A department under the Ministry of Culture, whose
mission is to protect the nation's culture and values through the
process of surveillance, is on the lookout for everything from
inappropriate ringtones to promiscuously worn university uniforms.
High above Bangkok in the 18th-storey offices of Thailand's Cultural
Surveillance Centre, the nation's moral monitors are hard at work.
They surf the internet. They watch movies. They scan the pages of
glossy girlie magazines in search of women that are objectionably
Should they get bored, there are 40-some television screens that
line the far wall and flicker with broadcasts of the fashion channel
and cable news to keep tabs on.
It is they, the Ministry of Culture's eight culture monitors, that
make the calls on what to blur, block, cover with black boxes, or
They are the nation's censors, and it is here, at the brazenly named
centre, where they report each day on a mission to uncover cultural
Just this year, they've pulled the plug on Camfrog, publicly chided
the allegedly, but not actually underwearless "safety pin dress" of
aspiring actress Amy and shaken their heads at Coyote girls and the
promiscuously worn university uniform.
While the Surveillance Centre has had its eye on culture and issues
of national morality for a decade now, the office has taken on new
importance with widespread calls, from post-coup political
leadership, the Culture Ministry to clean up the nation's morals.
Evidence and cause of the nation's "moral crisis" vary widely
depending on whom you ask; blame ranges from new technology to the
Thaksin administration (which ironically founded Thailand's Moral
Centre); evidence runs from the conspicuous consumption of Thai
teens to the success of Thaksin's populist policies to the fact that
Thailand has dipped to 12th (of 13) in the regional corruption
ratings. Meanwhile, most of the public surveyees took issue with
teens wearing shoulder-baring spaghetti strap tops.
While some of these concerns may be valid, strategies to recalibrate
the nation's moral compass, so far, have been similarly scattershot
and have come with the sweeping, unfocused urgency of a moral
There has been the alcohol control bill (banning advertising and
lifting drinking age to 20, endorsed earlier this week), a plan to
mandate morality training for the country's senior military cadets,
and a 10 p.m. Valentine's Day curfew to control the nation's
And then there are the fast-expanding efforts of the nation's
Surveillance Centre. While the term "surveillance" carries weighty
connotations of government invasiveness and freedom-curtailment in
the West, the concept does not register the same concerns here.
Operating under the Ministry of Culture, the Cultural Surveillance
Centre's mission is to protect the nation's culture and values
through the process of surveillance, in the words of its
director, Ladda Thangsupachai, and to disseminate cultural
information as a means of providing immunity against cultural
mutation; and serving as a focal point of culture monitoring network
dedicated to safeguarding of Thai cultural identities, in the
words inscribed on the cover of its quarterly Journal of Culture
"Surveillance" entails review of the local and foreign media, arts,
film, and Internet, as well as observation of citizens and public
events for insight into fashion and recreational trends. The culture
monitors occasionally go further a field, for example, on
teen-watching missions to internet cafes and Ratchada, or on trips
to the provinces on the lookout for Coyote girls dancing at temples.
to Ladda, threats for cultural mutation are greater than ever these
days because of globalisation, the growing presence of international
media and cultural imports, and developments in technologies and
While she recognises that these forces can bring "cross-cultural
gifts" and other positive social change, she also believes if Thai
people are not prepared for them, the nation's moral and cultural
values will be (and already have been) lost or compromised.
When the office opened 10 years ago it was a much smaller operation,
and Ladda's work (she was also the director then) was concentrated
almost entirely on film and pornographic video and VCDs.
With the tide of globalisation and explosion of the Internet,
though, it was realised that the the problem of culture was
growing, and that the office needed to take on a much larger
role. She says it became apparent that Thailand needed special
protection, not just to protect culture but to create policy to
protect a new generation and develop culture to go along with the
She says fast food typifies the effects of and the nation's
relationship with imported cultures. It is delicious and easy to
consume compared to Thai food. Yet while it is convenient, in the
end it is not for the best.
Ladda says surveillance efforts are targetted to guard against four
particular cultural offences: inappropriate representation of
national or religious symbols, offensive language, violence, and
Criteria for the Centre's censoring seem otherwise vague, though
Ladda says the Centre usually uses public opinion as the gauge of
cultural appropriateness. She adds that in many cases, the Centre's
review or investigation of a material is triggered by the complaint
or tip they receive from a concerned citizen. If society shows
feelings or says something is not suitable, the ministry informs the
police to take action.
As there is a lot of culture to consume for its just eight officers,
the Centre has groomed a group of volunteer monitors that inform on
troubling media, arts or cultural trends. Ladda hopes the Culture
Surveillance Network of 500,000, which includes educators, families
and high school students recruited to attend "culture camp," and
then form a school morality club, will number a million by the
year's end. She invites anyone to join the network.
says it was citizen vigilance (of parents, internet cafe owners, and
even teens) that brought about the recent blocking of the website,
Camfrog, a video-conferencing programme which was often used by
teens in a game to broadcast genitalia, and the banning of Inside
Out! Thailand, a guidebook to Thailand's cultural quirks that
its expat authors found humourous, but the Centre and at least a
handful of citizens found offensive.
Yet, while the Surveillance Centre serves as a vocal arbiter of
culture, it has little authority to actually enforce its judgements
and is limited to public awareness campaigns and admonishments made
in national press.
Instead, the office plays an informant role, itself, taking its
complaints to the police, who have the power to confiscate and
penalise distributors of offensive media; the Public Relations
Department, which has the power to silence TV and radio, and to the
ICT, which has the power to block internet sites.
When the Centre has a beef with an artist or venue abroad, it tips
off the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which then parlays its concern,
often through written correspondence, to the offending party. In the
past, letters have been penned off to singer Christina Aguilerra for
an inappropriate music video, to the publishers of an English
dictionary for defining Bangkok in terms of its sex districts, and
to a number of spas and restaurants which display the Buddha
the Surveillance Centre's eye is cast far and wide enough to
scrutinise dictionaries and restaurant decor on foreign shores,
their efforts interestingly steer clear of Nana, Patpong and a
number of the nation's other locales which seem to teem with
scantily-clad females and bootlegged copies of censored DVDs like
Team America: World Police.
This, I am told, is because those places are not part of national
culture, but commercial and entertainment ventures that fall under
the laws, regulations, and jurisdiction of the police. I ask whether
such places have any impact on the nation's culture or morals, and
she admits probably some, but says that such areas are mostly
frequented by tourists and that it would be "strange" if Thailand
didn't have such a place.
She reminds me that Bangkok is not unlike other big cities: the
Netherlands has Amsterdam; Singapore, it's sex shops; and America,
Las Vegas. She adds that it is impossible to get rid of unless we
get rid of human desires.
Later in the conversation, though, she speaks of the time she took
an exploratory trip to Patpong for work. She calls it an immoral
place for tourists that do not have normal behaviours.
I ask her if it bothers her that Thailand attracts the abnormally
behaving tourist who comes to do immoral things. She blames the tour
companies and the negative image perpetuated by previous tourists
and foreign media, presumably like the aforementioned dictionary.
It is Thailand's "pernicious and toxic generation" which concerns
Ladda and culture watchers most. She believes Thai youth and
teenagers are easily seduced and especially vulnerable to modern
technologies and foreign influences.
She blames these forces, and particularly the Internet, for having
already loosened the younger generation's sexual morals, encouraged
frivolous spending habits, and led to video game addictions, that
she suspects will one day be linked to brain damage.
Ladda is also troubled by the trend for youth to dress fashionably,
and not practically - with tendencies to turn up at movie theaters
in tank tops ("dangerous" to health because of the cool theater
temperatures) and to class in uniforms which are too short and too
While there is little sign the Surveillance Centre's activities will
be scaled back anytime soon (there is legislation in the works to
hand the police authorities over to the office), Ladda says the
Centre will shift its focus away from censoring culture to rating
it. Prompted by discussions with the public and her own
long-thought-upon vision for stronger media regulation, the Centre
helped to develop the TV rating system that was launched last
December, and which will be expanded to cover film, Internet, video
games, and movie theatres in the future.
Ladda explains the media's producer will rate their product
according to content (if ratings are understated, the producer will
be punished), though the system certainly still comes with touches
from the heavy, moralising hand of the Culture Ministry. Reminders
that this action is against morality are planned to accompany
scenes involving mistresses, gambling, alcohol, smoking, and other
What Gets Cut
When the Surveillance Centre encounters media or a product it finds
to be culturally inappropriate, it is censored.
The extent of the censoring depends on the extent of the offence,
and in all cases must be reviewed and confirmed by a panel of
experts from the government, as well as media, educational,
religious, and legal fields.
film The King and I and buddhaporn.com, a New
York-based pornographic site, are among the cultural discards for
offending national and religious custom.
Cultural Surveillance Centre director Ladda Thangsupachai says
informational censorships of this kind are rare, and usually only
necessary with texts from foreign authors who do not understand the
cultural climate, adding that Thais usually know the bounds of
appropriateness and respect them.
Most of the public agrees with censorship of books that are not
culturally appropriate. Those that want to read whatever they can
want all freedoms, but have to understand they can have freedom, but
it must be within the law.
She points to the local press' sensationalism and tendencies to
publish gruesome pictures and tabloid journalism, to illustrate the
cultural differences in information management. Meanwhile films,
television and magazines are regularly edited to guard against
offensive language, violence and sexual content.
Films frequently have scenes cut or modified. A scene involving
gratuitous violence, say a gun put to a baby's head, would be cut,
explains Ladda, while in other productions like 'Music and Lyrics',
a romantic comedy still in theatres, the image of a large Buddha set
behind scenes of song and dance is merely blurred.
If the filmmaker is Thai, the Centre will recommend ways in which he
or she can change the film, so the Centre will not have to ban it.
Ladda says only a few films have been banned outright. Among these
are City of God, an acclaimed Brazilian film, based on true
events, where children engage in gratuitous violence, sex and
drug-taking, and Team America: World Police, an unacclaimed
American film, where puppets engage in gratuitous violence and sex.