by Dr. Ponn Virulrak

January 21, 2014 (TSR) – Today is one sad day in Thailand, which many of you know as the “Land of Smiles”. Many of you may also know that the word “Thai” has also the same pronunciation, though in a different spelling format, means “Being Free”. This word that we called ourselves reflects in our values – highly tolerant, forgiving and patient. What happens today in the Thai media world will not be shown on any major global news network because the impact is not so significant in the regional level, or even local levels for that matter. It doesn’t affect any social agenda, nor economic or even environment for that matter. But what happens today is a dangerous “sign”.

PonnIf I say to you that the government of Thailand is censoring a “soap opera” would you believe that? Some of you may laugh, and some of you may think that I am telling a joke in which you would be expecting a punch line that should come afterwards.

But my friend, this is all true. Punch line will never come because it is just what happens.

As you may know the phrase: “The devil is in details”. I think such phrase so true regarding this event that have just occurred. The event itself is quite small but the details around it is quite significant, at least in my opinion as an academic, a professional consultant and the person who used to spend time in United States, where the freedom of speech is highly protected and honored.

First, you need to understand what ‘soap opera’ in Thailand is. It is not like in the US that you will find stunning looking people walking around fighting in love triangles and family dramas which is aired in the period where normal people have to go to work. The ‘soap opera’ in Thailand shares same plots about love and with beautiful people in it, but they can also contain action scenes or special CGI effects in the story. The air time is around 8:00-10:00, which is after dinner time. People are normally glued to the TV. In some super hit shows, the Thai soap operas can have a negative impact on the Bangkok traffic since nobody moves anywhere when the show is on.

Now, if you understand the meaning of the soap operas in Thailand, you might wonder what the government has to do with censoring this kind of stuff.

I can tell you that the Thai government has nothing to do with it, “officially” but they do it with “invisible hand”. That, to me, is the dangerous sign number one.

How can they do it? Simple, we are living in the capitalism which operates by cash. In the land of not-so-sophisticated people like Thailand, you can get a cash together, form a political party, get the propaganda machine running. If your cash is large enough, you are likely to get the majority of vote to form “the government” which would then put you in control of the larger cash. You have a power to distribute this cash in any way that you want to. Indeed, there is a thing called laws and regulations but if all the people are under your control, you can align everyone in your preferred direction and pretty much can “go around” such a hurdles.

For the large TV networks, they do not want to mess with the government because the government provides a lot of sponsorship fee for the networks and also can hurt them badly by the state in many ways. So it’s become a rule of thumb that if the government says “Jump!”, most of the TV networks will ask how high.

Now, who is the government? Right now, the government in Thailand is operated by one family, Shinawatra family. Like a nine-life cat, they just never die and keep coming back for more.

First, is the leader himself, Thaksin Shinawatra, the original kingpin. Then comes his brother in law womanizer, Somchai Wongsawad, and latest, is his youngest Barbie sister with speech problem, Yingluck Shinawatra. They practically rule the country left and right for the upper house, lower house, military and police.

Thaksin is in exile as per Supreme Court verdict for corruption case. His proxy, Prime Minister Yingluck, is operating the government but all Thai knows that Thaksin is in control. So, guess who censors the soap opera? Not a tough question to figure out, isn’t it?

Now about this soap opera, Nua-Make (Directly translated: above the cloud), is a action-oriented production about a gangster leader who has a super natural power that aims to vanquish the “corrupted politicians”.

My friends, if you heard this type of plot, you will think that this is quite a lousy super action hero with a bad taste because it is sort of old already, right? Yes, I agree with you. But that’s not what “the government” of Thailand thinks. They think that this show can be quite a “clear and present danger” to the regime and has to be shut down.

Now as for the “face” of democracy, the soldiers cannot just march into the TV networks and seize the media broadcasting system. What they can do is, just like all of us do when we want something from a friend who resides in a different location, we make a phone call.

Yes, just one phone call and the popular show no longer exists. As a result, the season finale – the last three sensational final episodes – are now a great mystery for the Thai public because it will never be seen. Even though some of the Facebook geeks chat about “leaking” the final episodes to the internet, this is probably farfetched because if the leak really happens, the TV network will face quite severe retaliation from “the government”.

So that is my dangerous sign number two: the press in Thailand is now accustomed to self-censorship behavior.

With just one phone call, they give up already. Many people may argue that “Channel 3”, which is the network that airs “Above the Cloud”, is not exactly a press but a media company. This is why they are ready to do “favors” for the people in power with the belief that they will receive favors in return, most likely in the form of government sponsorship (means buying the air time for government program). Some people might argue that they are scared of the government for other reasons, which may be true, but the behavior of “self-censorship” stands and it is “dangerous”.

Now comes to the last point which I think is the most critical one. Simply, this “government” is not trying to censor the information, but they are censoring the “inspiration” of the Thai people.

Thailand today is a country without inspiration to do good. Besides the great image and magnificent example of our revered King Bhumibol, we can’t find any commoner who can be a true example of inspiration anymore.

This small soap opera show is trying to set itself to inspire people to do good and think good. The producer tried to send the message that ‘real changes can happen’, making people believe. And this show got shut down for the simple reason that the inspirational factor got too high as this can stir people to commit acts against “the government”.

With the populist policy, the government is trying to corrupt the people’s spirit by “giving” them everything without having them “earn” anything. They spoil people by buying the rice that has never been grown, make them pay for the cars they cannot afford, giving them the funds that they cannot manage and giving them the ideology that they cannot understand.

Looking at the other soap operas today and you will see wife-mistress violence, jealousy, woman abuse, lust, moronic comedy and people being rich without going to work.

That is the indirect education that Thai people consume and there is zero inspiration in it.

Without inspiration, there is no drive to achieve anything and that is why we are not exactly the hardest working country in the world.

Some of us are even so proud to be among the happiest countries in the world: We rank number five.

I only wonder if the survey for this statistic really asks the right questions. Many unhappy and depressed people say that they are happy because they just want to run away from their unsolved problems. Thai people are quite great liars on that department. We are too flexible to start messing up between what is right and what is wrong.

Seeing the fearful government making a censorship on the soap opera today, many would think that this government is quite pathetic. To tell you the truth, I feel the same way. But I also feel bad for the hard working producers and production team, including actors and its staffs. But what I feel bad the most is that the Thai people mostly do not see the signs of dangers in it.

And that’s my dangerous sign number three: Thai people just simply, change to another channel and see another soap.

Maybe “the government” is too fearful. Maybe they are already in control and they do not even know about it.

Or maybe we do not deserve democracy since we do not even value it.

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Dr. Ponn Virulrak is a faculty member of Chulalongkorn University’s Department of Architecture and an honourable committee member of Building Technology Committee in the Association of Siamese Architects under Thai Royal Patronage. He is also the Chief Executive Officer of Wisdom Management Technology Co Ltd. and a graduate of University of Hawaii, Manoa.

Edited by Lady Michelle-Jennifer Santos

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