Suchart Sawasdsri: Artist caught in political crossfire
As a prolific writer and editor, Suchart Sawasdsri was honored with the role of the national artist (literature) in 2011. However, as a keen political observer and critic, he is on the verge of losing this honor and becoming Thailand’s first-ever ex-national artist.
“The Culture Ministry has yet to officially inform me of my ‘depraved behavior’,” Suchart said in a Facebook post over the weekend. The 76-year-old’s post referred to news that the National Culture Commission (NCC) had resolved to cancel his status as a national artist.
According to a Culture Ministry regulation that was amended last year, national artists can be stripped of their status if they display “depravity” or have been sentenced to jail in a final court ruling.
Many say Suchart is being punished for his political views, which include outspoken criticism of the establishment in recent years. He has also voiced support for students protesting against this government and has openly called for the removal of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha.
What did Suchart do?
Though he was born well before the digital age, Suchart has become a keen user of social media, mainly Facebook. Many of his posts deride the government, especially Prayut.
Among them is an August 14 post that reads: “Prayut can face legal action just for his vaccine mismanagement, not to mention other violations.” Another post on the same day asked if Prayut remembers telling then-PM Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014 to take responsibility for the injuries and deaths of protesters.
On August 18, Suchart posted that Malaysia’s premier had just stepped down for his mistakes, yet Prayut still considers himself “an angel”.
Comments from Suchart have also touched on the topic of monarchy reform.
Artist with political convictions
Born in 1945 to a father who was a medic and a mother who was a farmer, Suchart graduated with distinction from Thammasat University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts. He joined protests against dictatorship in 1973 and 1976 and built a network of friends featuring some who are now prominent and powerful individuals.
However, some of these ties have since frayed, with Suchart asking why these former comrades no longer believe in the social and political causes they once fought for.
Suchart joined the yellow-shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy rally against Thaksin Shinawatra’s government but then felt disillusioned by the subsequent military coup against Thaksin in September 2006. The artist now believes that those who take the wrong side should express remorse.
“I believe in freedom, equality, and fraternity,” said Suchart, who now writes under the pseudonym Sing Sanam Luang, or “Lion of the Royal Field”.
Some critics view his political comments as being “too strong” and even label him the “unpatriotic national artist”. But Suchart disagrees.
“Chart [‘the nation’] means the people. Why would I hate Chart [myself] or the people?” he asked. “I stand by the people, regardless of how others see me.”
In Thai, the word “suchart” can be translated as “good nation”.
The Thai Writers Association, several prominent writers, politicians and academics have voiced opposition to the reported decision by the National Culture Commission of Thailand to strip Mr. Suchart Sawatsri of his status as a national artist.
News that Suchart may be stripped of his status as a national artist spurred many to speak out in his defense. Leader of the opposition Move Forward Party, Pita Limcharoenrat, was quick to name him the “people’s artist”, support echoed by Wongthanong Chainarongsingha, co-founder of The Standard media agency. The student-led United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration also gave its unequivocal backing.
While his reputation as “people’s artist” maybe something to be proud of, it carries no tangible benefits. In contrast, the official status of the national artist comes with a string of privileges, including a monthly subsidy of Bt25,000 and medical coverage of Bt100,000 per year – both for life.
Thailand has named 331 national artists since the tradition was inaugurated in 1985, but only 165 are still alive.
Three winners of the prestigious SEAWrite awards – Veeraporn Nitiprapha, Uthis Haemamool, and Sakul Boonpathat, who is also president of the Thai Writers Association – have joined calls for NCC to rescind its decision to strip Suchart of his national artist status. Chamnan Chanruang, former deputy leader of the now-defunct Future Forward Party, has launched an online petition to have the NCC dissolved over this controversial move.
Suchart has penned many books, including “Khwam Ngiab” (Silence), “Khwam Ngiab Nai Khwam Nbiagb” (Silence within Silence), and “Khwam Wang” (Emptiness). He also served as editor of several journals and magazines including “Sangkhomsart Paritat”, “Lok Nangsue” and “Ban Mai Ruu Roy”, and helped found the “Chor Karakade” awards.
The artist has also earned a name for his translations of sci-fi novels, poems, and existentialist literature.
Suchart won the Sriburapha Award in 1997 before being named national artist. Inaugurated in 1988 in honor of Kulap “Sriburapha” Saipradit, the award recognizes excellence in journalism, writing and/or the arts.
Suchart’s literary fame reached its peak in 2011 when he was named national artist for making “huge contributions to the literary world by sharing knowledge and revealing ‘truths’ to society”.
“He has armed the new generation with intellectual weapons and inculcated them with ideologies about rights, freedom, humanity, and courage to fight against injustice. He has inspired young people to search for the meaning and value of life and to pay attention to the world and the society they live in,” the NCC said in conferring the award.
Suchart is also credited with opening the door for Thai readers and writers to high-quality Thai and foreign literature.
The national artist is also recognized for having created forums for hundreds of writers from the young generation, helping them to hone their storytelling skills. Many Thai literary artists consider him a dynamic force in the realm of literature, with his style, format, and content influencing a whole generation of young authors.
These efforts have won him acclaim from literary and academic circles both in Thailand and overseas.
Suchart is married to Wanna Sawasdsri (Tappananont), who writes under the penname “Sridaorueang”.
By Thai PBS World’s General Desk