Somewhere between truth and fiction

opinion March 15, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

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The Thai TV soap that stirred anger in Myanmar was merely reflecting a sad truth – about Thailand

For understandable reasons, a Thai TV soap opera has drawn ire in Myanmar with its depiction of the reign of Burma’s last king, Thibaw. Among those taking umbrage is Soe Win, great-grandson of that monarch, who has called the quasi-historical drama “A Lady’s Flames” (“Plerng Phra Nang”) “insulting” and “distasteful”. “We ask Thais this: Would they accept it if one of our [entertainment] companies here did the same thing about their country?” the news agency Agence Presse-France quoted Soe Win as saying.

Contrary to the insistence of the producer of the Thai series – that its characters and story line were entirely fictional – there was no mistaking their historical origins. The melodrama was based on the bloody court politics in 19th-century Burma, centring on Annthip, a palace consort who orchestrated the murders of other courtiers to clear Thibaw’s path to the throne.

Thibaw’s modern-day descendants, while not denying the historical truth of the assassination of potential rivals, complained that the show depicted members of the Burmese royal family as wild and primitive. Soe Win lamented scenes in which women of the court slapped one another.

The soap might be defended on grounds of artistic licence or freedom of expression. Studios around the world routinely make movies and TV series about the past and, since the primary aim is generate revenue, the events in question are “sexed up” to attract as many viewers as possible. Allegiance to historical accuracy might earn academic acclaim but, for the average viewer, the facts are rarely as exciting as scenes of female catfights, a standby of Thai soap operas along with sexual violence. Indeed, only in recent years have Thais begun objecting to the soaps’ depiction of rape as an effective way to win a woman’s love. 

Soe Win’s objections to the perceived misrepresentation of his family are well taken, but he surely understands that the Thai television producer has done nothing illegal. Myanmar’s royal legacy has no protection under the law, in notable contrast to the Thai monarchy and its past. In Thailand the lese majeste law is strictly enforced, more so than ever under the current military regime, which seized power in part to protect the royal institution and tolerates no affront to it.

Legality aside, the soap opera might be “excused” in one sense because it merely reflected Thais’ sense of superiority over the people of neighbouring Laos, Cambodia and, yes, Myanmar. History recounts numerous defeats and victories in battle among these nations long ago, but Thai history as presented in our schools – as dictated by past military governments and maintained even by civilian governments – chooses to recall only Siam’s victories. Like the Nazis in Germany, who supported their claim to supremacy with a conconcocted  theory of racial purity, those who insist on Thai supremacism do so against the facts. Their case evaporates in the absence of anything “purely Thai”. Our present nation is a melting pot of peoples and races, and any sense that we are united is a matter of lines on a map and politically expedient nationalism. To unite citizens behind a cause or a particular government, it’s helpful to depict people of other nationalities and ethnicity as evil and inferior. Any Thai who attempts to question the “fact” of Thai superiority is met by a fists-ready challenge to their patriotism.

This attitude being so prevalent leaves little room for thoughtful discussion about a TV show demeaning an adjoining country’s past. If we had the inclination to discuss it, we could start with the abusive way immigrants from those countries are treated with they come to work here – work that significantly benefits the Thai economy.