Phitsawat: a Thai soap that serves authoritarianism

Thai soap operas play a crucial social role in constructing political ideas of nationalism, Buddhism and morality. This mechanism, however, is not a stagnant process. The recent airing of a nationalistic soap has shown how Thai soaps adapt to changing political contexts.  
 
 
Phitsawat (Poisonous Love) is a popular soap that recently aired on the One 31 TV channel. The primetime programme has received the highest ratings of any soap since 2014. While other Thai soaps tend to achieve only a hundred thousand views or so per episode, the first episode of Phitsawat racked up more than 2.7 million views on the LineTV channel. 
 
What distinguishes Phitsawat is its attempt to justify elements in the current political climate by the entertaining dramatization of a dialogue with those who oppose establishment ideas — though it ultimately delivers the same strong messages of nationalism, Buddhism and moralism as other clichéd Thai dramas.

Synopsis

 
Phitsawat was originally a novel written by the famous right-wing author Wimon Chiamcharoen, who wrote under the pen name Thommayanti. It tells the story of Ubon, a royal dancer in the late Ayutthaya Kingdom (1765–1767). She was killed by her husband, Phra Ak, who subsequently confined her soul to the underground site of a national treasure and turned her into its powerful guardian. She has just one duty: to kill anyone who tries to steal the national treasure. 
 
Ubon has protected the national treasure for 249 years when her husband is reincarnated in the present as Akhani, an archaeologist who is passionate about Ayutthaya history. Ubon wants to repay the agony he caused her in his past life and replace her as guardian. As the story progresses, she also has to kill various people including thieves and ‘immoral’ politicians, who attempt to steal the national treasure.  
 
Phitsawat has a happy ending in the manner of other Thai soaps about vengeful spirits. Ubon overcomes her vengefulness through the experience of pure love from Akhani, after realising that Phra Ak killed her only out of his “love of the motherland”. Akhani regrets the sins he committed in his past life and becomes a Buddhist monk. 
 
 
Phra Ak kills Ubon at the underground treasure site

The need for ‘good politicians’ 

 
Apart from the conflict between Akhani and Ubon, Phitsawat is driven by the tension between Danai, a ‘bad’ politician, and Akhara, a ‘good’ politician and Akhani’s father. Akhara is a retired military officer who initially never wanted to become a politician. But he unwillingly gets into politics after his friend is murdered by the power-hungry and immoral politician Danai.
 
The two politicians represent the polarised nature of political conflict actually taking place in Thailand. Danai is a symbol of ‘corrupt’ politicians whose ‘populist policies’ lead people astray. On the other hand, Akhara represents moral politicians who strongly believe in Buddhism’s Law of Karma. A scene where the two debate in a TV programme during an election campaign clearly reflects real political conflict.
 
In that scene, the show moderator asks the two about their solutions for corruption. Danai goes first and says:
 
“Firstly, we have to increase the incomes of government officials. When they have enough income, they won’t search for illegal money. Plus, we have to boost our economy and seriously enforce laws. If we achieve these things cohesively, I think corruption will be gone.”
 
This is a sound analysis of the structural issues incentivising corruption in Thailand’s political system. Akhara, however, eschews confronting systemic problems in favour of blaming the personal qualities of politicians themselves.
 
“This is a matter of individual conscience. Those who have a strong karmic conscience have no need for need anyone to tell them what is wrong. We know by ourselves when we do something wrong. Although nobody else knows, the angels know. Therefore, what I propose is to educate our young generation about virtue, morality and religious principles. 
 
“That’s my preventive policy. My active policy is to increase sentences. All corruption cases must be tried in both civil and criminal courts. All people involved, from the top to the lowest ranks, must be prosecuted. The organisations responsible for corruption suppression shall have more power to conducts audits and deliver severe punishments.” 
 
Danai then expresses his disagreement with this proposal. The ‘good’ politician replies with an ad hominem statement: “What are you afraid of? If you are innocent, why are you concerned? Are you hiding something behind your back?”
 
Judging from the length of the dialogue, it is clear that the intention is to highlight Akhara’s suspicion of elected politicians. In this way, the conversation reflects current debates in Thai politics over the junta-backed organic laws governing the political party system. The military appointed lawmakers have proposed that new laws should contain severe punishments for politicians involved in corruption cases. There has also been a proposal to give the Election Commission of Thailand more power to ban politicians and order re-elections. 
 
 
Danai (left) and Akkhara (right) debate on the TV show
 
Phitsawat also portrays the supporters of populist politicians as ‘leeches of the country’. The scene following the debate between Danai and Akhara is a dialogue between two extras who have watched the TV show. 
 
Extra 1: Danai was slapped in the face. He deserves it. What a corrupt politician!
Extra 2: Come on! Even though he is corrupt, at least he helps poor people.
Extra 1: People like you are hindering the country’s progress. A burden on the land! I don’t understand why you were born to be a leech of the country like this.
 
Akhara, of course, is elected PM at the end and Danai is killed by Ubon as retribution for his corruption and murders of his political opponents. 
 
Such an ending reflects the idea that so-called ‘good’ politicians alone cannot eliminate ‘bad’ politicians, since the latter can always use their money to influence the justice system. According to this logic, to deal with these bad people requires an absolute extra-judicial power such as Ubon and the ‘Law of Karma’ (plus Article 44 of the junta’s Interim charter?). 

Messages to the anti-establishment

 
The most interesting aspect of Phitsawat is its attempt to speak to — and then prove wrong — those who oppose status quo ideologies. This dialogue is represented by Chettha, Akhani’s best friend and a forensic scientist who has to investigate the many crimes that Ubon has committed as part of her guardian duty. 
 
Ubon’s methods of killing vary from splitting a victim’s body with a chainsaw and biting by serpents to stinging by millions of insects. Yet all these methods duplicate the punishments used in hell according to Thai Buddhist belief. Spirits in hell receive different punishments based on the sins they committed when they were alive.  
 
Against Ubon’s Buddhist symbolism, Chettha is a representation of the belief in science, reason and fairness alone. The scientist rejects the existence of ghosts and the Law of Karma and suspects that Ubon is a — mortal — murderer in the cases he is investigating. Akhani, who already knows that Ubon is actually a ghost, tells Chettha to stay away from her but the investigator does not heed these warnings.
 
Chettha keeps following Ubon closely only to unexpectedly witness her transform into a ghost to kill some villains. Conceding that Ubon is a ghost, he realises that Ubon intends to enact revenge on Akhani for the sins of his past life. Following his trust in reason and fairness, he attempts to persuade Ubon rationally to relinquish her vengefulness.
 
“I understand that Phra Ak did something very horrible to you. But that occurred in a past life. It should be ended. Akhani has nothing to do with that,” says Chettha.
 
Sadly, reason and fairness do not triumph in the paradigm of Thai soaps. Citing the Law of Karma, Ubon insists on taking Akhani’s soul to hell on the same day he killed her 249 years ago. Still, Chettha believes that he can overcome the supernatural being. He kidnaps Akhani and tries to escape Ubon’s hunt. Ubon obstructs the escape, Chettha and Akhani’s souls are disembodied and Ubon takes the two to the Lord of Hell (Phraya Yomaban), who then presides over the case between her and Akhani.
 
The trial begins with a one-sided accusation from Ubon, who alleges that Phra Ak killed her. Akhani, who cannot remember his past life, cannot argue in his defence but keeps saying “Phra Ak loves you (Ubon). I can feel it”. Chettha then interrupts the trial.
 
Chettha: Akhani is not guilty. Nobody can remember what happened in their past life.
Lord of Hell: You don’t have the right to speak here!
Chettha: I just want to cross-examine for the sake of clarification.
Lord of Hell: Do you think your reasoning can help your friend?
Chettha: Still, we should follow due process.
 
Here we observe a conflict between “due process” and the most unreasonable being imaginable, the Lord of Hell, who follows only the Law of Karma, not the rule of law. The following dialogue is a clear example.
 
Chettha: Akhani cannot remember his past life. There’s no other witness. How can the trial be fair?
Ubon: I am the witness. I witnessed everything myself.
Chettha: The plaintiff cannot be a legitimate witness.
Ubon: With this oath of mine …
Chettha: No! You speak with vengefulness. How can it be credible? 
Ubon: I was seduced to go there (the underground treasure) alone. There are no other witnesses.
Chettha: Then we will wait until you can find a witness.
 
 
Chettha pleads for Akhani in front of the Hell Lord
This scene seems to show that even the Lord of Hell, the representation of Thai society’s traditional spiritual beliefs, is open to modern ideas: Chettha, the symbol of modernity, seems to claim victory in this battle. Yet it is Chettha who really compromises his principles in this battle as he ultimately pleads the case on the basis that Phra Ak really loves Ubon — rather than by arguing that Akhani should not receive any punishment because the crime occurred in his past life.  
 
After that, the Lord of Hell compels Ubon to take Akhani back to the underground treasure where Phra Ak killed her. When they get there, Akhani magically remembers his past life and can plead the case by himself. Chettha’s role as a lawyer then comes to an end. 
 
The question is: if the Lord of Hell knew how to recover Akhani’s memories of his past life, why didn't he do so at the very beginning? It is because those last scenes contain significant messages to those who oppose established Thai ideology.  
 
Chettha is a symbol of modern ideas such as democracy, human rights and socialism — ideas challenging status quo ideologies in Thai politics. Phitsawat, on the other hand, as a representation of the Thai establishment, is saying to those who uphold such modern ideas, “if you want to achieve what you want, you have to follow my rules.”  
 
In case of Chettha, he only achieves his goal (saving his friend’s life) after he accepts the existence of the unreasonable things he had always rejected: the Law of Karma. He ultimately has to argue with karmic logic in order to save Akhani’s life. 
 
Pro-democracy people are forced to accept the irrationality of living in a world governed by nationalism, patron-client systems, authoritarian regimes and the military. No matter how much they hate these undemocratic institutions, Phitsawat tells them that they have to accept them before the establishment will listen to them. If they oppose or threaten the traditional ideas, the establishment have justification to punish them just as Ubon did to those ‘bad politicians.’