In 1983, one of the biggest box-office hits in Siam was a remarkable film entitled Mue Puen. English-language advertisements translated this title as ‘The Gunman’, but an alternative, probably better, translation would be ‘The Gunmen’. For the director invited his audiences to contemplate the contrast between two hired assassins—hero and villain—one working for private enterprise, the other for the state. In an early flashback, the two men are shown as comrades in the ‘secret’ mercenary army hired by the cia to fight in Laos in the late 1960s; there they learn to become crack shots with high-powered automatic rifles. In one savage firefight, however, the hero is seriously wounded and then abandoned to the enemy’s tender mercies by his cowardly comrade. The story proper of the film is set in contemporary Bangkok, and depicts the subsequent careers of the two protagonists. The hero, one leg badly damaged, officially supports himself by working as a barber; but we are soon shown that he is secretly a highly paid professional killer. His paymasters are wealthy businessmen—and so are his victims.
The villain, on the other hand, has become the head of a highpublicity swat team of the Bangkok metropolitan police. He specializes in luring criminals into traps where he shoots them down with icy, pinpoint accuracy. He is known to the mass media as Mue Dam (Black Hand) because he ostentatiously puts a black glove on his gun hand when preparing to kill for his employer, the state. In another society he would be the natural boss of a death squad.
The killers are distinguished morally by what we are shown of their circumstances and motivations. The hero has been abandoned by his wife, and is left to care for his critically ill child all on his own. Murder is his only means of raising the money needed for expensive surgery for the little tyke. The villain kills to compensate for the memory of his earlier cowardice, to gain media attention, and to impress an alcoholic wife, with whom his sexual relations are distinctly sadistic. He thus exploits his position as state-licensed killer to gratify a range of unpleasant private desires. But lest the audience think that the villain is a pathological aberration, the director makes sure to provide him with a young police henchman who takes an even grimmer pleasure in assassination-for-the-state.
It is hard to imagine a film of this sort being made, let alone screened, anywhere else in Southeast Asia. Nor, I think, would it have been possible in Siam except in the 1980s. It is particularly interesting that the Thai police insisted on only two changes in the original print before the film’s public release. The hero’s main paymaster could not be shown to be a moonlighting senior police officer; and the masked motorcycle gangsters gunned down by Black Hand could not be shown to be young women. On the other hand, there is also something curious about the film’s popularity with the public. One can readily understand why young audiences would enjoy the rare filmic spectacle of villainous police. But a hero (even one played by top box-office star Soraphong) who kills ‘innocent people’ for money? The answer, I suspect, is ‘yes,’ provided the victims are clearly middle-aged, male and very rich (in other words, big capitalists). Provided, too, that there is some resonance between what is seen on the screen and the contemporary realities of Thai society.
This reality, or rather the part of it with which I am here concerned, is that in the 1980s political killing in Siam has assumed a completely unprecedented character, one which is, oddly enough, probably a positive omen for the future. For it seems tied to the eclipse of a longstanding tradition of military-bureaucratic dictatorship and its supersession by a stable, bourgeois parliamentary political system. To get a sharper focus on the relationship between ‘The Gunmen’ and the rapidly changing structures of Thai politics, it may be useful to sketch out antecedent patterns of political murder in Siam.
The modern era of Siam’s history is conventionally said to have begun in 1855. In that year, Sir John Bowring, representative of Queen Victoria and coiner of the immortal axiom ‘Free Trade is Jesus Christ
Between 1855 and 1932 this pattern of intra-upper-class murder went into suspension, most likely because of fear of European intervention in the political sense, and thanks to European intervention in the economic. Political leaders in Bangkok could see that in neighbouring Southeast Asian states, where ruling circles permitted themselves too much fratricidal carnage, European imperialists found easy pretexts for marching in to establish law’n’order or to restore a ‘rightful’, compliant claimant to the local throne. On the other hand, the rapidly expanding free-trade economy of the last half of the nineteenth century lessened the ferocity of intra-elite competition by enlarging the available pie. (The contrast between Siam’s experience and the blood-drenched final decades of the Burmese monarchy, deprived by two Anglo-Burmese wars of more than half its territorial revenue base, is instructive.) These conditions remained sufficiently stable so that even when the old nobility faced political and economic challenges from the ‘new men’ of the modern-style bureaucracy created by Rama V (reign: 1868–1910), the conflicts were handled without bloodshed.