Counter-memory: Replaying Political Violence in Thai Digital Cinema

Malinee Khumsupa & Sudarat Musikawong

Central to the Thai term for memory khwamsongcham = ความทรงจำ is song, which literally translates as form or medium. The word khwamsongcham in itself forges an embodiment of the past (albeit always interpreted), and signals the capacity for the transformation of memory through various forms and mediums, including social practices and material culture. One commits to embodied remembering because there is a fear of forgetting. Thailand has experienced 12 successful military coups since its transition from absolute monarchy in 1932. The advent of military rule this time elicits a déjà-vu experience that has unfortunately not triggered resistance within the Bangkok bourgeois public sphere, where we see a strengthening of grand narratives saturated in national security and the maintenance of social order. The “feel and smell” of military authoritarianism has produced a familiarity such that military coup d’états can be celebrated in 2006 and tolerated in 2014 as acceptable by a bourgeois minority— or has it? While mainstream media coverage may imply that Thais accept military rule and the status quo, independent cinema, we argue, functions as a counterpublic, offering opposition through political ambiguity. 1

Culture of Counter-publics in Thai Film

In the authoritarian context of contemporary Thailand, the public sphere of the press, online social networks, and web 2.0 has shrunk. Micro counter-publics and subversive social movements have, however, increased. The moral order has become conflated with national security, and offenses of thought and expression seen to threaten this order have become punishable with court charges, fines, the revoking of passports, exile, and jail sentences. Heightened state censorship, rather than stifling dissent, gave rise to a newly politicized and independent Thai cinema enabled by new technologies of production and curatorship, and new circuits of distribution via social media.

As Michael Warner suggests, “when alternative publics are cast as social movements—they acquire agency in relation to the state. They enter the temporality of politics and adapt themselves to the performatives of rational critical discourse. For many counterpublics, to do so is to cede the original hope of transforming, not just policy, but the space of public life itself.” 2 The refusal of intellectuals and filmmakers in Thailand to limit their dissent to the private sphere, has seen the emergence of micro-alternative art spaces (cafes, galleries) and open access online participation on YouTube and web 2.0. These new micro-counter publics operate through ambiguous satire and double entendre to resist arrest.

The first state censorship of film in Thailand (then Siam), was the Cinema Act of 1930. The past decade has seen new censorship laws and the expansion of lèse majesté laws through amendments to Section 112 of the Criminal Law Code (1956, 2007) the Computer Crimes Act (2007), and the Internal Security Act (2008). The same decade has seen the production and public screening of over twenty independent films in major domestic or international film festivals. In Thailand, indie cinema has relied on such urban venues as cafés, book-stores, galleries, consulates, and universities. According to film critic Kong Rithdee, the Thai Film Foundation 3 has “played a particularly important role in creating a public space for short and independent filmmakers in Thailand…democratiz[ing] film/digital film” through workshops, programming and festivals. 4 In this context, indie cinema has opened up an arena for the replay and remembrance of political violence.

As a counter-public, independent films have paid close attention to memory/history and to slow cinema aesthetics. The films discussed below bear all these hallmarks. Our criteria for selection includes each film’s conversation with recurring political violence in Thailand, its public screening on more than one occasion, and/or its recirculation in open source left-of-center online news media like prachatai.

An Experimental Documentary Remembers: Terrorist (2011)

Thunska Pansittivorakul’s film Terrorist (ผู้”ก่อการร้าย)has had contrasting platforms that replay various scenes of national political violence alongside intimate familial memories. The film in its entirety has been difficult to find, neither distributed via DVD/VCD markets, nor available in full length on open source platforms like YouTube. The trailer overtly shocks us with male masturbation scenes juxtaposed with scenes of recent political violence on the streets of Bangkok 2010. The viewing experience is a visceral embodiment of simultaneous sexual and bodily violence and gratification. To avoid nudity, the excerpt from the online news source prachatai only shows scenes of political violence.

The juxtaposition of the oral histories about how Thunska’s mother joined the Communist Party of Thailand with photos of Thunska as a child with his mother, and the photographs of the 6 October 1976 massacre make this segment of the film particularly remarkable. Photographs evidence even our most personal memories. Photographs can also offer infallible testimony of the cruelty and shock factor of the October 1976 massacre. In documenting that atrocity by reproducing scenes of violence, photographs can also dehumanize both those killed and “the civilian nationalists and state officers” who took part in the violence. 5

Boundary (2013)

Commercially released in major theaters in Thailand and Vimeo with an 18+ rating, Boundary (2013) follows the life of a young man who was drafted to participate in the suppression of the South, the 2008 Preah Vihear gun skirmishes between Thailand and Cambodia, and was later sent to suppress the Red Shirts in May 2010. 6 The film’s original title Fatum Paendin Soong “Sky is low, Dirt is high” provoked controversy by appearing to challenge social inequality and social stratification in Thailand. 7 In Thai boundaries are known as “khet daen.” According to director Nontawat Numbenchapol, “[t]he first meaning of the border is that which divides poor rural people from the exploitative middle-class in Bangkok. The second boundary divides people of Cambodia apart from Thailand with border… I remembered standing on Preah Vihear mountain at the border and feeling that at that place, the sky and ground were connected and existed together. It was a metaphor for the hope that Thailand would one day reconcile.” 8 In essence, the film embodies present pasts and vice versa through the nation’s construction of territory and boundary.

The director’s cut showed footage of the King’s 83rd birthday celebration at the Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok, replacing the massacre of Red Shirts at this same site only months previously, with royal tribute, jubilation and celebration. This juxtaposition invited reflection on the multiple meanings of place, posing the question how celebration can replace the stain of a massacre? It was this ambiguity that led the Thai Censorship Board to request the deletion of this scene, and the director complied.

Since the introduction of Article 112 in 2007, state officials have become intently focused on monitoring any speech regarding the monarchy, targeting lèse majesté offenders as dangerous people that are a threat to government.

Similarly, the Thai-Cambodian boundary, constructed from a complicated past, embodied national memory of an enemy through domestic political issues. As the work of Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Charnvit Kasetsiri and Pou Suthirak suggests the Thai- Cambodian boundary is constituted by history, memory, politics and economic relations. 9 Boundary is used here not in its literal sense but rather to signify a movement between extreme nationalism, the making of enemies or friends, determined by the temperature of domestic political issues.

A Brief History of Memory (2010)

A Brief History of Memory was produced by Chulayarnnon Siriphol and screened multiple times, including at the Bangkok International Short Film Festival, the Bangkok Experimental Film Festival, and the Southeast Asian Cinemas Conference. Siriphol chose to put forward a comparatively sensitive political issue: the loss of life through today’s political violence. The film is without doubt a counter-public memory. Rather than focus on the violence of 2010 (events already in the public eye), the film focused on earlier, lesser-known acts of violence from early 2009 in the Nang Lerng community.

The final scene crosscuts to a memorial rally for the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) demonstrators killed in 2010. Interviewed in 2016, Siriphol explained that “I believe that memories constitute the whole of our nation’s brief history. We need to get to know each other during these times to recall these victims.” 10 Nameless victims are seldom officially remembered in the public sphere. A Brief History of Memory attempts to embody the loss of life through tribute and memorialization.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

In Apichatpong Weerasethekul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), the viewer, like the chief protagonist, is surrounded by darkness. In the final death scene, Uncle Boonmee slowly climbs into a dark cave and looks upward slowly while his family joins him in his final moments, interspersed with photographs of young soldiers. The confluence between the staged still photographs of young soldiers, and Uncle Boonmee’s last breath monologue suggests that when pasts are revealed by individuals, such persons are made to disappear.

An alternative, intertextual reading would suggest that Uncle Boonmee’s dying scene forces the nation to reflect on the Cold War in the Northeast provinces through allusions to the photographs of the young men in military fatigues featured in Apichatpong’s installation project Primitive’s. These photographs were shot in Nabua, Khon Kaen, Chaiyapum, and Loei invoking the famous 1965 first battle between the Communist Party of Thailand and state authorities 11 Rather than end with the Cold War era references of Uncle Boonmee’s death, the final scenes show living characters watching a television news broadcast of the 2009 political violence. Apichatpong thus suggests a simultaneity of past, present, and future. The past is embedded in the present with a foreboding possibility of future violence yet to come.

Ambiguous Counter-publics

In the last ten years, censorship and political violence in Thailand has become increasingly expansive in enforcement and ambiguous in interpretation. The work of Craig Reynolds (2000), Thongchai Winichakul (1999), and Malinee Khumsupa (1998) demonstrates through analysis of the Democracy Monument, that meanings are not self-evident, but are rooted in the meanings imbued by reinterpretation. 12 Rosalind Morris (1998) and Alan Klima (2002) have argued that hyper-circulation of images of victims of the Black May 1992 violence operate in capitalist modes of value and alienation. 13

The convergence of real time and space with social lives online through such platforms as YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, Twitter, and LINE are the new conditions of subversive counter-publics, as much as they are of the virulent nationalist anxiety that has dominated the nation’s public sphere. Through social media, these films’ reach is at once individual and mass, repetitive and instantaneous, and beyond the constraints of real-time and space. The micro-spaces of such virtual arena as YouTube and Vimeo and such small scale venues as bookstores, film clubs or art exhibitions, send messages via personal mobile or computers everywhere and anywhere. Taking a cue from social theorists like Manuel Castels, we can regard this as a new social movement of cyber era cultural practices that is simultaneously individual (private) and public in our global society. 14 This global cultural networked cinema, we suggest, contributes to a Habermasian sense of critical discourse. 15  

The demands on memory embodied by the films discussed here, challenge the logic of the market through politicized mourning practices. In the film Terrorist, individual painful memories counter traumatic national memory. In A Brief History of Memory, a mother lost her son, but commits him to be memorialized in a counter-memory against state violence. Similarly, Boundary tells the story of ordinary youth drafted into the military, offering a counter-memory against mainstream nationalism. Finally, in Uncle Boonmee Recalls his Past Lives, an ordinary individual who happened to serve in the state’s fight against communism serves as a counter-memory against a conventional nationalist memory, which may never include him in Thailand’s history. By drawing parallels with painful individual memories, these films allow viewers to make connections between the state violence of today and the political violence of the past, while their slow motion and repeat treatment of personal memories and/or histories of political violence, underscores the persistence of state violence in Thailand.

Malinee Khumsupa
(Department of Political Science and Public Administration, Chiang Mai University)
Sudarat Musikawong
(Department of Sociology, Siena University)

Issue 20, Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, September 2016

 

Notes:

  1. Thomas Fuller/ Mike Clarke/Agence France-Presse (Photo of Monk Posing with Tank), ‘Thai Junta Imposes Curbs on News Media ‘, New York Times, September 22 2006 p. Front page. Bbc, ‘Why Is Thailand under Military Rule?’, (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-25149484, 2014a). Bbc, ‘In Pictures: Protests against Thailand Coup’, (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27553025, 2014b).
  2. Michael Warner, ‘Publics and Counterpublics’, Public Culture, 14/1 (January 2002), pp. 49-90., 52, 89.
  3. The Thai Film Foundation is a non-profit founded by “film activists” in 1994 to “promote film culture in Thailand”. See http://www.thaifilm.com/aboutUs_en.asp (accessed 16 June 2016)
  4. Kong Rithdee phone interview, 20 Feb. 2016.
  5. [1] See Rosalind Morris, ‘Surviving Pleasure at the Periphery: Chiangmai and the Photographies of Political Trauma in Thailand, 1976-1992’, Public Culture, (1998), pp. 341-70., 362, 367 and Alan Klima, The Funeral Casino: Meidation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002)., 82-83
  6. For more on Preah Vihear, and the militarization of the Thai-Cambodia border, see Charnvit Kasetsiri et. al.,“Preah Vihear: A Guide to the Thai-Cambodian Conflicts and Its Solutions”(White Lotus:Bangkok) Thailand, 2012.
  7. For the song see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KYRypaqKNk [accessed 20 Aug. 2016]
  8. Nontawat Numbenchapol television interview, [accessed March 13, 2016 from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtZwFbgKSYg]
  9. Kasetsiri et al., Preah Vihear: A Guide to the Thai-Cambodian Conflict and Its Solutions , pp. 1-50.
  10. Chulayarnnon Siriphol, interviewed by Malinee Khumsupa, Chiang Mai, 10 March 2016.
  11. http://www.kickthemachine.com/page80/page22/page13/page62/index.htmlhttp://isaanrecord.com/2015/08/13/northeasterners-mark-50th-anniversary-of-the-communist-armed-struggle/
  12. Craig Reynolds, Icons of Identity as Sites of Protest: Burma and Thailand Compared, Academia Sinica Prosea Research Paper No. 30 (March 2000). Thongchai Winichakul (1999), “Thai Democracy in Public Memory: Monuments and Their Narratives,” Keynote, 7th Annual International Conference on Thai Studies, Amsterdam, 4-8 July 1999. Malinee Khumsupha (1998) “Political Implications of Democracy Monument in Thai Society, MA Thesis, Faculty of Political Science Thammasat University.
  13. Rosalind Morris, ‘Surviving Pleasure at the Periphery: Chiangmai and the Photographies of Political Trauma in Thailand, 1976-1992’, Public Culture (1998), pp. 341-70; Alan Klima The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002).
  14. Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture (Oxford, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2000).
  15. Jurgen Habermas, ‘Further Reflections on the Public Sphere’, in Craig Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1996). Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989 orig. 1962).

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