Uncannily Small: Policed Performance in Southeast Asia

Katrina Stuart Santiago*


Launched in 2023, the groundbreaking Southeast Asian Arts Censorship Database tracks artistic censure from the past 12 years in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. When focused on staged productions, it showcases unique works seen as performative in these countries and reveals how socio-political shifts and power struggles can render long-celebrated performances offensive and unfit for public viewing, as it confirms a growing conservatism specific to these contexts. Clearly, performance as a form, and the creative freedom that cradles it, remain threatening to those who seek to maintain the status quo.

Keywords: performance, censorship, artistic freedom, creative freedom, theatre, ritual

Twelve years, six countries, seven researchers, one lead researcher, a little over a year, One Southeast Asian Arts Censorship Database: the numbers are important.

Here’s more: there are 652 cases where the right to creative expression was violated across six Southeast Asian countries. In 504 cases, State or government institutions were at the forefront of the attack against the artist or artistic product. Between Vietnam and Thailand, 102 cases of censorship were motivated by political concerns; 355 cases involved moral policing across the countries of Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

The numbers tell many stories. The SEA Arts Censorship Database graph for total cases across six countries. Photo: Courtesy of Arts Equator, created by Jun Kit

358 of these cases were outright bans and withdrawal of the work from public access or exhibition. There were 175 instances of defiance against the acts of censure, and 132 cases in which the artist changed access to the work or utilized creative strategies as a response to being targeted.  A majority complied with the act of censure or opened themselves up to negotiation.

The numbers seem important, yet their meaning is complicated. While large numbers catch our attention, they might also obscure some important questions, for example, the number of cases that might have gone uncounted, a pattern very clear to all of us on the research team. Now that the Southeast Asian Arts Censorship Database is up and public, the predisposition toward larger numbers and the degree of importance assigned to them allows for conclusions to be drawn about cases positioned lower on the list. For example, that their corresponding artistic forms are less threatened by acts of censure, or that their analysis is less urgent or necessary.

However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The censorship cases that fall under performance are small relative to the largest category of censored material, which is film, at 176 cases. Across Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, there are only 41 documented cases of censored performances across 12 years, from 2010 to 2022.  At first glance, it seems reasonable that these statistics might not appear to be significant.

However, analyzing cases of censured performance reveals insights that are just as important: although performances might be targeted in the same way as other forms, they frequently reveal distinct variables which suggest that the censuring of performance is more complex than that of other artistic forms.

Focusing on the small numbers: performance censorship in Southeast Asia over a 12-year period is one of the lower numbers in this SEA Arts Censorship Database graph, courtesy of Arts Equator, created by Jun Kit
Space and Staging

Unlike the public display of other artistic forms, the staging of performance can be as diverse as its audience. In performance, the public is not fixed, and neither can we speak simply of general patronage. The issue is not only about how performances might be ticketed; it is also about how performances might not necessarily take place inside a theatre.

Consider the cases from Vietnam and the Philippines, where each country has a single case of censorship focused on a performance, and each respective performance was not set on a conventional stage. In the Philippines, the censured production was a performance-protest, created by activist Carlos Celdran and carried out at the Manila Cathedral; in Vietnam, it was a performance by artist Lai Dieu Ha entitled Bay Len (Flying Up), enacted inside a gallery as part of an exhibition.

Celdran, protesting the Catholic Church’s stance against the Reproductive Health Bill, walked into an ecumenical meeting at the church dressed as National Hero Jose Rizal. He held up a placard bearing the name Damaso, thus referencing the corrupt friar in Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere. The primary audience was the Catholic and Protestant leadership present at the church; the secondary audience was the general public who would hear about the protest through social media.

Photos leaked from the Lai Dieu Ha performance Flying Up opened the artist and the gallery up to acts of censure, public shaming, and silencing. Photos: Nguyen Tran Nam, courtesy of  IN-ACT

Lai Dieu Ha, on the other hand, sought to keep her performance within the confines of the gallery space, specifically asking the audience to not take photographs of the show.  As she delivered a statement on freedom and flight, the artist put glue on her bare body and attached bird feathers on herself, while at the same time performing the movements of a bird about to fly.  Despite the artist’s request for no photographs, however, several were taken and leaked on social media; as a result, the artist and the gallery were targeted by authorities and the public.

The performative space and its definition as private or public are pertinent to these two cases. A privately owned gallery might enjoy a certain amount of freedom in terms of who and what it chooses to exhibit, given that a niche audience typically accesses the space. Arguably, if photographs of Dieu Ha’s performance had not been leaked, her performance might have completely eluded the censure’s radar. On the other hand, a Catholic Church as a performative space is not clearly private; we are told that it is the congregation who owns this Church, and that anyone is welcome. Such a view would, to a certain extent, allow for a public exercise such as protest, which Celdran’s performance clearly tested.  In fact, part of the anger directed against him stemmed from his having supposedly disrupted a religious event, rather than having staged his protest on church property. For these performances, the particulars of the space and the public it serves add more complex variables which underscore the unique quality of censored performances.

Photo leaked from the Lai Dieu Ha performance Flying Up. Photo: Courtesy of Linh Le
Policing the Political

For several of the 41 cases, it is shown that governments seek to police political thought and historical narratives by targeting performances with so-called untouchable subject matter, the definition of which changes with shifts in the political milieu.

Thailand is probably one of the more interesting countries to consider regarding the censorship of political content, owing to its lese majesty law, Article 112, which bans anything deemed insulting to the monarchy.  Nevertheless, the legal basis for censorship is not as clear-cut as one might imagine.

Two cases of censorship during the past ten years are of particular significance. The first involves the re-staging of Bang-La-Merd (The Land I Do Not Own) in 2014, which resulted in surveillance by the military, although it was first staged in 2012 without incident.  The second case involves the 2013 staging of Wolf Bride, which resulted in the conviction of two actors for violating Article 112.  In 2014, however, the emcee of Wolf Bride, Wat Wanlayangkoon, was summoned on an alleged Article 112 offense. What these two instances have in common, other than being objects of censure, is that they were targeted in the context of the coup of 22 May 2014, when the Thai armed forces took control of the national government. This shift changed the political milieu of texts so that these re-staged texts were the focus of censorship.

The Terrible but Unfinished History of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia was refused a permit by Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, even when the M.H. King of Cambodia supported the project. Photo: Michele Laurent. Courtesy of the Sihanouk, Archives Inachevées website

A similar case is documented in Cambodia, where L’histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk roi du Cambodge (The Terrible but Unfinished History of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia), a 1985 play by Ariane Mnouchkine, was scheduled to be translated and staged in the country by the Cambodia-based NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak and French-based theatre company Théâtre du Soleil. Although it had the support of the M.H. King of Cambodia, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts denied the show’s request for a permit.

In many instances that are related to political censorship, State censors invoke other reasons to justify the act of censure, other than the expected laws that regulate arts, culture, and expression.

In Indonesia, many cases of censorship occurred during annual festivals that took place as scheduled during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Authorities policed these gatherings, claiming to be enforcing public health restrictions; they did so even when State-sponsored events brought together crowds of people far larger than those associated with the festivals. The possibility that pandemic health protocols were used to undermine creative freedom is not far-fetched.

The organizers of 99 Dead, a series of protest performances enacted in the streets of Thailand in 2018, were charged with violating the Cleanliness Act and failing to acquire a permit for a public rally. It is difficult to imagine that these were the primary reasons for the ban on these performances, owing to the political nature of this commemoration of the 2010 military attack on protesters that left 99 dead.

At times, authorities simply impose an unreasonable demand on arts and culture. For example, Cambodian authorities speak of the need for artistic work to be Khmer enough, arguably a political demand, for it to be worthy of staging for an audience. In 2015, the new all-woman contemporary dance troupe New Cambodian Artists was prohibited from performing at the Angkor Archaeological Park, as the APSARA National Authority of Cambodia deemed that it supposedly was not Khmer enough and at the same time was too sexy.

Often authorities simply provide an overly general and ambiguous reason for targeting a performance. Singaporean group Teater Kami got its permit cancelled two days before its first show in Malaysia. The reason given by authorities was that the play “touches on the sensitivities of Malaysian society, especially its political and social aspects.” The power dynamic between the censors and the censored is such that no clarifying questions are allowed, and no negotiations are possible.

Public Sensitivities, Online Virality

Many acts of censorship are intentionally ambiguous, especially those instigated by civil society groups or a segment of the public. Thus, the definition of what constitutes offensive or sensitive material at any given time is overly general and vague. Neither degree nor scale is important: it could be one loud voice or a whole organization; often enough, if even a small segment of the public takes offense at a performance, the authorities intervene.

The play Album Keluarga (Family Album), focused on the 1965 massacre which targeted anyone affiliated with the Indonesia Communist Party, got its permit revoked in 2015 by the Greater Jakarta Metropolitan Regional Police, based on the challenge of a civil society group threatening to stage a public rally at the event; the official reason for cancelling the show was the supposed concern of authorities for public security.

The Gandrung Sewu Festival in Indonesia faced censure in 2018. Photo: Web/Wikimedia/creative commons

The public nature of festivals seems reason enough for censors to target them constantly. After all, these annual events are part of the cultural heritage of a community, and they bear witness to and facilitate change within the culture.

Any institution aiming to obstruct change within a culture would probably aim to control these festivals as well.

Such is the case of The Gandrung Sewu Festival in Indonesia, 2018, which featured 1,300 dancers to perform the gandrung sewu. The Islamic Defenders Front sought to cancel the festival altogether, based on their belief that the event “encourages immoral acts due to the tight costume of the female dancers.”

Another case is the Festival Jaran Kepang, 2021, an otherwise routine ritual performance for the Langen Budoyo Jaran Kepang Community. It was infiltrated by protesters who sought to disperse the gathering, but their reaction seemed normal at the time, considering the pandemic restrictions that were in place.  However, this movement was led by Forum Umat Islam Medan (Medan’s Muslim Forum), a civil society group that acts on what it believes to be “religious purity.” In the case of the Festival Jaran Kepang, it sought to keep “society from practicing a perceived act of blasphemy.”

Religion was also the central reason for the censure of Maknawi Kidung Maria (The Meaning of the Songs of Mary) in 2015. Choreographer Martinus Miroto, inspired by the Borobudur Temple, portrayed the three levels of spiritual consciousness, and placed the Mother Mary figure, unmoving, on the top level. Although the police claimed that the performance did not have a permit, complaints were made by civil society groups that the performance was a means of spreading Christianity.

Due to the public nature of any targeted material, the artist is held responsible even when a ticketed performance is made public through an online posting, with or without the permission of its creators. Even if an online audience does not have access to a complete performance, the segment which is available to them online is often enough for censors to target a given work.

In Malaysia, 2022, two cases of stand-up comedy performances were targeted by the Royal Malaysia Police. Siti Amira binti Abdullah, as part of her show, shed her baju kurung and headscarf; the performance was circulated online and went viral. She later faced charges of “allegedly inciting hatred and promoting disunity.” The owner of the comedy club, Rizal van Geyzel, also a stand-up comic, was also targeted for his previous performances, also captured on video, that were deemed to be “racially and religiously offensive.”

A video clip from a private school play in Malaysia showed a film that, according to the Minister of Primary Industries, was “seeding hateful thoughts towards the palm oil industry among Malaysian students.” The film, sponsored by the environmental organization Greenpeace, documented the loss of the forest habitats of orangutans. The Ministry of Education then began an investigation into “anti-palm oil propaganda activities” under what it said was the Education Act of 1966.

The diversity of reasons given for censoring these performances is part of what we have sought to explore here: we live in a time and place where anything can be considered offensive; all that is needed is a large enough or noisy enough public to instigate the act of censure, and a government ready to intervene and authorize censorship.

There is probably no better example of this than Natasha Tontey’s Makan Mayit (Eating Corpses), which became controversial only after the artist posted photos of the performance on social media in 2017. Seated at a dinner table, Tontey and her peers were shown eating humanoid dishes that, according to the artist, were made from processed breast milk. The public debate on Indonesian social media fluctuated between two extremes: the harmful endorsement of cannibalism, on the one end, and harmless creative exercise, on the other.

As with many cases of public outcry and indignation, the government is expected to respond. In this case, the Minister of Women Empowerment and Child Protection of Indonesia criticized the work for violating “the norms of decency and religion” and asserted that the government protects children from the time they are in the womb, which is what’s portrayed in Makan Mayit.

Imagining that the children portrayed in an artwork are the same as actual children in a particular locale is absurd, yes, but it also indicates the degree of power that censors themselves give to artists and their performances. After all, while the Southeast Asian Database on Arts Censorship documents how seriously artistic freedom has been violated during the past 12 years, it also reveals how creativity and cultural work have remained a threat, whether real or imagined, to those in power. This latter finding is reason enough to continue creating performances that challenge the status quo, despite the risks.

Note: This piece was written using the Southeast Asian Arts Censorship Database, and the work of the research team, namely, Reaksmey Yean and Kai Brennert (Cambodia), Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu (Indonesia), Zikri Rahman (Malaysia), Katrina Stuart Santiago (The Philippines), Linh Le (Vietnam) and Sudarat Musikawong (Thailand), and the project lead Kathy Rowland. 

*Katrina Stuart Santiago is a writer, cultural critic, and author from Manila, co-founder of small press and bookstore Everything’s Fine, and founder of civil society organization People for Accountable Governance and Sustainable Action-PAGASAph. She is a 2021 Feminist Journalist of the Association of Women’s Rights in Development, a 2023 Public Intellectual of the Democracy Discourse Series of the De La Salle University, and co-author of the Fair Culture Charter by UNESCO-Germany. She writes at katrinasantiago.com and is @radikalchick online.

Copyright © 2023 Katrina Stuart Santiago
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

Creative Commons Attribution International License

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email