Thailand and Laos: Face-Off Over a Film

Its script is not yet complete and not a single scene has been shot, but a proposed film about the woman believed to have staved off a Lao invasion of Thailand centuries ago is reviving old suspicions between the neighboring countries.

This week, there was talk of plans by an irked Lao government to boycott Thai goods if the planned movie project continues—reports that Lao officials denied. On July 19, the row reached the Thai Senate, where the film’s director, Pisarn Akraseranee, called anger over the movie, Thao Suranaree, an “overreaction.”

“We will surely pay back if the film affects us, but I cannot say how now,” Hiem Phommachanh, Laos’ ambassador to Thailand, was quoted as saying. “I do not see the need to bring up the Thao Suranaree story,” said Khammy Bouasengthong, first secretary at the Lao Embassy. “Thailand and Laos are closely related through blood, tradition, and language. We wish our ties to be good.”

The film project, the latest in a spate of Thai historical movies about foreign aggression, tells the story of Thao Suranaree, wife of the deputy governor of Korat (today, Nakhon Ratchasima province), who Thai historical chronicles say led local people in defending Siam from a Lao invasion in 1827. It is said that Thao Suranaree tricked Lao invaders into drinking large amounts of alcohol before launching an ambush.

She was the first commoner in Thai history to be honored with a national monument, which was built in 1934 in the square of the province’s capital, Nakhon Ratchasima, about 160 miles northeast of Bangkok. Every year from March 23 to April 3, thousands of people flock to the monument to honor Thao Suranaree, who is seen as a guardian spirit.

But this story riles Laotians, because they revere King Anuwong, her opponent, as one of their greatest leaders, who tried to liberate Laos from subordination to Siam (Thailand). Some academics say Thailand should show an understanding of Laos’ sensitivity in the same way it is sensitive to issues relating to respect for the monarchy. “Every war has a justified cause, but the history between Thailand and its neighbors has many aspects young generations should avoid,” Dhawat Boonnotoke, a visiting lecturer on the Thai language at Burabha University, was quoted as saying. “A war-related story like that of Thao Suranaree should not be thrown into the world of entertainment at a time when Thailand needs to make peace with its neighbors.”

Indeed, the film project also came up during the June visit of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to Laos. There, Lao officials urged the Thai government to stop plans for the movie in order to avoid damaging bilateral ties. “The government cannot dictate to stop making the film,” Thaksin responded. “We are a democratic country, though we would try our best not to cause dissatisfaction with our neighbors.”

Thailand’s ties with Laos have had many ups and downs through the years. The Lao ambassador recalled that the two neighbors had a conflict a decade ago at their common border, Ban Rom Klao, which Thailand lost. But recent years have seen cooperative moves. In April 1994, the Friendship Bridge, spanning the Mekong River near the Lao capital, Vientiane, linked the nation to Thailand for the first time. Plans for a second “friendship bridge” were discussed during Thaksin’s visit, along with cooperation on drug prevention, trade, and electricity generation. Construction of this bridge is expected to start next year and to be completed in three years.

Laos and Thailand have deep economic ties, but bilateral tensions exist on issues like Laos’ wariness about anti-government rebels who seek refuge in Thailand. During a National Security Council meeting yesterday, Laos and Thailand agreed on ways to prevent members of anti-Vientiane movements from staging sabotage activities from Thailand.
Even in Thailand itself, the story of Thao Suranaree has been the subject of debate. Saipin Kaewngamprasert, in her master’s thesis on the “Politics of the Thao Suranaree Monument” for Thammasat University, asserts that the story of Thao Suranaree’s exploits had a lot to do with meeting political and societal needs.

“Siam in 1932 was passing from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy. A modern face showing women’s rights and people-power then was very much needed,” said Saipin. Saipin added that not long before the erection of the monument to Thao Suranaree, Nakhon Ratchasima was suspected of being the base of a revolt against Bangkok. “Thao Suranaree therefore perfectly served as an ideal symbol to show the locals’ loyalty to the Thai nation,” she wrote.

This is not the only Thai historical film that has touched on relations with its neighbors, focusing on the themes of patriotism and nationalism. The film Bang Rajan, shown earlier in the year, portrayed the struggle of Thai villagers who fought against Burmese invaders centuries ago. Another historical film about Thai-Burmese hostility, Suriyothai, will be released on Aug. 12.

But Thao Suranaree’s director Pisarn told the Senate committee that “the film has nothing to do with politics....I think they (Laotians) have misunderstood my objective in making this film,” he argued. Meantime, the production house Saha Mongkhol Film will continue working on Thao Suranaree. Shooting is expected to start in August, and the film is scheduled for release early next year. “We have excellent role models in our long history that today’s people can look up to for inspiration. Why should we be afraid of telling the truth as it is?” Pisarn asked.