Mon, Nov 27, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Opera turned into a drama

CULTURE VULTURES In a country still grappling to find a workable political model after the coup, state censorship of the arts has raised questions about fundamental freedoms

THE OBSERVER , BANGKOK

Art lovers are rallying round the beleaguered director of Bangkok Opera after Thai government censors forced him to change his work, Ayodhya, or risk being shut down.

In a country still jittery after September's military coup, officials from the Ministry of Culture, an Orwellian body charged with protecting Thailand's heritage and morals, claimed that the opera, a retelling of the Ramayana epic, would bring bad luck.

"They said that if anything happened to anyone in power it would be blamed on Ayodhya," the composer Somtow Sucharitkul said.

In the end, the opera, with an international cast led by British counter-tenor Michael Chance, went ahead after changes, but Somtow was warned that, if anything offended the "morals of Thailand", the ministry would intervene.

Ayodhya broke with tradition in depicting the death of a key character, the demon-king, known as Thotsakan in the Thai version but Ravan in the opera. The story is usually depicted as a stylized, masked drama in which the dying happens off stage. Somtow, who wrote the opera as a tribute to Thailand's beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej, said ministry officials, approached him a few days before the show's opening.

"It seems to involve nationalism -- I'm not sure what it is. This opera was not designed to be political in any way," he said.

Thailand has often used artistic propaganda to shore up political leaders, but most thought those days had passed. Somtow, 53, educated at Eton and Cambridge before returning to Thailand in the 1970s, said: "It was like this in the Seventies. That's why I left, but this time I'm too old and I'm just not going to go."

He insists he refused to be censored.

"Not a note or word was cut, but the ministry would hardly know that. They were willing to shut us down, based entirely on scenes that were rumored to be in it. This is not about the death of Thotsakan. The issue is that the Culture Ministry should have nothing to do with regulating the arts at all," he said.

It was former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who appointed the wife of a political crony as Thailand's first minister of culture. Until now the ministry's most controversial move was to pick 18 Thai pop songs from the past 20 years -- including such classics as Big and Flabby Buttocks and Let's Grill the Cat -- and ban them as "offensive to public decency."

But with the country grappling to find a workable and -- if not democratic -- liberal model, censorship raises questions about fundamental freedoms. Former senator Kraisak Choonhavan sees the ministry's action as part of the "poverty of state policy of art and culture."

"The final scene was adjusted. The matter has ended rather well," said Prisana Phongthatsirikul, secretary general of the National Culture Commission. It is more questionable whether the military-appointed government will be so pleased.

Two months after the coup, no charges have been laid against Thaksin, there are no signs of martial law lifting and the leaders are edgy about international opinion and nervous on the domestic front. The army has just shuffled 136 battalion commanders, suggesting doubts about loyalties, while talk of Thaksin's return has become less fanciful. Thaksin's spokesman says he will come back "when the time is right."

Few are speculating on what the government's response would be if that were to happen, but superstitious Thais would be sure to wonder whether, even if Thotsakan did not die on Somtow's stage, the Culture Ministry was not right.

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