Thailand: The Soap Opera

Retention

Ubiquitously absent from televisions during the one-month period of compulsory mourning for His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej are prime-time soap operas.

Two weeks on, some are already longing for the latest episode of their favorite soaps. What’s called lakorn may be simplistic, lack character development or simply crude, but there are reasons millions of Thais are fond of them.

For tens of millions, life is a struggle. Real life is brutal, complicated and difficult enough that when people come home, they want something simple, idealized and easy to understand. They love the fantasy, the better-than-real protagonists with their good looks and beauty, Eurasian or not.

Soap operas are addictive like junk food, but like other addictions, can be detrimental to your health.

The problem is, a good number of people are so immersed in these dramas they see life and politics through the same lens as things to be oversimplified and followed passively.

Pravit RojanaphrukPolitics becomes a struggle of good vs. evil populated by the same paper-cut characters from their favorite TV dramas. The plot involves just two clearly identified sides, and if you are on the “wrong” side, you must be on the side of the villains. The Good People are good; the Bad People bad.

This gives way to strong emotion and binary extremes of love or hate for certain public figures, to an excess.

In this simplistic understanding of politics and society, things are never complicated and always clear cut. Never mind if, from time to time, it becomes so apparent things are rarely so simple.

An example is the oft-repeated insistence that “every and each Thai” loves His Majesty the Late King. I have heard this endlessly repeated on TVs during the past two week, and the people who insist on this as a truism range from educated middle class to rural and urban poor. They all say the same thing, despite the fact that on the very same outlets report about the military government’s heightened campaign to deal with those who allegedly insult the late King.

Real society is not that simple but more complex. Thais’ reactions to the death of the King range from the deep and genuine grief expressed around the Grand Palace to the extreme schadenfreude exhibited by people like Paris-based, anti-monarchist Aum Neko. Whether one agrees or disagrees, all of them are Thais, however, and doing away with big words and gross generalizations would go a long way in restoring reality and sanity.

Seeing things in black-and-white terms doesn’t prepare people handle a complex and pluralistic society.

So while the military government wants those who allegedly insulted the late King extradited from seven countries, the regime’s police chief said Wednesday he would personally pay for one-way plane tickets out of the country for Thais who want to insult the King.

Soap-operatic readings of society also means many think things will be okay as long as they have good leaders in power, and it doesn’t matter if they came to power through illegal means, such as a military coups, and won’t tolerate checks and balances or legal accountability.

Soap operas may be entertaining, but viewing society in their dimensions can only bring about more dramatic disappointment.