Opinion: It is time for Thailand to move beyond typical patriotic films

In 2006, a Thai-produced animated movie called Kan Kluay was released. It was a heart-warming story, set during the Ayutthaya period, about an elephant that, after trials and tribulations in life, became King Naresuan’s war elephant. The king rode Kan Kluay as he battled the invading forces of the Burmese, culminating in the yutthahathee, the elephant duel between King Naresuan and Crown Prince Mingyi Swa which secured Ayutthaya’s autonomy for the next two centuries. 

Kan Kluay was highly popular, and to many it is a story that promotes several positive values: bravery, perseverance, and a sense of national duty. It could also be viewed as just some harmless fun for children. What’s better than a tale of the adventures of a little blue elephant who eventually plays a critical role in preserving the independence of Siam? 

Or, at least, that was what I thought of Kan Kluay when I first watched it as a child. Thinking back about it recently, I remembered how Mingyi Swa’s elephant had been portrayed in the movie: giant, almost mammoth-like, with glowing red eyes and a darkly menacing look. All the portrayals of the Burmese generals and armies screamed out “villainous.” The war between the Ayutthaya and Toungoo kingdoms was shown as a fight between good and evil itself. 

Of course, that is how most children’s movies have to be written to captivate the audience (and  also helps make it easy for them to pick the right side.) To explain that all kingdoms in Southeast Asia — well, anywhere — engaged in expansionist policies of their own would overly complicate a story made for pre-teens. But it also points to a deeper issue: the narrow construction of nationalism that the Thai authorities attempt to inoculate.

The government-run Thai Media Fund recently announced that it would be providing 300 million baht in grants to support Thailand’s media industry, 30 million baht of which would be spent on making patriotic films. Although this move was roundly criticized in social media as wasteful spending in a time of crisis, I don’t wish to make too much of a song and dance about it: this budget had already been legally allocated to the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission, and 30 million baht is a rather small budget for filmmaking.

But what should be discussed is what the government wishes to see when it talks about patriotic films. 

Perhaps we already know the answer. In 2014, shortly after taking power, the National Council of Peace and Order gave out free tickets for people to watch The Legend of King Naresuan V. (It covers the same historical events as Kan Kluay, but in the format of a massive live action film that spared no expense.) The NCPO’s rationale was that this film would help reduce stress caused by a tense political atmosphere while also generating a sense of both unity and patriotism. 

It seems telling, however, that Kan Kluay and The Legend of King Naresuan both trace Ayutthaya’s war for independence from Toungoo. That period provides ample fodder for the aspiring patriotic filmmaker. What could be more perfect, with a plot that starts with the disaster of the fall of Ayutthaya and presents a happy ending in the restoration of its sovereignty? Add in the several legendary exploits of King Naresuan as recorded in the Thai chronicles against the antagonistic foil in the form of invading Burmese armies, and filmmakers seeking to build some national pride have a tempting plotline.

Perhaps, in some ways, too tempting. In a piece on nationalist movies published on the Ministry of Culture’s website, it would be more difficult to find a film unrelated to Siam’s innumerable wars with Myanmar. There is Suriyothai, about the Ayutthayan queen who died in battle against a Burmese viceroy; several films about Bang Rachan village, which according to legend managed to hold an invading Burmese army for several months; and several other films dealing with a myriad of other battles against various Burmese armies. 

That Thailand’s filmmakers seem so compelled to cultivate a love of nation by televising heroic Siamese fighting courageously against Burmese attackers is reflective of how history has traditionally been taught in Thai schools. Thailand’s nation-builders wanted to make sure that the country’s children appreciated the sacrifice — all the blood that was spilled— defending the country so that they grew up just as ready to defend the nation’s sovereignty. 

Important values, to be sure, and perhaps one that met the needs of an embryonic state still struggling to centralize and form a national identity. Twenty-one years into the twenty-first century, however, and one has to wonder whether they still chime with what should be our current priorities. Using Myanmar as the eternal villain is, for one, hardly conducive to the goal of promoting greater regional integration via the ASEAN Economic Community and other initiatives. 

It can even be dangerous. The new wave of coronavirus cases, linked to the issue of illegal migrant workers, was sometimes described by Thais — tongue-in-cheek, of course — as “the third fall of Ayutthaya.” (The first and second falls refer to two wars with Burma, one in which Ayutthaya was forced to accept Toungoo suzerainty and another in which the city was utterly destroyed.) A joke though it may be, this perspective of seeing migrant workers — people deserving of dignity, and which Thailand’s aging society badly needs, no less — as the “enemy” will simply generate unneeded xenophobia. That is one unfortunate consequence of our current media ecosystem. 

This is not to say that there has been no attempt to diversify Thailand’s offering of patriotic movies. Most recently, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Defense to jointly produce patriotic media. An official in the Fine Arts Department said that examples of historical events that may form the basis of such films include conflicts between France and Siam, the Thai-Laotian Border War of 1987 and the communist insurgency. 

But is the only way to breed nationalism really just films about wars? Is there no way to build a healthier and more constructive sense of dedication to the country that doesn’t involve foreign antagonists and killing? 

For one, the authorities could try to communicate a more inclusive nationalism. The recent ‘Pimrypie’ controversy spoke to the sense of exclusion that those in Thailand’s periphery, such as the hill tribes, may still feel. Films that highlight and celebrate Thailand’s diversity could help remedy this by expanding Thai nationalism from narrow interpretations of ‘Thainess’. In addition, recognizing the richness of our cultural heritage — Lanna, Lao, Chinese, Malay, and much more — beyond just the hegemonic interpretation of culture based on a “central Thai” perspective would do much to help foster a more united nation, consolidated by an appreciation of the strength in our diversity.  

We can also try to foster a more constructive and creative national pride, in ways that support 21st century priorities. Honoring historic figures is excellent, but why must the films always be set in the past? Just as fruitful would be to recognize the work of Thailand’s modern day heroes: our frontline healthcare workers, innovators, environmental activists and so many more people. Amplifying the stories of common people who selflessly dedicate their lives to building a better Thailand today, who can inspire other people to engage in public service, would be a good use of the filmmaking budget.

If the authorities really insist on producing films about Siam’s glorious past as told through the chronicles, there are episodes unrelated to wars that could easily be dramatized and help highlight historical events in an interesting way. Take, for example, King Narai’s embassies to the court of King Louis XIV. The budding new relationship between East and West would certainly make for interesting viewing and could help teach a younger generation about the intricacies of diplomacy. 

This is not to say that movies such as Kan Kluay and The Legend of King Naresuan do not have merit. The latter, in particular, is visually spectacular, and both surely have helped inspire greater curiosity about Thai history in many people, which is an important service in its own right. (Although it would be helpful if documentation of the historical liberties both films took were more readily available…) If filmmakers find new ways to bring these periods to life, then it is certainly within their creative license to make it happen. 

But it’s time for Thailand to look beyond the old tropes of patriotic filmmaking and the constricted definition of textbook-induced nationalism. That way, we can build a vision of Thailand that is more inclusive, constructive, and fit for the modern world. The government spending money on supporting Thailand’s native filmmaking industry is no bad thing — but it should be done in new and creative ways. 

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