Having fled his own country, Thai filmmaker Neti Wichiansaen is more free to express himself is his new home. On Tuesday he held a screening of his documentary Democracy After Death at Meta House.
The filmmaker is part of a small Thai community in Phnom Penh living in exile because of the Thai junta’s harsh enforcement of the loosely worded lese majeste laws, which punishes anyone who criticises the monarchy with up to 15 years in prison.
According to Thai news website Pratchatai, Neti fled Thailand after being arrested in 2010 for comments he made on a webboard. The Department of Special Investigation said his photos and comments broke lese majeste laws, according to the report, in which Neti said he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong.
“If I went back now I would go straight to jail, even though I have no weapons. I am just a filmmaker,” he said after the film’s screening.
Democracy After Death would be used against him if he returned, he said.
The film documents a tumultuous 10-year cycle, starting in 2006, of coups and bloody conflicts between the monarchy-loyal ‘yellow shirts’ and the ‘red shirts’.
Partially filmed on the beaches of Koh Kong, the documentary uses a collage of animation and footage taken from news clips and YouTube videos, highlighting bloody protests and riots.
The documentary is framed by a man who sits on the beach, reminiscing about his late uncle, taxi driver Nuamthong Praiwan who in 2006, fed up with the endless cycle of military coups,
drove his taxi into a tank in Bangkok’s Royal Plaza in protest. While he survived, he was later found dead hanging from a bridge in what is believed to be suicide, with a note featuring the drawing of Thailand’s democracy monument and a poem about the power of the masses.
The man on the beach contemplates whether his uncle had found a better world after his death, noting that Thailand’s political turmoil has only worsened in the 10 years since.
“Many people after [the coup], realised that the monarchy is the mother mind of the coup. After that, Thai people think it’s unfair that the monarchy takes sides,” Neti said in a Q&A session following the screening.
While the documentary itself seems to paint the red shirts in a more favourable light, Neti said that along with the majority of Thais, he did not want to dismantle the monarchy completely.
He referenced European countries such as Denmark where a monarchy exists, but does not involve itself in politics. “Thai people don’t want to change monarchy to democracy, but many countries still have a monarchy also. Most Thai people don’t want to destroy the monarchy, they want it to go together with the new democracy,” he said. “The [European monarchies] never enter political affairs and stay neutral.”
The film’s narrator laments how his home has stagnated, the documentary marking the passage of time not only by who was in power, but with a sense of levity as each new iPhone was released.
Each Apple milestone seems fitting, the narrator highlighting the tech giant as a symbol of human progress, along with the fact it was with these phones that many of the atrocities that took place on the streets of Bangkok were documented.
It was this rapid advance in technology, and the government and military’s ineptitude to control it, Neti said, that led to lese majeste laws being so brutally enforced to this day.
“Thai monarchy and police, they don’t know how to use it, so they use lese majeste,” he said. “They want the people who criticise the monarchy to shut up.”
Since the May 2014 coup, more than 100 people have been arrested on lese majeste charges, many because of Facebook posts.