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Expression in two colours

Thai artists are politically divided into red and yellow camps. Photo by The Nation

Publication Date : 07-02-2013


Thailand's artists are split along red and yellow political lines. Is their room for reconciliation?


The days of artists working for a common cause, say opposing the construction of a dam to save forests and the livelihoods of villagers are long gone.

Today, artists are politically divided into red and yellow camps. These are those that are pro-monarchy and those critical of the monarchy, the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra and anti-Thaksin groups, and the pro military-intervention and anti-coup believers.

"Sentiments run deep," says the well-known and often controversial artist Vasan Sittikhet, who famously painted and lauded the soldiers who staged the military coup on September 19, 2006 that ousted Thaksin.

Vasan says while there's no solidarity amongst yellow camp artists in speaking of the injuries suffered by pro-People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) artists, the demonstrations of the past have led him to question if politics are worth dying for.

"After the 2006 coup, the old establishment which returned to power didn't understand the problem. Some protesters died but the structure of power hasn't changed," he say "So how can we restructure the system?"

Vasan defends the role of artists in politics, however. "Mixing arts and politics is normal. I began by supporting the PAD because I oppose Thaksin, though I disagreed when they called for a royally selected prime minister."

Vasan is on speaking terms with fellow artist and well-known red-shirt writer Wat Wallayankul though he acknowledges that this is an exception to the current situation where mutual animosity and distrust rule.

Wat also doesn't see any problem in artists being involved with politics. And while he deplores the recent censorship of Channel 3's soap "Nua Mek" as well as the total ban of local big-screen release Shakespeare Must Die, both deemed as critical or making negative references to Thaksin, Wat says artists must do more to learn about politics and democracy and not merely use emotions to express themselves.

"It's foolish to censor these things. People should be able to watch and decide things by themselves. They have the right to criticise and we have the right to criticise too," said Wat. "But artists must educate themselves more about politics instead of merely expressing themselves emotionally through art, whatever the medium, with little or no knowledge. If the artistic expression is too over the top, then nobody will believe them.

"Artists must be knowledgeable about what they express or they risk becoming a laughing stock," he continues but adds that those who are blindly committed to a certain political stance will believe in the message sent by artists no matter how shallow or distorted it may be.

Wat holds out little hope of reconciliation between artists from both camps. "Those who hate Thaksin, hate him.

Those who love him, will continue to love him. It's as simple as that."

Vasan agrees. "It's a problem on both sides."

Painter and Zen artist Taweesak Ujugatanond is disturbed by the political divide, not least because he believes these artists have unwittingly become pawns in the ongoing political feud.

"Artists tend to be egotistic and think of themselves as political players. They are not aware that they're actually pawns," Taweesak says. "If we don't understand the complexity of the political game, if we do not understand the strategy, we will become pawns. Nearly 100 per cent of these artists are mere pawns due to their naivety. But then, artists and naivety go together."

Taweesak said before plunging into politics, artists should develop maturity.

"Artists are rather emotional. When they love, they love so much, when they hate, they really hate. Now they have become leaders. People should not blindly believe in both sides," he says.

But Taweesak too has little hope that today's politically active artists can be 'rehabilitated'.

"People will believe in what they want to believe. I see millions of people wanting to worship someone because they wanted to have someone to worship and to believe in. But you risk becoming a victim of the situation."

The Zen artist criticises both sides who claim to stand for democracy. "We see yellow shirts who call for democracy but always invite the military to interfere. We see red shirts who profess to hate the elite but then kow-tow to the Cambodian elite. Their actions don't fit what they claim to be fighting for at all. I hope artists have more maturity than that."


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