Social Media Opens New Fronts in Thailand’s Culture Wars

Irish-born Thai net idol Jessie Vard in an image posted on Facebook, at left, and Miss World Pageant Host Megan Young at right.

BANGKOK — When the Miss World Pageant 2016 was broadcast in Thailand last month, millions saw Filipino-American host Megan Young’s cleavage blurred by Thai censors every time she appeared on camera.

Irish-born, Thai-raised net idol Jessie Vard, who commands more than 1.4 million Facebook followers, was shamed online for not acting like a proper Thai woman for her sexually charged photos. She vowed to dial it down then apologized for a Christmas Eve event where lecherous men plastered her chest with stickers at a party.

“I must apologize for the photos and the clip that came out,” Vard wrote on Facebook. “… Jess will no longer accept such work again but bikini-shooting jobs are still a go.”

Miss World hosts Megan Young, at left, and Frankie Cena.
Miss World hosts Megan Young, at left, and Frankie Cena.

Then there’s the controversial junta-sponsored rewriting of the Computer Crime Act that grants power to the state to censor anything online deemed against “good morals” that will soon come into effect.

Coupled with early closing times, crackdowns on hookahs and e-cigarettes, sidewalks sanitized of street vendors, desexualized motorshows, booze bans and feigned surprise at its pervasive commercial sex industry, one might ask if Thailand is experiencing a new wave of moral and cultural policing by the military regime, aided by netizens and the private sector.

Cultural critics differ on whether the situation is aggravating but agree Thailand remains culturally conservative.

Read: On Booze and Buddhism, Culture Warriors Grasp for a Past That’s Passed

Suraphot Thaweesak, a religion and cultural critic at a public university he asked not be named due to political sensitivities, said moral and cultural controls have been imposed by Siamese elites for a long time. He traced it back to the modernization of Siam during the reign of King Rama V, who reigned from 1868 to 1910. Suraphot said secular morality, which includes love of freedom and equality, has yet to take root in Thailand. Instead, morality has been incorporated into the nationalist and royalist ethos. Liberal democracy has meanwhile been perceived as a threat to the traditional elites and the only moral authority most Thais are acquainted with is religious.

“The elites do not permit us to question fundamental problems,” said Suraphot, adding that the Thai middle class is a product on autocratic conservative ideologies inculcated through religious and school teachings. “It’s worrying.”

Asked to discuss the issue from the government’s perspective, the Culture Ministry’s Culture Surveillance Bureau declined requests for an interview about the growing role of netizens and private sector in moral and cultural policing.

The office said its director, Yupa Taweewattanakitboworn, was indisposed due to the hectic schedule of the ongoing funeral for His Majesty King Bhumibol.

An official at the bureau who asked not to be named added that the bureau has two to three staff members who constantly monitor the appropriateness of what is on the internet and in other media, then inform the Digital Ministry and other related agencies to do something it if they see something inappropriate.

Again, the target seems fixed on targeting female sexuality.

“We also inspect events such as Motor Shows to see if their pretties [promotional models] are properly dressed or not,” said the female official, in reference to the ongoing debate over how much sexuality or flesh such presenters, typically young and beautiful, should display.

Social Media the New Morality Police?

Instead of just waiting for the state to nanny us, the role of moral and cultural policing has trickled down to netizens as seen in the case of Jessie Vard and others.

Photo: Jessie Vard / Facebook
Photo: Jessie Vard / Facebook

Chulalongkorn University Professor of philosophy Soraj Hongladarom thinks the growth of social media has “amplified” moral and cultural policing activities and led to policing by the masses.

“Social media act as an amplifier in a sense that people can post whatever they think [is acceptable or not] and it can set a trend.”

Soraj and Suraphot were quick to note that social media also enable people on opposing camps to debate the merits of morality and what’s culturally acceptable. As often as moral scolding breaks out online, backlashes rise to meet them, be it by netizens or the state.

“People just laugh at them,” said the professor.

For Soraj, the existence of social media means people are able to debate, and it’s no longer possible for conservatives to drag Thailand back to bygone era of, say, five decades ago. Soraj attributed moral and cultural policing by netizens to nostalgia for the notion of a good old days when they believe things were simpler.

At top, a promotional model known as a 'pretty' from a March 2016 auto show. At bottom, newly covered 'pretties' shifted into modesty for a December 2016 show.
At top, a promotional model known as a ‘pretty’ from a March 2016 auto show. At bottom, newly covered ‘pretties’ shifted into modesty for a December 2016 show.

“Society has become complex and there’s social media,” Soraj said. “Except issues like the monarchy or anything bordering on defaming the monarchy, Thailand is rather free compared to China or Singapore. If there’s too much coercive pressure, people won’t accept it.”

Soraj gave an example of netizens normalizing exposure of their bodies on social media. This, said Soraj, exemplifies the clash between conformity and individuality.

Back to Vard, despite harsh criticism against her, there were also those who defended her on Facebook.

“Why should you apologize?” asked Facebook user Arinchai Aob Viteetammaasakdi, following the Christmas Day posting by Vard. “It’s our body, and what we do with it is our business. I don’t want you to apologize because every time someone apologizes, it’s no different from branding this as a wrong choice. It will affect others who make the same choices.”

Those upset with Vard’s behavior continued to criticize her, however, and the online debate continues. Facebook user Monthakan Ratchaleam said those men defending the net idol by saying it’s her job should ask themselves if they would allow their wife to do the same, saying her behavior is disgraceful.

Not all think social media intrinsically advances a progressive ideology, however.

Feminist and well-known TV host Lakkana Panwichai, aka Kam Phaka, said social media tends to end up a platform for witch-hunting and ghettoization of like-minded people. “It’s more of a tool to discredit people and to witch hunt. Liberals tend to care about manners while conservatives don’t.”

No Change Detected

Lakkana believes things have remained the same and Thai society, be it under elected government or military regime, remains conservative and autocratic.

“It’s just that under the NCPO (junta), liberals can’t really criticize [those in power], so they feel it’s now unbearable,” she said.

Lakkana argued that it’s not the lack of free expression that emboldening cultural conservatives, but the fact that many Thais support such conservatism to begin with. She cited the example of TV stations like Channel 3 exercising greater self-censorship to cover up women they perceive as improperly dressed.

She acknowledged however that the social and political climate under dictatorship leads to greater self-censorship when it comes to what is and what is not considered appropriate.

“Under a normal regime, we know the limits of the law. Now, everyone must be more careful than usual and there’s the tendency to play it safe,” she said. “It’s unpredictable.”

Related stories:

Why Thailand Should Worry About an Improved(?) Computer Crime Act
Here’s What a Motor Show Looks Like Without Sexy Pretties (Photos)
Did These Motor Show Pretties Hew to ‘Thainess?’
Govt Wants Less Sex, More ‘Thainess’ for Motor Show Pretties
Siam, Silom, Sukhumvit Street Markets Shut Down
Beam, Climax Night Clubs Raided by Soldiers
Underage Girls, Police ‘Bribe Ledger’ Discovered in Raid on Ratchada Flesh Parlor
Bangkok Man Opens Microbrewery in Home. Goes Straight to Jail.
Regulator Shuts Down Booze Buffet; Threatens to Prosecute People Sharing Alcohol Pics
Why Thailand Should Worry About an Improved(?) Computer Crime Act