Soaps and sensibility

I have never watched Plerng Phra Nang (A Lady's Flame), a prime-time soap opera on Thai television that depicts a bloody dynastic power struggle in a fictional kingdom. The series -- with elaborate period costumes and a lot of face-slapping and cat-fights among royal consorts -- has received bad press in Myanmar and Thailand alike.

Soe Win, the great grandson of King Thibaw, the last monarch of Burma, has publicly criticised Thailand for disrespecting the royal family. "It is quite insulting, as if we are wild," he said of the face-slapping scenes. He demanded the series be taken off the air, and pledged to seek help from the Thai Royal Family.

Reaction from the producer Kantana Group was predictably well scripted. It insists the story is purely fictional. Yet the facts say otherwise. The series is a remake of a famous soap opera made over three decades ago, which drew on two books: Pama Sia Muang (Defeat of Burma) by former premier and scholar MR Khukrit Pramoj and Tiew Muang Pama (Journey through Burma) by Prince Damrong.

This is not the first time that cultural content from Thailand has offended a neighbour and it won't be the last. "The problem is that Thai people look at TV series as entertainment. But the content is more than entertainment," says Atchareeya Saisin, a lecturer in international relations at Chiang Mai University.

"In terms of international relations, it is cultural diplomacy that we can use to create perceptions and mindsets and goodwill. Look at how Hollywood movies influence global perceptions of the US. Look at how South Korea has used its creative industry. The challenge is how our industry can use our cultural products effectively."

I agree that cultural products have the power to instruct and win friends. Yet I am not certain that Thailand has capitalised on its potential to create goodwill. While many of our filmmakers and TV producers are respectful of our neighbours, our TV dramas and history texts alike have been deeply influenced by a past that includes two bloody wars with Burma that did not end well for Siam.

I'm not saying we should create only love stories or ghost stories and avoid sensitive historical content. However, I wonder how much we will learn from the case of Plerng Phra Nang. How can we do it differently, with sense and sensitivity?

Not much, I presume. Actress Patcharapa "Aum" Chaichuea, who portrays Chao Nang Ananyathip, a Machiavellian Dragon Lady, is reportedly using social media to promote Plerng Phra Nang. The show has not been cancelled and probably will become even more popular.

For many Burmese, the fall of their monarchy is still a painful memory. The country is no longer a kingdom. Yet descendants of the last king are re-engaging with the country and are active in national politics. So be sensitive.

Please remember that Asean today is a bastion of multilateralism, a showcase of regionalism in a fracturing world. Integration requires understanding and goodwill among people. Without knowledge about our neighbours, we might be able to buy and sell, but we can never make true friends and cultivate sustainable relationships.

I just returned from my first trip to Myanmar and I fell in love with the country. Returning home, I searched my bookcases and brought out books on Myanmar to read, including From the Land of the Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe, River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U, and of course the works of Emma Larkin.

I also recommend Rachan Phu Plad Pan Din Mua Pama Sia Muang, a highly popular book translated from The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma by Sudha Shah. It tells the story of King Thibaw after he was dethroned in 1885 when the country was losing the war against the British Empire. It focuses on the king and his feisty Queen Supayalat during their exile in India, as well as the tragic downfall of their descendants. It will break your heart and enable you to understand another aspect of Myanmar history that goes beyond bloody battles with Siam

I sincerely hope the producers at Kantana read this book. Maybe fans of Aum Patcharapa can send her a copy to help her understand one of the most interesting female characters in history. And I am certain this series might be remade, perhaps in the next 20 years, with better results. In future, our neighbour might act differently.

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