Interview with Bang-La-Merd actress: Lèse majesté, thought crimes, and Thainess

This may be the first play attended at every show by Thai military officers. Not that the Thai military is impressed with the play, but because its content touches on the climate of fear, imposed superficial Thainess, and lèse majesté prisoners. The presence of the military officers, who were assigned to record the performance and audience every night, merely reinforces the message in the restaged Bang-La-Merd: the Land I Do Not Own. It sounds surreal but true that Ornanong Thaisriwong, the director and solo actress in the play, stages a performance about the climate of fear while being watched and taped by real military officers.

<--break- />Ornanong decided to cut the first act of the show which is the most sensitive in regard to the lèse majesté law after the military called and demanded that B-floor, the theatre company, send a letter asking for permission to stage the show. “I cut the script with tears,” said Ornanong.

Not that she got to perform that act of the play the first time in 2012 either.

The restaging of Bang-La-Merd, attended by around 40 people at each show, was partly inspired by the arrest of two theatre activists, Pornthip M. and Patiwat S., core members of the now-defunct Prakai Fai Karn Lakorn, who were arrested and charged with lèse majesté for staging a play. Ornanong not only shares her profession with Pornthip, but also the nickname “Golf”. Pornthip and Patiwat are now in jail and await their verdict at the end of February. Ornanong said the 2012 version was inspired by Amphon T., aka Akong SMS, an old man who was accused of sending lèse majesté SMS and later died in jail in 2012.

Amitha Amranand, a Bangkok Post columnist, wrote “I recommend this show especially to those working in the creative fields. If you still think what is happening every night at Bang-La-merd happens only in North Korea, China or Russia, go see the show and talk to the artist. And get a reality check.”

The award winning actress spoke to Prachatai’s Thaweeporn Kummetha and Kongpob Areerat on her inspiration, her experience performing under the watch of the military, and the state of art freedom in Thailand.

Note: Bang-La-Merd is playing till this Monday February 9 at Thong Lor Art Space at 8 pm. English translation is available. 500 baht/person. Tel  095-542-4555.

Ornanong climbs up the ladder with razorblades hanging from the ceiling, which obstructs her from climbing higher. Photo by Apiwat Sangpattasima

Why did you choose to restage the play now?

It’s actually the idea of the producer here [at Thonglor’s Art Space]. He had this play lined for this theatre since last year before the coup. He invited us before the coup and I said yes because he had seen the previous version and he said that he likes it, so I said yes because he already knew the content of the play. I also think that the theme of the play is quite timeless and international, which can be presented again, especially during this time. However, after I decided to restage it there was the coup d’état [May 2014 Coup]; that’s why I had to adjust the play’s content a bit to make it up to date with the situation. The main structure and content of the play have stayed the same, but I decided to add certain parts and other details. The previous version was inspired by Akong, but this version is inspired by Pornthip. Their stories are essentially the same, but it just happened to different persons.

I thought that the application of this law [Article 112 of the Criminal Code (lèse majesté)] and the arrests of lèse majesté suspects would improve over the years, but no. There are still a lot of people charged with Article 112. This surprised me and made me realize that in the past two years since this play was shown nothing has improved; actually it has got worse. And I feel that I want to record this part of Thai history, because I don’t want it to be written and presented just by the authorities. I feel that this [the use of the lèse majesté law] is about the people as well and as a citizen I think I have the right to present my views on this. This is why I stuck to the plan to restage the play.

At first, I thought that your decision to restage the play came after the coup, but in fact it was before. Does the recent coup make the messages of the play even stronger?

Yes, indeed it does. Yet it was unexpected when I first received the phone call from the military that I was supposed to send a letter and ask for permission to stage a play. It happened only a few hours before the show’s début. This took me by surprise and it made me question how come the state has started to put arts under surveillance and control. This has never happened before. I think that this [art] is our last stand. It is an area we are supposed to have for ourselves, but then the state, actually referring to it as a ‘state’ is not correct because we did not approve it with an election, or the military started to come and intervene in this. This means that they [the military] are trying to come up with new standards on what is to be permitted what is not. I have been working in this field for 13 years and I never had to ask for permission from anyone other than the theatre owners before, but now it turns out that I also need to ask for permission from the military to stage a play. This made me feel that an environment of fear and repression has been created under the pretext of social stability and reconciliation, but these kinds of measures don’t work. In fact, they are counterproductive because it only serves to increase people’s desire to speak and to question authority.

Does the fact that there are military officers sent to observe the play every evening affect the performance?

Well, it doesn’t affect the overall production of the performance because they [the military] haven’t sent officers to surround or cancel the play. Most of the effects have fallen on the audience because they have had their rights violated by being video-recorded by the military. The fact that the military keeps recording the whole show means that faces of the audiences are also recorded without their permission. This is the thing that I worry about the most since the first day the military officers came to record the play. They recorded the audience when they were filling out their names at the registration tables and while they were walking to up to the theatre. I don’t know if they did it deliberately or not, but it worries me because not every member of the audience was prepared to be recorded on video. They even recorded nearly the whole play, but the audiences were very nice and they took it as a part of the show. It is ironic, artistically, because it actually reinforces the message of the play since the content of the play is about the violations of rights and our own rights were being violated by the military officers who came to sit in the theatre. It is very contradictory and I didn’t know how to deal with this at first and I was sad, but then I laughed about it ironically and tried to think that they [the military officers] are part of the play. These days I just deal with them as if they were ordinary members of the audience and I don’t explain who they are to the audience before the play because it has already been publicized that military officers are present at the play, so it is up to the audience what they think about this. Ironically, many in the audience turn up because they want to experience this with us. They wanted to know what it felt like.

Ornanong looks out the window. Photo by Apiwat Sangpattasima

But the military officer who was recording the show tonight [5 Feb] was rather playful wasn’t he?

Yes, the one who was with us tonight was nice and friendly. He has been rather playful at every performance of the play. On some days, there is another senior military officer who is rather dull and when I played with him along with all the other members of the audience he would be stiff and wouldn’t know how to react. I think he must have felt uncomfortable and lost because he wasn’t prepared or taught how to handle such behaviour, but the play is rather interactive, so he couldn’t avoid it. I sort of felt that it was like the magic of the performance that he had to concede during that part of the play as if we had swapped roles.

How do you feel about the arrests of Pornthip and Patiwat?

It never came to my mind that one day we would have to discuss about this. It is very unexpected. The political prisoners, I can’t really say that they are prisoners so to speak, are just people who have different ideas from the state, but the things that have been done to them are excessive. Many of them are tried in camera and are not allowed bail, though they haven’t done anything much at all. For me this is unacceptable, it is a gross violation of basic human and civil rights. It [the application of Article 112] has no standards whatsoever and for people who work as artists, if one day I can’t say or act in accordance with what I believe, it would be the end. There is no other way. These days the fact that I still work by theatre performances to say things about this is because I feel that it is a space for creativity. But if one day, if I get arrested for doing or saying something about this [criticisms of Article 112 or offences under the lèse majesté law] then no one would do it. I still do it now because I think that there are many ways to say something about this and it is a kind of obligation of this profession to find a way, but I think that this is a separate issue from interference in this profession. The different methods or ways that artists choose to convey messages through art to avoid getting arrested is one thing and intervention in the work of artists is another issue. These two issues can’t be mixed up. However, when something like this happens, as an artist I think people in the art profession should stand firm and say that the state should not intervene in this profession. Otherwise, this country would no longer have hope and creative arts never hurt anyone.

Have you visited them and how did you feel?

I visited them once. But, I didn’t talk to them much besides asking general questions because I was speechless and didn’t know what to say to them. I met them at the criminal court because I’m not listed among the names of those who can visit them at the prisons, but even though I only saw them at the criminal court and not in prison, I felt depressed. It was very depressing because they seemed very cheerful. They seem to be trying to use all of their positive energy to convince others that they are doing fine, but I think people know that the situation and place that they’re in is not fine. Yet, they still have hope, which I think is the only thing that drives them on. It's not that I visited them because I want to use their stories as material for my work. I simply wanted to give them encouragement, simply because we are in the same profession. Our work has different styles, but we are both stage performers and I just wanted to say to them that there are still a lot of people who encourage them and that they shouldn’t feel hopeless and abandoned. For them, things must have been getting worse and worse living in there, so I just wanted to do whatever I can to ease their sufferings. I was very depressed because it was real. When I saw that they were cheerful, it made me even more depressed because I think it reflected that deep down they must be sad.

Ornanong chases an unreachable limelight while performing dramatic body movements. Photo by Apiwat Sangpattasima

As journalists we have to be cautious in what we write, but as a stage performer whose limitation in conveying messages to the society is broader, do you think that you are successful in getting your message across?

I think so and I think that what happened to the production of our play even highlighted the messages that we want to communicate to society. Every audience got the message no matter if they noticed it or not, but they got it for sure. However, it is their choice whether they will stick to the message and develop it further or not. My duty is simply to tell a story, but what I’m saying is real and I believe that the audience would get something back for sure. I believe that art is the most efficient way of getting the message across about this without harming anybody because it can be polished to make it softer and more attractive to the people. If artistic methods in saying something are still being censored or suppressed, it shows that the state itself is afraid of little people like us. They feel insecure about what we have been doing although we are just ordinary people, who never think that they would be interested in our activities. But then they have turned their attention towards us, which means that our work has brought about some effect on them. I feel that my art work has worked so far and that the state authorities are afraid of it. As you can see, after the play people were sharing what they felt and thought about the play. After the play was over the audience still stayed to listen to what the others thought about the play and shared their own thoughts about it. They contemplated the play and its messages further. This is enough for me, to let my work affect the audiences in some way or another and let them think about it further, which does not have to be similar to what I think because some audiences can develop much deeper thoughts about it than mine.

Are there members of the audience who express disagreement with what Bang-La-Merd is trying to communicate?

Yes, of course. There was one member of the audience who stood up during the first part of the play when I act as a teacher teaching the audience to smile and said with a shaking voice that she would like to leave the performance immediately because the play was extremely bad and pointless. The other members of the audience were surprised because that scene of the play is the part where we start to question the ‘Thai identity’. As she got up, I, however, approached her and told her despite my nervousness that it was no problem if she didn’t like the show and that she could leave as she pleased, but I asked her if she could tell me what made her feel that way. She told me that if I asked her to tell me now, she could not say, because there are so many things that she felt, but she told me that she knew what the play was trying to communicate. The play had just started, but she rushed to judge it and told me that its messages were insulting and offensive although she couldn’t say what exactly what offended her. For me, that was a bit unfair because the play was not even finished yet, but she quickly judged it and got very angry with it. To me, what happened seems like an illustration of our society where there are certain people who are trying hold on to certain beliefs without letting other people reinterpret and think about them from a new perspective. I think in this case the person might have been sensitive about the ‘Thai identity’; that’s why she got angry as I was acting as a conservative Thai teacher who was trying to imitate certain aspects of the Thai identity. I think it was a bit narrow-minded to act in such a way although she was trying to explain why made her feel that way, but it was full of emotion without much reason behind it. However, it was an interesting thing to observe that some people feel that ‘Thainess’ and Thai nationalism should not be subject to change through the course of time, but should just stay frozen in time. And when you try to challenge that [Thai identity and nationalism] it is as if the feeling of insecurity is about to explode. That was the most challenging moment of the play so far.

Do you think that there is still hope in this country?

Yes, there is. If there was no longer any hope, I wouldn’t perform this play. I wouldn’t be able to come up with this play in the first place if there was no hope. There is still hope even though this hope seems difficult, but there is still hope.

When will we be able to see the first act of Bang-La-Merd?

Well, maybe after election.

After election? but when?

 

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