"Pirated" Transnational Broadcasting: The Consumption of Thai Soap Operas among Shan Communities in Burma

Article excerpt

Unlike the other neighbouring countries of Thailand, i.e., Laos and Cambodia where Thai media is consumed directly from satellite signals, most Shans living in Burma (1) have access to and consume Thai television programming mainly in the form of Thai soap operas dubbed in Shan. Being a minority in Burma where television programmes in minority languages have been absent, Shan local businessmen pirated Thai soap operas through satellite signals, dubbed the programmes into Shah language, and changed the titles --including actors and actresses' names--into Shan. By doing so, they turned "foreign" cultural products into their own form of entertainment. These pirated soap series are distributed in a form of Video CDs available in rental shops everywhere in Shan state. (2) Shans living in urban areas rent the VCDs to watch at home, while those in the village watch them in small movie theaters adapted from residential houses. Today, Thai soaps dubbed in Shan have become the most popular form of entertainment among Shan communities throughout the Shan state in Burma. In a country where information is filtered by the apparatus of the Burmese military regime, Thai soap operas, given the illicit nature of their acquisition, have become virtually the main window to the outside world available to many Shan audiences.

Though the most common understanding of product piracy is nothing but robbery, this paper views piracy as part of transnational activities which involve the flow of ideas and lifestyles from one part of the world to another. In this case, the flow originates from a country considered more "modern" and more "developed" and arrives at an area considered "less modern". It is, therefore, important to examine what impact, if any, the flow of media from one side of the border has on the ways people on the other side of the border think about themselves and the nation. With the increasing mobility of culture, media scholars and anthropologists have studied how transnational flows of media and popular culture have affected the lifestyles of people. While in the past decades, studies on cultural effects of globalization tend to focus on the "West and the Rest paradigm", and attention was given to the debate on homogenization (Harvey 1990) or hybridization/creolization (Hannerz 1996), recently, scholars tend to agree that globalization is not bringing about a global cultural uniformity (see, for example, Appadurai 1996, Hannerz 1996, Miller 1994). The widespread consumption of Coca Cola, McDonald's and American soap operas has instead brought about increasing cultural diversity across the world. What we have here in the case of the Shan in Burma consuming Thai soap operas invites further examination in terms of both cultural imperialism as regards Thailand's cultural influence over its neighbouring country and bottom-up cultural appropriation whereby the Shan refashion "foreign" culture into their own form of cultural product.

In examining the role of transnational media in the lives of Shan communities in Burma, this paper explores the piracy and consumption of Thai soap operas on two fronts, national and transnational. On the national level, I seek to understand how the Shan appropriate transnational satellite signals to create new meanings that in the process help to redefine their ethnic identity. In his well known work on imagined communities, Anderson (1991) suggests an important role of mass media in shaping national imaginaries. While Anderson focuses on print capitalism as fomenting nationalism, this essay explores how the "imagined Shan nation" came to acquire a distinct shape, in part via the appropriation and consumption of Thai soap operas. For the "imagined communities" of the eighteenth century, it was print capitalism which provided the new institutional space for the development of the modern "national" language wherein nations were imagined into existence. What we have here in a society, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, that lacks control over the means of production is an example of mass media which is neither institutionalized nor the creation of elites. …