While Thailand may appear as one of the more free countries with regard to cultural and artistic freedom of expression in Southeast Asia, the patterns in censorship tactics have expanded in the last ten years and warrant closer examination.
Since 1980, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has recorded 82 cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand¹. In fear of enforced disappearances, there was a spike of artists and activists in exile immediately after the 2014 coup; one of the most important nationally awarded novelist, poet, writer Wat Wanlayangkoon died in exile in 20222.
Some of the most obvious media coverage of Thailand’s censorship is focused on cases of lese majeste or Section 112 Criminal Code (1956/1976/2007) and sedition (by instigation) or Section 116 Criminal Code(1956/2003). Other areas involve history, sex, sexuality, and religion. While most of the censorship laws pre-date the contemporary period, such as cinema, dating back to the 1930 Film Act (amended 2008 to include rating and banning systems), there are more recent developments that have led to internet related censorship through the Computer Crimes Act 2007(2017). This legislation was amended to include: the ability to prohibit web-sites, increased penalties and expansion of interpretation to affect service providers, prohibit altered images and false information, and more). In this database, comparatively the Film and Video Act (2008) is pre-emptive banning, but the Criminal Codes are punitive. Section 112(2007), Sedition (by instigation) or Section 116 (2007), the Computer Crimes Act(2017) are all punitive charges that were lodged against the artists mostly by either a state official or civilian3. Most of the accused risk long jail sentences(Section 112 risks 3-15 years per online posting and web administrators are equally liable) and all face huge fines. Lesser charges that artists faced during Covid-19 were violations of the Ministry of Public Health order against public assemblies and the public cleanliness ordinance.
Yet, regardless of the risks, Thailand’s artists have always been part of social movements aligning with different factions. As artists themselves reflect and challenge social issues, activists also became artists involved in protest art in the form of reading dissident poetry, street art performance, theater, and song. In the last twenty years the following events are the contexts from which censorship in Thailand can be better understood: the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra’s populism in 2003, the 2006 and 2014 military coups, the 2010 Red Shirt massacre, martial law and armed conflict in the south, the conflict between different shades of royalists, anti-Thaksin (former PM), and republican populism4. And most recently – the 2023 elections and the Future Forward Party’s call to reform Article 112 have all had an impact on conditioning censorship. Thailand’s contentious politics contributes to explaining why we see a spike in cases of official state sanctioned censorship and civilian vigilante forms of witch-hunting(including lodging police charges against vocal activists and artists) in the particular years mentioned.
In the database, we recorded 73% of the cases were punishments by state institutions; the majority were state non-arts institutions like the police or military and regulatory bodies (ie. Censor Board). Significant lesser agents were 14% cases of arts stakeholders (galleries, theater venues, book distributors/stores) and 9% cases of the public engaging in punitive measures like reporting artists to the police. According to an interview with an attorney representing a group of artists fighting Section 112 charges, a strategy of attrition is used against artists involved in protest art. Both civilian vigilantes and state officials who are known to lodge cases against artists and activists will target particular persons and repetitively lodge charges against them in multiple cities and regions. This was the case of the Chiang Mai collective, artn’t5. Regardless if the court accepts the case or not, the accused must report themselves to the police station receiving the charge.
Spikes in Cases Reflect Political Contention
Thailand has 64 violations in the database; with a range of 0 to 10 cases per year, the average rounded up is 6 cases per year. Ten or 16% of the cases were reported in 2014, the year of the military coup; and 9 cases the year before. 9 cases also were reported in 2018, which included the incidents of the Black Panther poaching scandal, PM2.5 severe air pollution, and continued protest movements at key monuments in Bangkok6. In 2018, the Constitutional Defense Monument known for commemorating the deaths of those who defended the country against absolute monarchist rebels in 1932 was torn down and allegedly moved7. That same year, the music video “My Country Got” by Rap Against Dictatorship was released on YouTube and the public was rumored to be threatened with fines before it went viral. Once viral, the police confirmed that there would be no penalty to the group or the public for sharing8. 2020 also had 9 reported cases, which was also the height of the youth protest movement against the PM General Prayut Chan-o-cha, leading to an awakening among many young artists joining demonstrations and engaging in protest music, art, and performance in the galleries and on the streets.
In the database, the themes that were most often censored include in ranking order:
1) Politically Nationally Destabilizing, 2) Disrespectful toward leaders, 3) Defamation, libel, 4) Copyright, 5) Economic Development, 6) Immoral and lastly 7) Religious Prohibited. But many of these categories of themes were often overlapping and not exclusive.
Furthermore, we documented 19 or 30% as visual art cases (includes a wider range of categories like architectural structures, visual work in and out of the gallery). The contents often violated Section 112, but there was also a case ruled too sexually provocative by the Bangkok non-Muslim organizers when Thailand held its Biennale in Krabi Province, a Muslim majority. Chulayarnon Siriphol’s experimental installation “Birth of the Golden Snail (2018)” was ordered revoked and de-funded due to a shadowed nude breast that was projected in a cave. He subsequently had to carry the burden of all the production costs.
In total, there were 16 films/video that were edited or censored by Thailand’s Censor Board, which tended to request editing out of scenes considered controversial (critical of political leaders or challenging the southern anti-insurgency efforts, unfavorable depiction of Buddhist monks, too sexually provocative for young audiences). The one film that was entirely banned during this time period was Shakespeare Must Die (2011) speculatively due to its political and suggestive content9. The filmmakers appealed the ban in court and asserted that they were never told which scenes were problematic and needed editing. There were 7 cases for both Online/Broadcasting (most were Facebook postings), which was indicative of the expansive nature of the Computer Crimes Act and the strict regulatory nature of television broadcasting. Similarly, there were 7 cases in publishing/publications in short stories, historical investigations, oppositional politics, and literary criticism; which were often surveilled, visited, arrested or dropped by major stakeholder distributors refusing to carry their journals and books resulting in serious business sale losses and subsequent closures. Another higher number, were 6 cases for music (which was often in lieu of protest concert performances or controversial music videos that went viral on YouTube10).
Defiance and Movement, who are the artists?
“The state calls its own violence, law; but that of the individual, crime”
Mural created by Headache Stencil in English Caligraphy
at Jam Factory Uncensored(2019)
In Thailand, of the cases documented gender did not play a role. 30% were women, 33% were men and 25% were unknown genders in collectives and 12% non-binary or non-disclosing. Sexuality and religion of the artists do not seem to be an issue for the majority of cases, but political beliefs with regard to the monarchy appear to be critical. There were only two cases involving one activist gay writer Ekkachai Hongkangwan for obscenity published online detailing prison conditions with sex and filmmaker Tanwarin Sukkhapisit vs. National Film Board of Thailand for Insects in the Backyard (2010, 2015)11. But their proscriptions were due to the content of the work, not their identities. Most of the proscriptions by state officials during martial law involved having artists who staged political art attend re-education, sign agreements, or verbally agree to not demonstrate their politics in public12.
On the 7th of July 2019 several independent artists including Rap Against Dictatorship and the Headache Stencil graffiti crew read a “Liberation Manifesto of Thai Artists in an Era of Dictatorship” to open a group show entitled “Uncensored” featuring hip-hop visual and music artists at the bookstore outdoor space Jam Factory. This event was not censored in any way, but represents the spirit in which artists refuse to be censored.13 The Free Arts Collective held public performances throughout 2018-2020 and many individual artists would pose their three-finger salute in Hunger Games style in favor of the pro-democracy movement. In Thailand, festivals, forums often sponsored by Consulates, foundations, CSOs, public organization, and universities are important semi-safe havens that lead to creative strategies, including changing venues to comply to cease and desist orders by police in one sub-district, only to move to a different venue across town. Many artists also use symbols and metaphors that are suggestive to audiences aware of dissident messages, hence these artists do not risk criminal charges.
To summarize, Thailand had 64 cases between 2010-2022, with a lesser number of cases in the pilot database. But it also has some unique characteristics of demolitions of pro-democracy monuments and architectural features commemorating the end of absolute monarchy. Unlike the other countries, military authoritarianism is closely aligned with the monarchy, which created conditions that brought lese majeste (Section 112 Criminal Code) into full effect against many artists engaged in political art and protest art alike. The majority of cases were visual arts and film. While the pre-emptive form was film because of the existence of Thailand’s Film Censor Board, in contrast the other forms suffered mostly punitive actions against artists. The most troubling punitive charges with high fines and long imprisonment include lese majeste (Section 112), sedition by instigation (Section 116), and the Computer Crimes Act. While some artists sought exile, many faced imprisonment and were traumatized. Martial law immediately after the coup also enabled the military to disempower people’s civil rights, sending dissidents and suspected anti-royalists to re-education in military barracks, mobile phone and physical surveillance, and requiring activist artists, publishers and writers to sign agreements to stay away from politics. While some artists face imprisonment others were surveilled, arrested and charged or not charged. Others who refuse to accept the military government’s legitimacy found themselves fleeing for safety in exile abroad immediately after the coup in 2014. While the 2023 election results marked a hopeful shift in the mindset of the country, the backlash against the Future Forward Party dissolved in 2020 and the Move Forward Party being betrayed by its own ally Pheu Thai Party (now aligned with the military government), indicates that Thailand’s struggle for freedom of speech and expression has a long way to go. 14There needs to be further research into how to develop a centralized monitoring system and closer examination to how after the 2023 elections censorship practices are changing, in ways that restrict artists more or less than usual.
1Council, United Nations Human Rights. “Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.” Geneva, 2015: 13. See http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session30/Documents/A.HRC.30.38_E.docx; Accessed 28 August 2023.
2 iLaw. “The Ideas of “Thai Federation,” the Origins of 6 Serious Lawsuits, 17 Defendants, 4 People Disappeared.” See: https://freedom.ilaw.or.th/en/blog/ideas-%E2%80%9Cthai-federation%E2%80%9D-origins-6-serious-lawsuits-17-defendants-4-people-disappeared, 2019. Accessed: 28 August 2023./h6>
3iLaw. “Section 116: When ‘Sedition’ Is Used as the Obstruction of Freedom of Expression.” iLaw Website, 2017. See: https://freedom.ilaw.or.th/en/blog/section-116-when-%E2%80%98sedition%E2%80%99-used-obstruction-freedom-expression; Accessed: 28 August 2023. Streckfuss, David. Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lèse-Majesté. . London: Routledge, 2011.
4For Background 2001-2021 see: Human Rights Watch https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/10/25/speak-out-dangerous/criminalization-peaceful-expression-thailand
5 Interview with Thai Human Rights Lawyer attorney, Chiang Mai, 18 June 2022.
7Pravit Rojanaphruk, Senior Staff Writer. “Monument Marking Defeat of Royalist Rebels Removed in Dead of Night.” Khaosod English, 28 December 2018. See: https://www.khaosodenglish.com/politics/2018/12/28/monument-marking-defeat-of-royalist-rebels-removed-in-dead-of-night/; Accessed 28 August 2023.
9Itthipongmaetee, Chayanit. “Banned Film ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ to Get Decision, 5 Years On.” Khaosod English, 2017, See: https://www.khaosodenglish.com/news/crimecourtscalamity/courts/2017/07/26/banned-film-shakespeare-must-die-get-decision-5-years/. Accessed 28 August 2023.
10 For Rap Against Dictatorship YouTube video see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZvzvLiGUtw
11 See: https://sanamratsadon.org/2022/12/19/the-obscenity-case-against-ekachai-hongkangwan/ and https://globalfreedomofexpression.columbia.edu/cases/the-case-of-movie-insects-in-the-backyard-thailand/
12 Human Rights Watch. “World Report: Thailand Chapter.” 2023. See: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2023/country-chapters/thailand Accessed 28 August 2023.
13 “Uncensored”: A Liberation Manifesto of Thai Artists in an era of Dictator
14 Post Reporters. “Critics Slam Pheu Thai’s Betrayal.” Bangkok Post, 13 August 2023. See: https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/politics/2628297 ; Accessed 23 August 2023.
About the author(s)
Sudarat Musikawong investigates cultural politics in Thailand. Her publications include “Notes on Camp Films in Authoritarian Thailand (2019),” "Film is dangerous (2022)" in Southeast Asia Research Journal and “Art for October Thai Cold War State Violence in Trauma Art,” positions: east asia cultures critique, Spring 2010.