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Sunday, 2 February, 2003, 15:19 GMT
Soap operas' role in Cambodia violence
Cambodian police officers stand by ruin of a burnt factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Cambodian police stand by the ruins of a burnt factory

The violence in Cambodia and the reaction to it in Thailand has shocked many people.

People in countries like Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam watch more television than in almost any other region in the world, with the exception of parts of the Indian sub-continent

Media consultant Andrew Brown
Not least Suvanant Kongying, the Thai television actress at the centre of the dispute.

It was her alleged remarks that Cambodia should return Angkor Wat - its national symbol - to Thailand that angered many Cambodians in the capital, Phnom Penh, and eventually instigated the violent rampage which left many Thai-owned businesses destroyed.

But it should not be entirely surprising as this incident involved two of the most powerful forces in Thai and Cambodian society - nationalism and soap operas.

Female audience

In both countries the audiences for the daily television dramas is enormous.

Suvanant Kongying
Suvanant's show was popular with both Thais and Cambodians

"Television viewing in South East Asia is one of the main recreational activities, especially for people over the age of 35," said Andrew Brown, a media consultant based in Hong Kong.

"People in countries like Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam watch more television than in almost any other region in the world, with the exception of parts of the Indian sub-continent."

Most viewers turn to the television for entertainment, according to recent market research, with serialised stories top of the programmes that are most watched.

"Soap operas remain the best rated slots on Thai television," said a former executive at Thailand's independent commercial channel ITV.

The audience for such shows appears to be predominantly women, although media statistics in Thailand are notoriously unreliable.

Some estimates suggest that at least seven out of every 10 people are watching television every evening.

Growth industry

But on the streets of Bangkok, few young Thais were prepared to admit they regularly watch any of the soaps.

She is their ideal Asian woman, representing the values of hard work, gratitude and gentleness

Thailand's Nation newspaper
Ani, a young student at Chulalongkorn University says: "I never watch them."

"But my mum and grandmother wouldn't miss an episode."

The production of soap operas in Thailand has been a major growth industry over the past 10 years, and even the Asian financial crisis five years ago has not managed to slow its success.

There are more than 40 companies now producing these for television compared to less than 10 a decade ago.

And more than 200 soap operas were broadcast on Thai television last year.

Mass appeal

Almost every Thai on the streets of Bangkok can recite a long list of dramas that are currently on television or have recently been shown and the main story line.

Thais burn Cambodian flag in protest
Protests in both countries soon got out of hand

The plots are often very simple and written to appeal to a mass audience; often depicting a struggle between the rich and the poor, good and evil.

There is no doubt that Ms Suvanant's latest show - Dao Pra Sook - is one of the most popular shows on Thai television.

It is a Cinderella-type story; raised in a brothel she manages to rise above her plight and marry her Prince Charming.

"I really like Phkay Prek [Ms Suvanant's character] because she shows determination and refuses to let it destroy her virtue," said Noi a young mother shopping at Bangkok's Siam Square.

Universal symbol

It is this which has made her an almost universal symbol amongst Thai women.

There are repeated cases of actors who play the villains in these dramas who are [verbally] abused and even attacked because of their character's actions in the show rile the audience and they take it out on the actor

Thai media critic
"She is their ideal Asian woman, representing the values of hard work, gratitude and gentleness," writes Jeerawat Na Thalong in Thailand's Nation newspaper.

Ms Suvanant's show was also an instant hit in Cambodia for the same reasons.

In a country where there are few modern cinemas, television is a central part of family life, and many Cambodian women immediately identified with her.

Posters of the actress appeared all over the city and in countless Cambodian teenagers' bedrooms.

That is until they were all torn down early last week when the reports of the actress' alleged comments began to circulate throughout the capital.

Strong impact

Not surprisingly, the first and most virulent attacks on Ms Suvanant came from her young female fans who had until then idolised her.

Students in the capital's high schools and universities began to demand an apology from her and urged the government to ban the series from television.

This spread quickly, and the protests escalated out of hand.

"If you love someone excessively, you may also turn to hate her as much," the senior columnist Thanong Khanthong on the Nation newspaper warned.

But the impact of the soap opera on the audiences in Thailand and Cambodia goes beyond that.

"They identify strongly with the characters in the stories and lose sight of reality," said a Thai media critic who did not want to be identified.

"There are repeated cases of actors who play the villains in these dramas who are [verbally] abused and even attacked because of their character's actions in the show rile the audience and they take it out on the actor."

Star personalities

Bangkok market sellers even threw eggs at the actress who played the part of the woman who persecuted Suvanant's character.

Woman walks past Aids awareness poster in Thailand
Soaps have been used for positive effect - such as Aids awareness messages

"The role of television personalities in South East Asia is far greater than their equivalent in Europe and the US," said a advertising executive with a leading Asian public relations company who wanted to remain anonymous.

"Market research shows that especially in the Mekong region, TV stars endorsement are essential to sell consumer products like cosmetics, drinks and so on."

Ms Suvanant is also highly visible in the advertising world, with millions of billboards featuring her for soaps and cosmetics.

Ironically it seems she was about to launch an ad campaign and make personal appearances in Cambodia just before the furore over her alleged comments blew up.

Dramatic message

Nobody can now can underestimate the power of soap operas, especially in South East Asia.

But they are just as likely to be a force for good as anything else.

Governments, development agencies and civil society groups all use television and film personalities to get their messages effectively across to a mass audience.

A few months ago the United Nations programme for combating Aids - UNAids - announced that mixing HIV prevention messages with serial dramas was a proven model for combating the growth of HIV infection.


Talking PointTALKING POINT
Thailand has evacuated more than 500 of its nationals from Cambodia and downgraded diplomatic relations  over the riotingCambodia riots
Can Thai-Cambodian ties recover?
See also:

01 Feb 03 | Asia-Pacific
31 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
30 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
31 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
30 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
22 Nov 01 | Crossing Continents
27 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
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