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Censorship in Thailand Part 2: Arts & Entertainment

Censorship in one form or another has been around as long as there have been civilizations. To some, it’s a benevolent service aimed at protecting the innocent; to others it’s nothing less than totalitarian mind control restricting freedom of expression. Certain recent events in Thailand have roused Naked Farang to take a closer look at censorship here in the land of smiles in a three-part series that will cover the media, arts and entertainment, and the Internet.

Mention Thailand to a group of Westerners, and more than a few will conjure up images of naked girls performing questionable deeds with ping pong balls. Yet this is male farang ghetto Thailand and hardly an accurate reflection on the country as a whole. The truth is that censorship in Thailand is a ravenous, if somewhat paradoxical, beast. But is it we farangs who have confused it?

When I first came to Thailand, you could walk into any go-go bar and find 20 or more girls dancing on stage in nothing more than thigh-length boots. These days it’s a rarer sight thanks to various social and moral crusades, but this is Thailand and under the table cash will always trump any law, just as it did at the doomed Santika pub.

And so with the mice paying the cats to turn a blind eye, the flesh trade thrives, if only in the ghettos. But open a magazine or turn on the TV and you’ll never see so much as a glimpse of a female nipple.

The harmless female buxom – the epitome of pure maternal love that provides nature’s nourishment for infants and  rouses a lifelong sense of comfort among males the world over – is considered offensive to the eye in any place and at any time by Nanny Censor. Conversely (and rather per-versely), you can, from time to time, see naked and dead farang men on the daytime TV news with nothing more than a half-hearted photoshop effect failing to cover their modesty. Nanny somehow doesn’t consider this inappropriate viewing for her children.

Yet while it’s big-haired old Thai women leading the moral crusades and decrying the Western rape of Thai standards of decency, they are obviously unfamiliar with the history of their own nation. It is, in fact, us Westerners who have unwittingly played opposing roles in this fleshy game of hide and seek. It was overly modest Europeans who imported the frigid values that are now claimed as Thailand’s own, and it was American testosterone that brought us back full circle.

When the first Europeans were building trade and diplomatic links with Siam back in the 17th Century, they were somewhat offended at the nakedness of the Thais. One early missionary named Gervaise sarcastically pointed out that, "There is no more thankless trade in the kingdom of Siam than that of a tailor, for the majority of people have no need of him". Gervaise was far from alone in his observations and, under pressure from the Europeans, the Thais were gradually persuaded to cover up and spare their prudish visitors’ blushes.

While prostitution in Thailand is neither new nor confined to Western patronage by any stretch of the imagination, the modern day flesh-parade go-go bars owe a lot to the Americans. A certain discreetness had prevailed until Vietnam War GIs on R&R in Bangkok provided both the market and the capital to boost the business to new levels and return the working girls’ attire to a more “traditional” level 300 years after those early Europeans had convinced the Thais to dress more conservatively.

But it’s not only nudity that has Nanny’s knickers in a twist. When it comes to films, you will find some strange and seemingly harmless clips on the Nanny’s cutting room floor.

Personally, I believe that deleting scenes or changing a film in any way, shape or form is sacrilegious. If you want to ban a movie, fine; if you want to restrict its accessibility by giving it an X rating, no problem. But you no more have the right to cut scenes out of somebody’s body of work than you do to put boxer shorts on Michelangelo’s David or paint a bra on Rembrandt’s Danae.  

By far the most bizarre censorship of recent times, came in 2007 when acclaimed Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Sang Satawat (Syndromes and a Century) was butchered, causing Apichatpong to cancel the release of the film, a tale of doctors at a rural hospital, after four scenes were cut. So what exactly caused such an overzealous reaction from Nanny? Sex? Violence? Bad language? The four scenes were as follows:

  1. A young monk playing a guitar
  2. A group of doctors drinking whiskey in the hospital basement
  3. A doctor kissing his girlfriend
  4. Two monks playing with a radio controlled plane

To a Westerner and non-Buddhist, this seems a little strange. Many Thais, too, are now beginning to question such totalitarian control, and another famous Thai director joined Apichatpong in fighting back. Prachaya Pinkaew, the director of international box office hits Ong Bak and Tom Yam Goong, welcomed the long overdue introduction of a rating system, but had some other concerns.

The new Film Act still has the same right to cut or ban films if the content is considered “detrimental to moral decency” – the same wording as in the antiquated 1930 Film Act. What’s more, state officers can walk onto a film set and halt production if they believe that the film could threaten moral standards or national security. Unfortunately, a lack of clear guidelines makes the Film Act all too subjective.

Prachaya emphasised this when he commented on his surprise that his own movies had never troubled the Thai censors’ scissors. While there’s no nudity in his films, there is plenty of graphic violence – enough to warrant an adult rating in many countries. In Thailand, they remain uncut and are considered appropriate for viewers of any age.

Thai censorship continues to baffle with contradictions and double-standards. Images of female nudity, lovers kissing and adults smoking have a flustered Nanny hurriedly covering her children’s eyes, yet scenes of wanton violence, gang rape, and morally bankrupt businessmen brazenly cheating on their wives or benefiting from corruption all pass inspection. It makes you wonder what kind of world Nanny wants us to perceive when images of natural beauty or innocent acts of love are banned while rape, cheating and murder make apparently fit viewing for our children.

Paul Snowdon – February16, 2009

Related Article: The Eye of the Paper Tiger - Censorship Part 1 (the media)
Related Article: Cyber Vigilantes - Censorship Part 3 (the Internet)

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