The Art of Censorship in Thailand
THAI ARTISTS ARE BECOMING ACCUSTOMED TO SELF-CENSORSHIP UNDER MILITARY RULE.
To censor, or not to censor – that's the question Thai artists ask themselves nowadays.
Since 2014's military coup – the nation's twelfth since the 1930s – the ruling military junta has implemented arbitrary and severe restrictions on artistic expression and press freedom.
All commercial films must pass the muster of government officials, and art critical of either the military or monarchy is punishable. Thailand has long been home to some of the world’s most draconian lèse-majesté laws, which mean the ruling family cannot be criticized.
The result is a foggy environment for creative expression. Artists can either take a shot in the dark, hoping their politically loaded works won't raise state eyebrows, or self-censor.
"The pressures on us have been so intense that at times we feel like we're in a bunker under fire," says Ing Kanjanavanit, a Thai filmmaker who's chosen fight over flight. She's currently contesting multiple complaints from the Thai Ministry of the Interior that her small theater in Bangkok, Cinema Oasis, is illegal, following anonymous complaints about its independent film showings.
"Thai independent film has no voice, no space and no chance," she says, adding that only commercial films financed by a “cartel of studios” acquiescent to censors get screen time. "It’s very bleak."
Ing and her husband, artist Manit Sriwanichpoom, were already experienced provocateurs within the Thai arts world before opening Cinema Oasis a year ago. Their remake of Macbeth, Shakespeare Must Die (2012), was banned as a threat to national security.
It referenced the 1976 Thammasat University massacre, when the military descended on a protest of unarmed students, killing dozens and injuring and arresting thousands of others. Today, the details of what happened are still unclear, including the true death toll, and no one has been held accountable.
But in a strange twist of events, the couple’s documentary of the dizzying appeals process to get the film off the government's blacklist, Censor Must Die (2014), met censors’ requirements. They ruled that real-life portrayals aren't subject to scrutiny.
Unfortunately, that groundbreaking precedent hasn't held up in practice.
Images from photographer Harit Srikhao's award-winning series, Whitewash (2015), an analysis of the 2010 military crackdown, were stripped from a Bangkok gallery’s walls last year. Authorities stumbled upon the exhibit after visiting an adjacent gallery on the same day, where artist Tada Hengsapkul's portrait series on political prisoners were on display.
"There is no clear definition of what can be considered problematic in Thailand based on the notorious ambiguity" of censorship in practice, explains Brian Curtin, an arts writer and lecturer at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
That ambiguity creates divisiveness in the scene, Curtin adds. While violent protests and overthrows over the decades have emboldened some artists, others have retreated from issues that could land them in censors’ crosshairs.
Curtin calls this a "tender and dangerous" situation. But there's a silver lining, says Pierre Bechon, owner of TARS Gallery, a Bangkok contemporary art space.
When long-time curator Bechon moved to Bangkok in 2014 before the latest coup, he says most Thai artists remained silent professionally about criticisms they raised in studios and at parties amongst themselves.
"We're all trying to … develop new patterns and ways to exhibit that deal with the censorship."
But during the takeover, he was surprised to see artists banding together in protest. Erecting makeshift platforms around government buildings, a group staged provocative performance art to express the overwhelming anxiety felt by the masses.
"We're all trying to produce things not to meet political expectations, but to develop new patterns and ways to exhibit that deal with the censorship," Pierre says.
Today, some artists are taking license to push the boundaries of artistic freedom as the junta rebrands Thailand as an artists' oasis to generate tourism. In 2018, Thailand hosted the first Thailand Biennale and Bangkok Design Week, which creators see as a sign of the government loosening its grip.
But other scene insiders see such developments as a farce.
“Press reports have made use of terms like 'soft power' without any reflection on what it means to co-opt artists to the leisure industry and whitewash an unelected government," says Curtin.
It raises the question about if and when Bangkok's artists will make the choice between freedom of expression and subservience.
"If young artists are growing up with the perception that the Bangkok Art Biennale is what artists do, the future is not bright," Curtin says.