Thursday, May 3, 2007

Whose Tube is it Anyway?

I've been saddened about the youtube flap, because I really want to give this Thai government as much encouragement and good will as I can.

Many people who complain about this lot have forgotten that in the previous administration, it was okay for the government to shoot suspected drug lords on sight and though the press was free in theory, libel laws were distorted in order to file frivolous lawsuits to stifle dissent.

The Bangkok Opera has its own youtube channel; scenes from our productions are continually posted and it's a splendid chance to show off one of our most unexpected cultural achievements ... that despite minimal government support Thailand has managed to become the acknowledged trendsetter and leader in opera in this entire region.

We, like thousands of other people here who use youtube for thousands of innocuous reasons, have had our hands tied for no real practical reason, since any minimally computer literate person knows that all youtube videos have a unique ID and therefore any commputer wiz kid over the age of about eight should have been able to tell the ministry's cybernetic experts how to unobtrusively take care of the offending videos.

Now there's a ludicrous flap and more and more people's attention is being drawn to the far more serious issue of freedom of expression.

I warned officials of the ministry of culture months ago that, with a military regime in place, the international press is just going to be watching to pounce on anything that smacks of the abridgment of freedom of expression. They didn't believe me then, and their bungling was reported in hundreds of newspapers and websites worldwide.

I think bungling is the operative word here. They mean well, they really do. The attempts to censor Apichatpong's movie again show that they simply don't understand that the primary purpose of art is the elucidation of the human condition which, naturally, means that art exists to tell the truth. They don't understand that showing, for instance, a monk breaking the rules of monkhood is not a criticism of the institution of monkhood at all; it's an insight into human nature.

Suing youtube was always a silly idea and I really don't know how anyone in our ministry cooked it up. It's true that "foreigners can't understand" why that video was so offensive to Thai sensibilities. But you know, it's also true that "foreigners can't understand" why in Saudi Arabia women aren't allowed to drive, yet the Saudi government doesn't go around suing women for driving in Thailand! No one who is not a member of that culture will ever understand (on a gut level) such a prohibition. It could equally be said that many people in power in Thailand don't understand the incredibly powerful gut feelings that the phrase "first amendment" arouses in people raised within American culture. The cultural insensitivity has been on both sides, I'm afraid.

Of course, the only real way to censor the internet is to cut it off altogether. If you don't do that, there is always a way around it. In the last month, the Bangkok Opera's youtube channel has taken off -- for instance, 20,000 people viewed a clip from one of our recent productions, The Rape of Lucretia. We have had no problem posting the clips, and no one in Thailand who wanted to watch them has had any trouble doing so. There is absolutely nothing illegal about circumventing the youtube ban as it is not being done for any illegal purpose. The ban itself is, in the opinion of every constitutional expert I have talked to, not legal anyway. There has never been a legal right to censor granted to any ministry. It is in any case not enforceable.

You know, there is far more draconian and consistent repression in places like Singapore. But in Thailand, they have chosen to apply repression in silly ways, and they've only succeeded in making the country look far worse than it should.

Anyway, do check out the Bangkok Opera's youtube channel ...

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