A screenshot of the PC game "Tropico 5", a world-building game that puts you in charge of a banana republic. Thailand's military junta has banned the game because it "affect peace and order in the country." (Screenshot: Facebook/Kaylpso Media)

Ever since the military coup of May 22, 2014 the junta that is ruling Thailand has imposed strict censorship measures on the media and has shown repeatedly that it will not tolerate criticism. Journalists, if they have been temporary detained or reprimanded, have toned their reports down and partisan satellite channels (read: those of political parties) are still off air. The same heavy hand also extends to online and social media, where hundreds of websites have been blocked that carry anti-coup and anti-monarchy contents.

Now, the junta’s censorship measures have taken their strangest turn so far:

Censors under Thailand’s military junta have banned a city-building simulation computer game, saying it could hurt the country’s security, a video game distributor said Monday.

The film and video censorship office blocked sales of “Tropico 5″ because they feared “some part of its content might affect peace and order in the country,” New Era Thailand marketing manager Nonglak Sahavattanapong said.

She said the office, part of the Culture Ministry’s cultural promotion department, did not provide any further explanation in a written statement received by the distributor on Monday.

Thailand’s Censor Bans ‘Tropico 5′ Computer Game“, Associated Press, August 4, 2014

In the fifth installment of the popular strategy and world-building PC game series “Tropico”, the player takes the role of a leader in charge of a tropical island in the Caribbean spanning several decades and can either be a benevolent dictator caring for its population or a despot ruling with an iron fist (or anything in between) while trying to keep an eye on the nation’s economics, education, foreign relations, military, personal wealth and everything else that’s needs to be looked at. In short, the player is in charge of a banana republic and can do what he or she pleases, as long as he or she doesn’t get overthrown in a revolution.

The ban by Thailand’s junta was quickly picked up in the international media, including major video game news sites such as IGN, Kotaku, Polygon and Eurogamer. Also the game’s publisher Kalypso Media stated in a press release:

“We are disappointed to hear that Tropico 5 will not be released in Thailand,” commented Simon Hellwig, Global Managing Director Kalypso Media Group. ‘Tropico 3 and 4 both enjoyed successful releases in the country and although the Tropico brand does have a realistic political element to it, the scenarios and content are all delivered with a certain trademark tongue-in-cheek humor.

Stefan Marcinek, Global Managing Director, Kalypso Media Group added ‘Our distributor has been working hard to gain approval for the release, but it seems that the Board of Film and Video Censors deem some of the content too controversial for their consumers. This does sound like it could have come from one of El Presidente’s own edicts from the game.’

Kalypso Media did release a DLC pack titled ‘Junta’ for Tropico 4 in 2011 which challenges players to turn the island into a militaristic society, something Thailand experienced in May this year when a real-life coups d’état saw the elected government ousted by a military takeover.

Press Release: “Tropico 5 Refused Retail Release in Thailand“, Kalypso Media, August 4, 2014

Even the fictional “El Presidente” from the game himself tweeted in disbelief that “real life seems to be better than any parody” and a day later gave away copies the aforementioned ‘Junta’-add-on pack for the (as of now still available) predecessor.

So, why was ‘Tropico 5′ banned from retail (as it is likely still available for purchase online) in Thailand?

On Tuesday, the Thai Ministry of Culture – or as we always call them #ThaiMiniCult – revealed further details of the ban:

Cultural Promotion Department chief Chai Nakhonchai said a subcommittee of the Video and Film Office had examined the game and voted 5-1 to ban it, with two abstentions.

He said the prohibition under the Film and Video Act 2008 was because the game allowed players the freedom to name the country and its leader or king as they pleased, and therefore the content was deemed offensive to the Thai monarchy and might affect national security and the country’s dignity.

Chai also cited the report as saying that the game had many scenes in an era of “imperialism”, which was a compulsory level for all players to go through in order to pass to other eras, and these scenes tended to mock the monarchy institution. Hence it was deemed to violate all previous constitutions of Thailand.

Banned game found offensive to monarchy“, The Nation, August 6, 2014

Where do I start…? First, the feature at the beginning of the game where you can create and customize your own “El Presidente” and name the island you’ll rule is indeed a tool where players can let their fantasies run wild. But there has been no substantial evidence whatsoever that this feature has been used to emulate or mock Thailand and its monarchy. Second, the game takes you through several eras from the “Colonial Era” through “The World Wars” to “Modern Times” – but there’s no so-called “Imperial Era” as claimed by ThaiMiniCult and there does not seem to be any reference to Thailand and its monarchy whatsoever.

In fact, the whole game franchise is a parody of a stereotypical Latin American banana republic and other historical figures that have meddled there. That has been the case in the previous four games, but the fifth one is apparently too much for the ThaiMiniCult to handle. At this point, the censorship seems already baseless and frivolous – if it wasn’t for this cherry on top:

“Playing a game is different from watching a movie, as this game allows all players to express their beliefs without fear of law, so it is inappropriate to distribute such a game, especially during the current situation,” he said.

Banned game found offensive to monarchy“, The Nation, August 6, 2014

Putting aside the debate over behavioral effects and escapism in video games (this is still a political blog, after all), the ThaiMiniCult seems to horribly misjudge fact from fiction and what people can potentially create with it. By invoking the ever-sensitive issue of the monarchy the censors are using a theme under which they can easily ban things – but on the other hand neither the developers nor the players probably had originally that in mind and are probably hearing it for the first time!

In other words, the ThaiMiniCult (and by extension the Thai military junta) does not want you to play a video game where you can play a military junta and have free choice about how you govern your fictitious country, since that can apparently already be deemed a political statement, no matter what choices you make in that game.

Well, there’s still the classic board game “Junta!” out there to play…

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About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as freelance foreign TV correspondent. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.