling of patriotism in my blood is the strongest. Go ahead, expel tyranny to hell."

Actor Pakin "Tono" Khamwilaisak wrote: "If my life is ruined over showing love for my homeland, come and arrest me." Another actor Vorarit Fuangarome posted: "I think what I've expressed [in joining the PDRC] is a democratic right that everyone should have."

Celebrity Intira "Sine" Jaroenpura chimed in at one point, saying she disagreed with the PDRC's stance and their treatment of the "popcorn gunman" as a hero. The gunman's title refers to a person seen shooting at red-shirt supporters with an assault rifle concealed in a popcorn bag one day before the election, leaving one man dead and four injured. The image of the man's popcorn was printed on T-shirts and sold as a souvenir at future protests.

Intira's comment was met with furious responses on social media. She was accused of "undermining Thai nationhood".

On June 27 this year, the Appeals Court overturned a conviction by the Criminal Court, saying there were no witnesses to verify the identify of the popcorn gunman, previously suspected to be Wiwat Yodprasit.

Since 2014, celebrities who joined the PDRC protests have gone silent on expressing political views in public.

THINKING INDEPENDENTLY

The film industry is one that shares a similar silence on political topics like celebrities.

HARD TASK: Director Anocha Suwichakornpong says the challenge is to spread independent films to wider audiences. Photo: EPA

"The Thai mainstream film industry rarely touches the subject of politics," says Prawit Taeng Aksorn, a film critic and lecturer. "It's a taboo issue."

"Audiences don't want to take it [politics] in because politics pulls them back to reality."

One example is drama series and movies produced by GTH, a film studio of Thai entertainment conglomerate GMM Grammy, which enjoys box office success regularly.

The shows generally centre on the lives of middle-class individuals and their consumerist lifestyles. They are very popular among young people and the urban middle class.

Thai films tend to depict the dreamy lives of the middle to upper classes, who exist disconnected from the harsher political and social realities -- what Prawit describes as "an attempt to forget the truth".

The mainstream media focus on financial success, says Prawit. That's why they cling to conservative ideas. To provoke people to think differently would make it a hassle.

Some independent filmmakers have ventured to explore political issues. However, while they enjoy positive international reception abroad, they find a more limited audience in Thailand.

Among those is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who has received international acclaim.

His most recent film, Cemetery of Splendour, explores the implications of a military government through the experience of a lonely elderly woman who is tasked with running a clinic for soldiers suffering from a mysterious sleeping sickness.

In a 2015 interview on IndieWire website, Apichatpong said that he planned the film before the coup happened, but the story reflects the poor progress of political conflicts.

He mentioned he knew that releasing the film in the tense political environment was not ideal. "I wouldn't want to release anything, even if it's Uncle Boonmee [Apitchatpong's 2010 film] or other other films, in this climate. It's no use to go against the government with these things. It's sad."

In a post-coup environment, the military government's soft power involves TV shows and films.

In June 2014, around a month after the coup, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) launched a one-day free film programme with King Naresuan 5 (2015) replayed in cinemas across the nation.

The film, directed by Chatrichalerm Yukol, tells about the life of King Naresuan, who liberated Siam from the control of Burma. One of its characters, Phra Aekatossarot, a man who fought alongside the king, was played by NCPO spokesperson Winthai Suvaree.

The free movie was part of the NCPO's "Returning Happiness to the Thai People" campaign with the goal of "cultivating people's love for the nation".

On Channel 7, newly released action-comedy series Niew Hua Jai Sood Glai Peun (Love Missions) tells positive stories about military missions and their love of the Thai nation.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha praised the show in an interview with Thai reporters, encouraging citizens to tune in.

LIMITED REACH

Prawit says Thai independent film has grown in popularity in recent years. He refers to today as the "near-golden age of indie films" -- not in terms of the number of indie films being produced but rather the success in tapping into new audiences here in Thailand.

"When freedom of expression is limited, it pushes independent filmmakers, especially short-film makers, to express political thought in their work," said the film scholar.

Directed by Anocha Suwichakornpong, Dao Khanong (By The Time It Gets Dark) won big at the Supanahong Awards, an annual film industry ceremony held by the Federation of National Film Associations of Thailand. The film won Best Picture Award, Best Director and Best Editing for Lee Chatamethekool and Machima Ungsriwong despite the film's limited Thai release.

The film addresses the military government-led massacre on Oct 6, 1976, and delves into the dark side of Thai history that has been largely forgotten.

It might also be interpreted as Anocha's observed disconnect between Thailand's present political state and past massacres, the details of which have been distorted through time.

"[Politics in Thai films] still does not have many channels," says Anocha. "Censorship persists."

Under the military government's standing laws, citizens enjoy more limited freedom of expression. Section 44 of the interim charter, for example, lets officials search, arrest and summon individuals' houses in the name of threats to nationalism.

In the film industry, the state has taken measures to regulate output under the Film and Video Act, which lets the Ministry of Culture committee rate movies and ban inappropriate ones. The committee has seven seats, four of which are held by government officals and three by film industry representatives.

By comparison, in the United States, film ratings are independently conducted by the Motion Picture Association of America, a trade association representing six major Hollywood studios.

Although several independent films have been approved for release in Thailand, they inevitably encounter challenges due to the monopoly of the major cooperate cinema owners.

Due to independent film's limited reach, Anocha says she has never had her films censored. "If that happened, I couldn't produce," she says. "If my film is banned, or I'm forced to face any consequences, I must do it. But the film must reflect independent thought.

"The challenge is how to make independent films spread to wider audiences. If they can't reach wider audiences, they have a lesser chance of making a change."

Accepting a variety of thought remains a long way off in Thailand.

GETTING INVOLVED: Clockwise from above, movie stars and celebrities attended the PDRC protest in Chidlom, Bangkok, in 2013-14. Photos: Sunan Lorsomsab

CONSERVATIVE CULTURE: Prawit Taeng Aksorn says the mainstream media focus on financial success. Photo: Supplied

POPULAR: 'Niew Hua Jai Sood Glai Peun' tells positive stories about military missions. Photo:Supplied

ALTERNATIVE VIEW: 'Dao Khanong' delves into the dark side of Thai history that has been largely forgotten. Photo: Anocha Suwichakornpong

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