Mor Lam Bank: A melancholic melody in a country where hope remains dim

Originally published in Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR)

In a village in Manjakiri district around 40 kilometers outside Khon Kaen city, male and female mor lam [Isan folk performance] are performing the courtship and poetry of “Luk Nerakhun” in the courtyard of a house as part of a merit-making ceremony.

Mor Lam Bank, taken from a documentary film by Supachai Ketkaroonkul.

An audience of many tens watched closely to see where the story would go next. Everything was as it should be, except that Patiwat Saraiyaem, or “Mor Lam Bank” was not there to take part in the performance. 

“If Bank was here today, he would be part of the performance.” Kritiphop Sommitr, or Mor Khaen Buatong, a khaen [Isan wind instrument] player and member of Bank’s mor lam troupe, commented on the first day we met.

Mor Khaen Buatong explained that he met Bank for the first time 10 years ago. He was Bank’s senior in the Department of Traditional Music in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Khon Kaen University. Upon witnessing his talent, he recommended that Bank major in mor lam vocal performance.

“Bank said he was from Sakon Nakhon province. He had studied traditional dance, he could play the phin [Isan string instrument], he could do it all. So I recommended that he major in mor lam vocal performance -- because it seemed like he could go beyond being part of the backup.” The melodies of mor lam became part of Bank’s life and Buatong became his regular accompanist on the khaen. 

Mor lam and political struggle

In addition to supporting himself as a professional mor lam performer, Bank also used mor lam to express his political stance and convey the injustice experienced by people in society. Mor Lam Bank is one of those who must be included on the list of the senior masters and teachers of mor lam. The politics of everyday life emerge in the poetry sung in mor lam performance. The content of both everyday life and this poetry has caused him to face charges of lèse majesté, or Article 112, twice in his life.

The first time was from performing in a theater play -- “The Wolf Bride” – that included a critique of the institution of the monarchy. The court sentenced him to 2 years and 6 months in prison and he was released in 2016. 

Middle: Bank performing in the Wolf Bride theater play.

The second time was because he joined the “19 September Return Power to the People” protest last year [2020]. All he did was get up on stage and say, “I have nothing left. I didn’t topple the lords, but it was the lords who toppled me.” For this he faces a total of 11 violations, including Article 112, Article 116 [sedition], and another 9 violations.

During the investigation in October 2020, he was locked up for more than ten days and then released. But since 9 February 2021, he has been detained once again with Anon Nampha, Parit Chiwarak, and Somyot Prueksakasemsuk at the Bangkok Remand Prison. Numerous attempts to request bail for the four have failed. In addition, other activists are similarly losing their right to bail one-by-one.

Within the context of people’s political awakening and the reaction of state power, if Mor Lam Bank’s struggle was compared to a melody, it would be a tragic song in a time of tremendous sorrow. The story of this melody would be one in which many, Mor Lam Bank included, refuse to give up hope until the day of victory arrives.

The place of mor lam in Isan

Buatong recalled that at the beginning when he and Bank created their mor lam troupe, they gave it the name “KKU Phetch Nong Mai Khwanjai,” then “Tum Tun Sawoenjai,” which then became “Bak Nuad Nung Lan Patipan Luecha.” 

“Once he is on stage, Bank is exactly on point, every point. He can put on the costume of the clown, he can be a woman, he can be a cheat. He can play every role in a scene.” The pair take Mor Lam Yai Chamnong Luecha and Mor Lam Tongplu Nuadlek in Udon Thani province as prototypes for their performance, as well as drawing on the work of Phetch Phinthong, a classic Isan musical troupe.

To perform in the Khon Kaen style is to use verse and insert political content. They both perform this type of work often, because “Isan people believe in mor lam.” People are compelled by performance in which political events are narrated through poetry. They are no different than Mor Lam Sopha Phontree who performed mor lam about the Phu Mi Bun Rebellion during the reign of Rama 8.

Therefore, Bank and members of the troupe constantly try to weave political thought into the poetry of mor lam because they believe that injustice is sometimes obscured: “Our eyes are closed, our eyes are covered up, we don’t know.”

During the past year, Bank and Buatong traveled around Isan for mor lam work. If they did not have work and were free on days when political demonstrations were held, they went to perform mor lam for those who came to the protests. They did so both to express their political stance as part of the protest and to introduce mor lam performance to the new generation. 

Bank singing mor lam during the protest at Khon Kaen Police Station in September 2020.

“Sometimes we received 500 baht, sometimes 1000 baht, to cover travel and everything. Sometimes, if there is no money then we could not go. But other times, we went even if there is no money, because we want to perform wherever we can. We have performed all over Roi Et, Mahasarakham, and Khon Kaen.”

Who is Bank behind the curtain?

We know the figure in front of the curtain on the mor lam stage. But we invite readers to get to know another side of “Mor Lam Bank – Patiwat Saraiyaem.” His parents divorced and he spent his childhood with his mother, but they were never close. 

He mother moved abroad with her new husband, which gave them few opportunities to talk. He does not have any family and so has had to rely on himself since he was a child. He had not met his father until he was imprisoned. His father saw news about his case on television in 2015 and traveled to visit him. They met for the first time when Bank was a political prisoner. But they have not been in contact since Bank was released from prison.

Mor Lam Bank grew up in a formerly Communist village in Lao Phon Kho sub-district, Koksri Suphan district, in Sakon Nakhon province. It was a red area during the Communist era and the villagers fought with the central government. His upbringing there nurtured a sense of Thai history that has been with him ever since he can remember, and this informs his feelings and thoughts about his country a great deal.

Mor Lam Bank is a person who strives and strives. If he wants something, he dives in and concentrates until he reaches success. Part of the reason is that his life has never been smooth, not when he was a child and not in the present.

“He has struggled since he was a child. He doesn’t have a father. His mother went to live in England with her new husband and died there at the end of 2020. When he contacted his stepfather and asked for documents to request various kinds of compensation, his step-father immediately hung up and became unreachable. He received nothing. No compensation. He has not even seen any trace of her remains.” Buatong explained another part of Bank’s story.

The wedge deep in his heart and his constant struggle

Mor Lam Udomsilp, or Wandee Phonthongsathit, Isan Treasured Artist in the field of performance for 2016, has taught Bank both mor lam and how to live and survive. 

Mae Udomsilp is very close to Bank. If he has a problem, he tells her about it. He respects her a great deal, and shares a lot with her. “Sometimes I called him to wake up him to go to school because I worried he would not make it. He worked throughout his studies. He managed take care of his own life from the moment he began to study. Who was going to perform where? Who was going to go with them? I had him set up his own group. And he was an artist from that moment forward.”

The melodies glorifying the institution, melodies about the servants of the university, and those about university ladies, were the first that Mae Udomsilp passed on to Bank. Then, she added in the melodies of Khon Kaen and Lam Phloen, because she saw Bank’s determination and ability. If he had been a different student, she might not have taught him so much. He could perform each one and asked to study further, including verse melodies. He wanted to make a living from mor lam and was able to earn 1000-5000 baht each time he performed while still a student.

“He can perform as part of a troupe, he can perform verse, he can play the khaen, he can do it all. He has a good head on his shoulders.  He studied every subject. He came to ask for my advice about the teachers he was not so fond of. I told him, you are only there for four years, don’t be put off by the teacher. You have to study. We are studying so we learn, not them. This is how I taught him and kept on supporting him, like a child of my own.”

Regarding his political expression, Mae Udomsilp said that she feels that Bank is an Octobrist [activist from the 1973-1976 period] who has come back to life once again. “He was born out of time and it is wedged deep in his heart, so he is always engaged in the movement.” Mae Udomsilp follows the news closely, especially the worrying news about political prisoners. She concludes by offering her concern and saying that, “If there is anything, tell me. I will do it for my child.”

My struggle is my struggle, no one sees me

The stain from having once been a prisoner and having been inside prison is what Bank worries about the most. He is afraid he will not be accepted by society. 

He once went to ask to work with a local MP in the area, because he wanted to erase the stain and challenge the idea that people who had been in prison could not work with ordinary people. But he was castigated for having been in prison and couldn’t join the team to work with other people. It made him very disappointed and led to subsequent arguments.

This is the reason behind the Seen Song Ton Studio Mor Lam Digital Station that he raised money for by performing mor lam and selling dried beef during live broadcasts. This was another one of his attempts to make a living and make himself more well-known. He wanted to find funds to improve the quality of his life, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic during which the opportunity for live performance disappeared.

Bank submitted a request to the provincial culture office to ask for social support and compensation for mor lam performers during COVID, but he did not receive a response. The fact that he has often had to carry on in his life alone made him feel lonely. Mor Lam Bank always says that, “My struggle is my struggle, no one sees me.” 

What is the judicial system doing to Mor Lam Bank?

As of 6 April 2021, Bank is being indefinitely detained while his case awaits trial. He has been in the Bangkok Remand Prison since 9 February. All of his friends are worried because his personality changed the first two times he was released.

Mor Khaen Buatong said that he was frightened and uneasy for a month after he was released from prison in 2016. “He was afraid. He said that someone was following him and watching where he went and what he did, waiting to see if he was going to be politically active. He cried, out of this fear, for a month, two months.”

Mae Udomsilp recommended that he ordain as a monk to eliminate the negative things that remained with him. He did as she recommended, but ordained for only 7 days before calling a taxi to take him to a dormitory near the university immediately without formally leaving the monkhood. He went back to the temple later to complete the ceremony to un-ordain. He said that having to be in a temple without wide, open space made him feel like he was locked up the way he had been in prison. “It became a fear of narrowness. He is really afraid of narrow places.”

The second time he was released, in October 2020, he had strong feelings and reactions to what happened to him. What happened to him, as one mor lam performer, was unjust. This was compounded by his difficult financial situation because the COVID-19 pandemic meant he had few performances. A great deal of stress and pressure was present in his life.

Mor Lam Bank is leaving

“Whenever he goes to report himself or to the court, he leaves things at the restaurant, and says, ‘Jae [older sister], I’m leaving.’ It takes my breath away, because I don’t know when he will return.” 

Waan, the owner of a restaurant in Khon Kaen who knows Mor Lam Bank well, said that after Bank became a political prisoner he was afraid he would not be accepted by society. For a period after his release from prison he was afraid to go anywhere and spent all his time in the restaurant. Waan and the other people in the restaurant understand him and the political situation he has had to face. This is a safe place for his body and soul.

“Mr. Bank tries to help himself. He worked wherever he could because he was uninterested in people simply giving him money. By nature, he did not like being looked down on. He wanted to work in exchange for money and get rid of the stain of having an Article 112 conviction. It made it difficult to buy a car or motorbike. He applied for a job delivering food and they did not want him. He wanted to release this lock on his life.” 

“I am leaving.” This was the short goodbye with which he always left Waan before going to hear the charges against him or report following a summons.

Ever since his goodbye at the beginning of February, a dry wind blows and no one has heard him perform the melodies of mor lam.

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