BACK in 2012, a solo theater performance called “Bang La Merd” premiered to widespread acclaim and later won Ornanong Thaisiriwong plaudits and Best Original Script and Performance Awards from the International Association of Theatre Critics (Thailand). ‘Bang La Merd’, roughly translated as ‘district of violation’, portrays the violation of rights in Thai society. Now in 2015, in the restrictive post-coup atmosphere, Ornanong thought it was time to re-stage the production.
But on the afternoon of January 20, the day Bang La Merd was scheduled for a press preview, a military officer called the Thong Lor Art Space, demanding to see a permission letter for the show. The production staff was stunned, as no paper was ever required for staging a show like this. The crew then asked for the show to continue as scheduled and also invited the officers to join the press preview. Two plainclothes officers then came to take photos and took the names of the attending press. The show did eventually go on and the military officers vanished from the scene. By then ‘Bang La Merd’ had become an irony, a bad one; the play about violation was violated.
“I think when we talk about violation, we consider both the violating and the violated. If it’s person-to-person violation, we may arrive at solution by negotiation or by law,” said the award-winning actress, who is also a core member of the B-Floor Theatre Group. “But with violation by an unelected government, or especially with the military, it gives you no option. It’s the use of power to create the atmosphere of fear. But at the same time, from the artistic and creative point of view, there’s no denying the incident helps ‘Bang La Merd’ deliver a more real, complete and powerful message.”
The worry intensified two days later when a group of officers visited the venue, according to the B-floor group, citing a report that ‘Bang La Merd’ contains content related to the Article 112 – opposing the government and threatening the national security. Despite the production’s explanation that the performance was about “living together in a society without violating each other’s personal rights,” the officials insisted they needed to monitor it closely. And after that night, two plainclothes military officers were present at every performance to video record the actors and the audience.
The crackdown was not so surprising. Thailand has a long track record of censorship and prohibition. The 1999 movie “Anna and the King,” which narrates the story about Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut (Rama IV), was banned for being “inaccurate and insulting”. In 2012, metatheatrical Thai film “Shakespeare Must Die”, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, also made it to the list for potentially causing social disharmony. Last year, many Thai thespians grew more worried when theater activists Patiwat Saraiyaem and Pornthip Munkong were charged with insulting the Thai monarchy for staging a play centering on a fictitious monarchy, “The Wolf Bride”. The penalty, considerably harsh for producing a play, puts pressure on artists to self-censor or simply turn a blind eye to Thailand’s political and social problems. But that doesn’t quite apply to the opinion-inducing ‘Bang La Merd’.
“I’m confident that the voice of the performance aims at initiating conversation and exchange of ideas… The topics brought up, the rights and freedom to express as a citizen and a human, are internationally discussed,” said Ornanong. Not only did Ornanong insist her performance never violated any law, she also said the official’s approach may need questioning. “If we’re being monitored by the officers only because the performance discusses the rights and freedom of expression, we’d need to ask if it’s you that feel insecure to the extent you need to restrict and violate even in the field of art?”
After the incident was reported, ‘Bang La Merd’ received a lot of support from many media and parties, including human rights and political officers from the UN and the European Union. The hashtag #SupportThaiTheatre spread on social media, along with the sarcastic #ขออนุญาตรึยัง, meaning “did you get permission?” But the question that still begs answering is should we need a permit? If it’s reconciliation is what the junta is to achieve, “how can the ongoing browbeat lead to positive discussion?” And if the crackdown on cultural activity is part of the junta’s effort to curb everyone to one golden mean, Ornanong would beg to differ:
“The world is moving forward. Amid the difference and diversity of ideology in the society, people are now aware of their basic rights and freedom. We need to discuss and exchange ideas, with sound reasons. We may have to argue with each other in the process, but that will definitely give us better understanding towards others than being ordered to remain silent.”