During the COVID-19 pandemic, streaming businesses and online platforms enjoyed explosive growth, especially for the entertainment industry. In Thailand, however, one particular traditional music business — molam — plunged into dire circumstances. Yet to be afforded legitimacy, molam artists receive little to no support from the government. Today, they hang onto a dimming hope that they will return to the stage as their art form gradually dies.
This week, Patiwat Saraiyaem was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for lèse majesté because of his role in the play, “The Wolf Bride.” Patiwat is the most recent student to have been imprisoned under the law, and has been an advocate for Isaan peoples’ rights and democracy for years.
On Monday, the criminal court sentenced Khon Kaen University student Patiwat Saraiyaem and activist Pornthip Munkong to five years in jail for their involvement in a satirical play that was deemed “damaging to the monarchy.” The court reduced the sentence by half for their admission of guilt.
Since last year’s military coup, the number of lese majeste prisoners may have reached a historic high, according to iLaw, a Bangkok-based human rights advocacy group. Mr. Patiwat is the first student known to be convicted since the 1980s.
Mr. Patiwat was arrested last August for acting in the play, “The Wolf Bride,” that was performed at Thammasat University in October 2013. The play was set in a fictional kingdom in which Mr. Patiwat starred as the Brahmin advisor to the king. The production was part of a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of 1973 student protests.
Mr. Patiwat, who goes by “Bank,” is a twenty-three-year old student at Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts. His peers and teachers describe him as a devoted advocate of democracy, a talented performer, a one-of-a-kind character with a wild wit.
Bank grew up in Sakon Nakhon, in a village not far from the Phu Phan mountain range, an area that once served as the central base of Thailand’s Communist Party during the sixties and seventies. His uncle joined the communist movement when he was young, and it was his political views that sparked Bank’s early interest in social welfare.
“I learned from my family and my community about the people’s movement in Isaan and their struggle for citizens’ rights,” Bank said in an interview with The Isaan Record in May 2014.
Bank moved to Khon Kaen in 2010 to enroll in Khon Kaen University’s Folk Music and Performance Program — a decision he made against his family’s wishes. He wanted nothing more than to be a performer of mo lam, an eclectic style of folk music native to Laos and Northeastern Thailand.
During university holidays, he would not go home like other students, but stayed on campus instead. In his village, people ridiculed him for wanting to become a mo lam performer, to them a sure path into poverty.
“He has great passion and talent,” said his mo lam teacher, who asked not be named. “From the day I met him, I had a feeling that his ancestors might have been mo lam artists,” she said, as she played recordings of Bank’s songs.
Bank quickly made his mark at Khon Kaen University as both the class star and class clown. He threw all his energy into perfecting his stage skills and mastering various Isaan instruments, including the khaen, a mouth reed organ that usually accompanies mo lam performances. However, according to his teacher, his real forte is singing and songwriting. Like most mo lam songs, Bank’s lyrics revolve around stories of romance and unrequited love, but also political issues—especially the rights of the people of Isaan—all flavored with a wry sense of humor.
On stage, Bank calls himself, “bak nuat ngoen lan,” which roughly translates to ‘The Million-Baht Mustache Man,” an ironic reference to his well-groomed facial hair and a career choice that is unlikely to fill his pockets.
Bank showed pride in his Isaan roots, despite widespread prejudice experienced by people from the Northeast. While his peers salivated over denim, he opted out of the mandatory student uniform for traditional Northeastern garb, insisting on a new faculty uniform.
The hardship of the people in the Northeast motivated Bank to become a social activist. “Isaan has been historically suppressed and exploited by the powers of the central region,” Bank said last May, in a thick Isaan accent.
But the crackdown on red shirt protesters in Bangkok in May 2010 fully cemented his commitment to fight for social justice and democracy.
“The violence in Bangkok really got to him. He couldn’t bear that so many people were killed only because they asked for democracy,” said a fellow activist, who asked not to be identified. The killings of the protesters, many of them from the Northeast, drove Bank to engage more with national activist groups and he began skipping class to perform at red shirt protests around the country.
This didn’t keep him from working with the student activist community at Khon Kaen University. He was elected as the secretary general of the Student Federation of the Northeast in 2010, and; he was a member of the Student Council in 2011 and a committee member of the Student Union in 2013.
In September 2010, the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security gave Bank the National Outstanding Youth Award. It was Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn who personally handed the award to Bank.
Any minute Bank could spare he devoted to the small student activist group Sum Kieow Dao, or Harvesting the Stars, one of the few politically engaged student clubs at the university. The group worked with progressive NGOs in the Northeast and garnered student support for pressing social and political issues, work that Bank found shamefully absent from the university curriculum.
“Students nowadays don’t care for politics and they don’t think for themselves — they just eat, sleep and shit — excuse my language,” Bank exclaimed, exploding into laughter. He added that he believes that universities should teach students how to be critical thinkers in order to help build a democratic society. For Bank, students across the country have been misled by an education system that stifles any critical voice that going against the status quo.
In early 2011, after the controversial arrest of Amphon “Akong” Tangnoppakul for defaming the monarchy, Sum Kieow Dao organized a protest campaign against Thailand’s lese majeste law, or article 112 of the Criminal Code—the very law that has now put Bank behind bars.
According to a friend, Bank understood that his involvement with the play could land him into trouble, but he didn’t expect that anyone would interpret the performance as defaming the monarchy.
Only a few months before his arrest, Bank expressed his concerns about the burgeoning number of lese majeste arrests. “I am afraid of the witch hunters going after red shirt activists,” Bank said, referring to the Rubbish Collection Organization, an ultra-royalist group based in Bangkok. “If you dare to think differently, you are already guilty,” he warned.
In the late morning of February 23, Bank stood to hear the judge read the verdict on his case at the Ratchada Criminal Court in Bangkok. After the judge ruled against Bank and Pornthip, a group of activist supporters chanted protest songs for the two outside the courthouse.
“Even the sky turned dark, the moon disappeared forever, the stars are still shining, and the faith will always be there” they sang, as a silver van led the two prisoners off to serve their sentences.