A furious mob, a short film, and Thailand’s historical amnesia (Interview)

A still from ‘Still on my Mind.’ Image: Jittarin Wuthiphan
A still from ‘Still on my Mind.’ Image: Jittarin Wuthiphan

Five years ago, Thailand entered a year of mourning after the loss of long-reigning monarch King Bhumbibol Adulyadej. A quietness took root and spread throughout the country. People wore dark colors, newspapers were published without color, and all websites turned black and white. Mourners sobbed in the streets.

Those tears, however, just as easily turned to rage. In one instance, one Phuket man’s online comments regarding the king’s death ignited a collective fury and unleashed a vindictive mob which gathered at his soymilk shop on the island’s Yaowarat Road. The 100-or-so people demanded the man be held accountable for insulting the monarch. 

“You’re the scum of the Earth,” read a sign carried by many, evoking a Cold War-era epithet used to fan the flames – and fuel a massacre – of young proponents of democracy. “Don’t you realize how grateful you should feel to have been born in this country?”

Photo: Jittarin Wuthipan

For an angry mob, they seemed surprisingly happy. Their shouts could be heard clearly on the street, as well as occasional laughter. Many pulled out phones and live-streamed the event, inviting others to join their quest to, in their minds, restore the former king’s damaged honor.

A few days later, everything seemed to go back to normal, as if all the people in the crowd had forgotten about that night’s events. 

Not everyone could forget so easily. In 2020, a short, three-minute film went viral. It was created by Jittarin “Thank” Wuthipan, who documented the haunting memory he carried with him of the events on Phuket that night.

Photo: Jittarin Wuthipan

His film Still on My Mind has not only circulated online: It has also sparked countless conversations about anger, protests, the monarchy, and Thai culture in general. The short film was even officially selected for the 35th Image Forum Festival, organized in Tokyo earlier this year

We talked to the young director about his film, the experience that still haunts him, and his desire to combat historical amnesia in Thailand.

How much do you remember about the incident? 

I was in the ninth grade. Many of my friends had gone out to that dessert shop, and they asked me if I wanted to join them. At first, I didn’t know why people were gathering there so late. My best guess was that their nam tao hu (soymilk) was just so delicious that it was drawing crowds. Then my friends sent me a link to a live-stream of the mob. I was shocked. All I could make out was that the shop owner’s son had posted something inappropriate regarding the king’s death. But no matter how bad it was, he shouldn’t have been subject to this kind of treatment – no one should.

What did you do afterward?

I started distancing myself from a lot of people I know — friends, families, everyone who was there in front of that shop. The next day, many of my friends who were there acted as if nothing happened. In fact, they were laughing, playing around, and talking like they already forgot what they did yesterday. It became more and more awkward to be around them, and I began to question the rationale behind their actions. 

Photo: Jittarin Wuthipan

Back then, many mourners would turn their profile pictures to black-and-white. One person noticed that I didn’t change mine, so he sent a warning to me that I should, saying: “It is dangerous [not to make your social media profile picture grayscale.]” The whole situation made me scared and suffocated to be around them. 

Why?

The most horrifying thing for me was how quickly they could forget. It was terrifying to see how people you thought you knew could do something like that and relish in it. They were people I really admired and respected. But the way they acted during that night was different. Sure, they returned to their normal selves afterwards, but I was shocked that they didn’t realize that they were destroying someone’s life.

How did your friends and family react when they saw your film?

I published this film on Vimeo on Oct. 13, 2020, the same day that the king passed away. Initially, the project was meant to be just a small memoir that I would share among my circle of friends. I didn’t expect that my work would yield any impact. 

Things changed when Mit Sa Hai Than Nueng, a famous political page on Facebook, reposted my video. My inbox was bombarded with messages. I showed the film to my mom, and she was speechless. Many of my friends who were part of the mob also asked me if I always felt this way about the whole incident. Some pretended that they didn’t raid the nam tao hu shop in the first place — they also wrote captions like they were shocked to see how people could be this cruel to one another. I also received threats from Phuket residents after publishing the film.

Photo: Jittarin Wuthipan

There are ghostly images of people at the end of the film, could you explain why?

These pictures are part of Angela Dean’s work The Ghosts Within. To be honest, I’m not sure myself what Dean aims to depict in these little ghosts. In the film, I also incorporate her technique in painting people who took part in the incident in white. Personally, it reminds me of when I was a child. You may get upset with your friends and swear not to talk with them for the rest of your life. In the middle of your rage, you bring up all the pictures you had taken together and use a white pen to erase either you or your friends from the frame. But no matter how hard you attempt to erase yourself — or your friends — some traces remain. It isn’t the same as deleting pictures on your computer.

I’m a big believer in keeping a digital footprint. When I uploaded this film online, I knew right away that even if my film were brought down, someone would save it and share it. The film, then, embodies both my frustration and trauma, and sometimes it does the talking in my place. Whenever I meet up with friends who seem ignorant of the whole situation in Thailand, I make them watch this film. Oftentimes, the film prompts them to think about the incident, and it sparks dialogue among those who feel the same trauma as I do.

This story originally appeared in BK.

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