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Red paint, silent stands: How Thai artists are challenging the status quo

Performance artists and musicians perform together during a 31 October 2023 rally in Chiang Mai. The rally called for the immediate release of political prisoners. Photo: Peerapon Boonyakiat/HaRDstories

When Ramil painted himself red and danced in front of a crowd, he never imagined it would land him in court. But in Thailand, where defamation laws are notoriously strict, even a wordless performance can be seen as a criminal act.

 

Ramil’s troubles began on a day in May 2021, when a group of demonstrators were gathering in front of Chiang Mai University. It was the height of the “Stand to Stop Imprisonment,” a nationwide campaign that saw silent “stand-ins” at various landmarks to demand the release of political activists jailed for their calls to reform the monarchy. 

Ramil, who was studying at the university at the time, joined the protest on that day – not as one of the demonstrators, but a human piece of art. He painted himself in red colour, climbed onto the campus’ elaborate signage, and started performing a traditional dance. It was a performance art in action, and it was entirely up for the onlookers to decide what messages Ramil was trying to convey. 

Days later, he was informed that police were charging him under royal defamation, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Although Ramil did not utter a word or hold up any signs during his performance, the police said he showed an intent to insult the monarchy by pointing his foot toward a large portrait of His Majesty the King in the vicinity. Ramil and his art were going to trial. 

“Once it became a criminal case, the authorities tried very hard to say that my action wasn’t art, but an insult to the monarchy,” Ramil, whose real name is Siwanchali Withayaseriwat, said in an interview with HaRDstories. “They were trying to frame my performance as a crime, not art.” 

Performance art as an instrument for expressing dissent has been a colourful feature of Thailand’s street protests in recent years, especially after the movement seeking monarchy reforms surfaced in 2020. Ramil and other like-minded performers maintain they were not activists, but artists who use their bodies as canvasses that have to be filled up by the beholders. 

While activists exhort the crowd for a cause, Ramil and others interviewed said, performance artists like themselves aim to inspire the audience to question their political atmosphere and come up with their own conclusion. 

“My life, my identity, and what other people term ‘performance art’ are fused together,” Ramil said. “When I go out there for a performance, that’s my life. 

A journey full of questions

Ramil was raised in a Muslim family in Narathiwat, one of the border provinces known collectively as the Deep South. His childhood memory was, in his own telling, growing up in a shanty town, and grappling with the gnawing doubts about his faith. His incessant questioning eventually led him to atheism, a transition that he described as a major turning point in his life. 

As a teenager, Ramil also started to question the cause that brought about the cycles of violence in the Deep South, where separatists aim to carve out an independent nation. The conflict, driven by both ethnic and religious grievances, has claimed at least 7,300 lives since 2004. 

Bombings, arson attacks and assassinations by the militants are countered by heavy handed response from the officials, who increasingly relied on a set of “special laws” to conduct sweeping arrests, raids, and prolonged detention, often without due process. The resulting climate of terror, Ramil recalled, further ignited his interest in the topics of liberty and civil rights. 

After completing high school, Ramil chose to go north in 2016, enrolling in Chiang Mai University’s philosophy department just two years after the military staged a coup. Life as a philosophy student among the community of local activists who opposed the junta’s rule was the final step that fully immersed him in politics.

“I became an activist and helped organise protests. They were just small protests,” Ramil said. “There were only several hundred people at those protests, but it was pretty cute.”

Those small gatherings would later give way to mass protests in 2020, when university and school students across Thailand took to the streets to vent their anger at the dissolution of a popular progressive party. While the movement initially sought the ousting of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, it soon escalated its goals to call for drastic reforms in the royal institution and the abolition of the draconian lèse-majesté law. 

Ramil was an active participant in the movement, having joined the protests and organised some with his friends. But many of his fellow activists had since graduated from college and taken up full-time jobs, forcing Ramil to look for an alternative way of expressing dissent without the resources and manpower commitment required for a protest. 

He found the answer in performance art. 

“I realised that I still have myself,” Ramil explained. “I can put my body to work. Performance art can be used to tell a lot of stories. That’s why I adopted it.” 

Provoking the mind

As 2020 drew to a close, more young people were speaking their minds openly about the monarchy and the lèse-majesté law. Capturing the zeitgeist, Ramil conducted a series of performance art around the issue by painting himself in white and leaving red graffiti bearing the number 112 around the university campus. 

The number is a reference to Article 112 of the Criminal Code, in which the lèse-majesté offence is enshrined. Although he didn’t cross out the number or write any message in favour of or opposition to the law, university staff frantically chased after the graffiti and scrubbed them clean whenever they were found, Ramil recalled.

“The key part of the performance wasn’t the act of writing 112, but what happened after,” he said. “For me, seeing my art being erased, that was the hallmark of performance art. If they are so proud of the law, why erase the reference to it?”

That spark of creativity landed Ramil in a student disciplinary hearing, but the deterrence didn’t work. He went on to perform many other stunts, including a poetry reading session at different landmarks in Chiang Mai for a whole month. Ramil also performed at protest sites, and he soon became a familiar sight for the crowds, who may or may not have understood his art. 

“I discovered that many people who stood and watched me were Red Shirt aunties who had been through the political battlefields before,” he said, referring to the Red Shirt movement that formed in the aftermath of the 2006 military coup. “I remember one of them telling me that she didn’t understand what I was doing, but she understood that it was an act of political movement, and that was enough reason to support me.”

With the dissidents more emboldened than ever to challenge the monarchy’s status quo, the authorities launched criminal investigations into the leaders of the pro-reform movement en masse. Dozens were charged with lèse-majesté, including some who were subsequently denied bail, sparking yet another wave of outrage that led to the “Stand to Stop Imprisonment” stand-ins in 2021. 

One particular case moved Ramil in a tremendous way. When monarchy reform activist Parit Chiwarak was sent to prison, his outraged mother shaved her head in front of the media cameras in a symbolic act of submission to the authorities and pleaded for her son’s freedom. The sight left Ramil shaken and drove him to perform the interpretive dance at the protest in May 2021, which led to his charge of lèse-majesté. 

“I was asking myself, has it come to the point where a mother had to do this?” Ramil said. “It reminds me of a documentary I watched about the Tiananmen Protests. The only people left fighting for justice are the mothers whose children remain missing.”

Art on trial 

The experience of having to defend his style of art during the trial that resulted from his performance is a performance art in itself, Ramil mused. He said the authorities seemed convinced that Ramil’s action should not be considered art, due to their perception that art is separate from politics. 

“The state has its own language about art. The way the state talks about art and what I do with my art are totally different languages,” Ramil said. “The state does not understand this kind of art, and the state does not know how to control it either.”

The key part of the trial was to establish whether the brief moment when Ramil pointed his foot towards the king’s portrait would count as royal insult, and whether his dance moves could be construed as a mockery of the monarchy’s revered status. 

Since neither of the accused wrongdoings involved any words nor opinion expressed through verbal or written means, the court had to attempt to interpret the meaning of the performance and identify Ramil’s intent. 

According to a record of the trial, an expert in traditional Thai dance from a state university was brought in as a prosecutor witness to testify that Ramil’s dance appeared to be an imitation of a garuda, a symbol of the Thai monarchy, an action deemed inappropriate by the witness.

The witness also told the court that Ramil pointing his foot towards the king’s picture is an unacceptable conduct in the field of Thai arts. 

Another witness, an official from the provincial culture department, testified that Ramil’s performance ran contrary to the very definition of culture, which he described as a consensus of what society perceives to be “good.” And since the monarchy is collectively perceived as good by Thai society, the witness went on, Ramil had committed an affront to Thai culture by behaving inappropriately in front of the king’s portrait. 

For his part, Ramil maintained that he did not bear any intent to insult the monarchy. The main thrusts of his criticism through art, Ramil told the court, were the university’s perceived prejudice against the student protest movement and the imprisonment of political activists at the time. 

When the verdict was handed down a year later, the court acquitted Ramil on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Parts of the verdict said Ramil did not identify any individual throughout his performance, which appeared to be centred on calling for the right to bail, and nothing to do with insulting the monarchy.

However, the prosecution appealed the verdict, and Ramil’s trial continued at the time of writing. 

‘Every 5th of Every Month’ 

When discussing the inspiration behind his adoption of performance art, Ramil attributed part of his influence to the freedom and vibrant atmosphere in the city of Chiang Mai, where newer generations of artists are making their voices heard.

“I have to give all the credit to Chiang Mai. I don’t think I’d be able to do what I do if I hadn’t been forged by Chiang Mai,” Ramil said. “The people who have continuously supported me are also the people of Chiang Mai.” 

Apart from Ramil, other performance artists who are active on the political scene in Chiang Mai include two women, Nuntana Wongtawee and Thiraporn Puttasee.

“Performance art is the quickest form of art, because we only have to use our bodies and some other small things,” Nuntana explained, expressing her love for the art form.

After Thai political exile Wanchalearm Satsaksit was reported abducted in Cambodia on 4 June 2020, Nuntana launched a series of performance art stunts around Chiang Mai called “Every 5th of Every Month” to keep the public’s attention on the fate of missing activist, who is now presumed dead by many of his peers. 

Although Nuntana had never met Wanchalearm in person, she kept up her monthly performances for a whole year, in the hope that his fate would not be forgotten. There’s also a personal touch: 4 of June coincides with her own birthday. 

In the interview, Nuntana described herself as someone who doesn’t feel comfortable in the spotlight; during the many protests and demonstrations she had attended, Nuntana said, she always made sure she stood at the far corner of the gatherings, away from the action. But her newfound passion in using performance art as an instrument for awareness about human rights finally pushed her to the front of the stage.

She said her background as a graduate in Chiang Mai University’s fine arts department might also have influenced  her choice of expressions. 

“I’m just a nobody, but changes have to start from nobodies, you know. It has to start with someone speaking out, and hopefully, other people will hear us,” Nuntana said. “It’s not a weapon that we can observe the impact immediately. It takes time. Even in Chiang Mai, two or three years ago, people were confused about what I did, too. But nowadays, people on average know what’s going on.”

Nuntana also said she never expected widespread attention or a big audience for her stunts. 

“I like performance art for its simplicity. It’s not like a drama where you have to find a climax for its ending. We don’t have to expect too much from it.” 

Poetry for justice

Another performance artist based in Chiang Mai, Thiraporn, said she chose art as her means of communication about political freedom and the justice system because she lacks oratory skills like many seasoned activists possess.

“I’m not good with my public speaking, and I don’t know how to make good speeches,” Thiraporn said. “I feel like I can’t communicate well in other ways, so I decided to communicate through art. I want to use art to expand the awareness of other people … I want to attract them to interpret what kind of messages I want to send.” 

Thiraporn, who studies at Chiang Mai University’s education department, said she began expressing herself through her performance art shortly after she entered university. She started with agendas that many students are familiar with, such as criticism of hazing culture, gender-based violence, and the 2021 coup in Myanmar. 

Her topics later touched on the outrage and despair over what many human rights observers describe as the excessive use of the lèse-majesté law. In February, during a protest in front of Chiang Mai University that called for amnesty for political prisoners, Thiraporn staged a performance skit that told the stories of Anchan, a woman in her 60s who was sentenced to a staggering 43-year jail term for lèse-majesté. 

In her skit, Thiraporn played the role of Anchan who pleaded to the court in poetry calling for justice and mercy, before listing off the names of individuals currently imprisoned on lèse-majesté and other charges related to freedom of expression.

“What I did is also part of the freedom of expression,” Thiraporn said. “It depends on the audience to interpret and think for themselves, based on their own past experiences. I believe that art is something that no one can control.”

 

Weapon for change 

A look at the history of pro-democracy protests in Thailand suggests that performance art has always occupied a niche in the movements, such as the stunts by NGO-turned-activist Sombat Boonngam-anong in the aftermath of the deadly crackdown on Red Shirt protests in 2010. 

But the art seems to have acquired a new salience amid the heightened repression of speeches and written words authorities identified as running afoul of the lèse-majesté law in recent years. After all, unlike the conventional forms of protests, performance art very rarely involves talking or writing, which speaks volumes about the situation in its own way. 

Thasnai Sethaseree, a lecturer in media arts and design at Chiang Mai University, said the history of art itself is full of individuals using art to provoke and challenge the status quo. He rejected the notion that art and politics are unrelated to each other. 

“Art has always served its purpose in criticising and questioning traditions, customs, and even art itself,” Thasnai said in an interview. “Art in itself has a political dimension, whether the politics is overt or not.”

Due to its simplicity and easy access, Thasnai explained, performance art has been a favourite means of expression for many grassroots and progressive movements since the 1980s, including feminism, equality and, most recently, environmental justice. 

“[Performance art] does not aim to introduce abrupt changes or the immediate destruction of repressive regimes, but it’s a process that seeks to expose what those in power attempt to hide from the public,” the lecturer said. 

Art for whom? 

Thiraporn herself said she was partly inspired by news about activists in other countries using performance arts in their stunts to draw attention to different agendas, like the throwing of paint on well-known paintings in galleries and museums to get the public’s attention on the climate crisis. 

She also wants to challenge what she sees as the state’s one-sided approval of arts patronised by the elite, while neglecting to recognise arts that speak for the common people.

“We’ve all seen it in school. Arts like traditional Thai designs and the architecture of palaces and temples are regarded as something sacred,” Thiraporn said. “But we never see arts that serve the people and reflect their suffering at all.”

With this narrow worldview adopted by the authorities, Thasnai, the lecturer, said there remains a challenge for performance artists or other individuals who use art to voice for political causes in Thailand, since they may end up facing legal consequences from officials who see those actions as a crime, rather than artistic expressions. He cited Ramil’s trial as a poignant example. 

Ultimately, artists aren’t safe in their bubble, the lecturer said, pointing to the aftermath of the 2006 coup, when the authorities began to surveil and put pressure on art practitioners who try to infuse politics into their work. 

“Back then, we had cases of plainclothes police officers patrolling art galleries and officials ordering some films or documentaries to be censored,” Thasnai said. “Even though the officials didn’t always necessarily understand the content of those arts, they felt that art had a power in expressing messages in a way that other forms of communication don’t.” 

He added, “That’s why the authorities would always try to keep their eyes on people who work in art, and try to control how art is expressed.” 

 

Edited and translated from Thai by Teeranai Charuvastra

Wanna Tamthong she is a journalist for the news outlet Prachatai in Thailand. She enjoys working with narratives and feels inspired by literature. She hopes for a world without war.

Peerapon Boonyakiat is a freelance photojournalist based in Bangkok and working for Hong Kong-based SOPA Images. He is interested in political stories involving conflict between the people and the government. 

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