Last month’s decision by the Culture Ministry to strip national artist Suchart Sawasdsri from the title for “dishonorable” behaviour by supporting the anti-government and monarchy-reform movement sent a shockwave through the Thai intellectual community and beyond.
Suchart, 76, was given the award for literature a decade ago in 2011 for his role as a leading literary figure and magazine editor. The 2014 coup and subsequent rule by Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha saw the writer becoming increasingly agitated, particularly on his personal Facebook account as he attacked the powers-that-be and openly supported the year-old youth-led monarchy reform movement.
The axe eventually fell soon after rumours spread that one national artist would be stripped of the award, which comes with a lifetime monthly stipend of nearly 25,000 baht. It led many to question the merit of the award itself.
The vast majority of the national artists named annually by the Thai state are ardent political conservatives and royalists. Suchart played an instrumental role through his writings and as a young magazine editor during the months leading up to the historic Oct. 14, 1973 revolt that overthrew military dictatorship. His removal from the list sent a clear message to other artists – toe the line, be conservative, do not question the status quo, especially the monarchy, and you will be fine.
That decision by the Culture Ministry not only demonstrates the lack of tolerance towards people of differing political ideologies but ended up degrading the prize itself.
It reminds the public that this is no true national artist award but a Thai state’s reward for sycophants of the conservative elites. It reminds the public that the award doesn’t truly reflect the diversity of views and ideologies of its laureates thus making it less than a “national award.”
A true national artist award should reflect the diversity of views that includes those who support monarchy-reform and the abolishment of the draconian lese-majeste law as well as royalists and ultra-royalists. Alas, the message this decision sent is that you must be a royalist, real or pretending, in order to be able to keep the award.
What’s more, the decision reminds the public that the state, through tax-payers-funded carrots such as the award, unabashedly favours conservative artists that do not question the government and the status quo. Since Suchart kept questioning and attacking the powers that be, the carrots have been withdrawn.
Unrepented, Suchart continues to attack the regime of Gen. Prayut and posted on Thursday on his Facebook page that he’s still awaiting the formal letter of the ministry to arrive at his home in order to see how they would justify describing him as someone who “behaves dishonourably”. On Monday, Suchart wrote on his Facebook page that once political change is achieved in Thailand, the Culture Ministry needs to be revamped and improved into a “Grade-A Ministry” with a vision and not a ministry which engages in “culture freezing.”
Since the decision became news, Suchart earned a new generation of young readers and supporters who might not have been aware of him as he’s from a different era better known in the printed world than cyberspace. His Facebook page gained many thousands of new followers within days. This is not just a serendipitous moment for Suchart but a wake-up call to the powers-that-be that they are increasingly losing grip of the grand narrative of the state of Thai society and any attempted monopoly is futile.
Suchart now has over 43,000 followers on Facebook. He’s now known among young activists many of whom may not have even heard about Suchart’s glorious days three decades ago as editor of critical magazines and short story anthologies.
As a long-time Facebook friend of the writer laureate, I noticed that the incident has made him even more energized. Instead of retiring and becoming lethargic due to the incident, at 76, the septuagenarian writer appeared to have found a new resolve to push against political and ideological sedation. Suchart may have yet to see his best days in influencing young Thais to push for change. This may be his second chance, a reincarnation of the literary doyen as an influential voice for political change for a new generation, thanks to the Culture Ministry.