Censors ban political documentary in Thailand

Bangkok, April 25, 2013–Thailand’s Ministry of Culture has banned the locally produced documentary Fah Tam Pan Din Soon (Boundary) on grounds that it could “mislead and disrupt public order,” according to news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the censorship order and calls on ministry officials to reverse the arbitrary decision.

News accounts reported that a five-member panel attached to the Ministry of Culture claimed that director Nontawat Numbchapol’s film, which has yet to be publicly screened in Thailand, contains inaccurate information about political events, including a lethal military crackdown on anti-government street protestors in 2010 and armed clashes between Thai and Cambodian forces in contested border areas in 2011.

Films in Thailand must be approved by the Ministry of Culture’s censorship panel before they are allowed to be screened in public theaters. It was not immediately clear if Nontawat plans also to distribute the film by DVD or over the Internet.

The 96-minute documentary film, which was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in February, focuses first on a Thai soldier who returns to his home province after participating in a lethal crackdown on street protesters in Bangkok in 2010, according to news reports. The film then shifts to recent armed confrontations between Thai and Cambodian troops over contested territory surrounding an ancient Buddhist temple.

The film also includes a long monologue with a Cambodian soldier who speaks critically about Thailand’s position in the two countries’ ongoing territorial dispute, according to the reports.

Censors ruled that the film’s title, which includes the Thai word for “sky,” could be construed as being critical of the monarchy, which is a criminal offense under the country’s strict lese majeste laws. Nontawat has denied that the film’s title refers to the monarchy, claiming instead that it hints at an old Thai love song about the need for coexistence between people with different views, according to local reports.

According to news reports, the ban was based on various elements in the film that censors considered “inaccurate” or “groundless.” Among the points raised by censors was a film caption that indicated that “nearly 100” people were killed in the 2010 crackdown. The official death toll for the suppression is 89, according to local news reports.

These issues are highly sensitive to the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which is trying to maintain stability after years of debilitating conflict between groups opposed to and supportive of self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. The Red Shirt protesters portrayed in the film are aligned with Thaksin and helped push a previous anti-Thaksin government from power.

The censorship order comes against the backdrop of hearings on the Thai-Cambodian territorial dispute now underway at the International Court of Justice at the Hague. Conservative protest groups in Thailand have accused successive governments of selling out sovereign territory in exchange for commercial concessions with Cambodia.

The ban also comes amid a severe crackdown on material posted to the Internet that is deemed by authorities to be critical of Thailand’s royal family.

“Thailand’s extensive censorship of anti-royal topics is now worryingly being extended into mainstream political subject matters,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “The ban on Nontawat Numbchapol’s politically oriented film will discourage other documentary filmmakers in Thailand from touching on topics perceived as sensitive by the authorities.”

In April 2012, the Ministry of Culture banned the locally produced film Shakespeare Must Die on the grounds that its political content could cause “divisiveness” in Thai society. Censors said the film’s subject matter, which included references to recent Red Shirt street protests and indirect references to the monarchy, was at odds with the government’s national reconciliation initiatives, the director, Ing K, told the local press. The banned film was partially funded by the ministry’s own film promotion campaign, known as the “Creative Thailand Project.”

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