11 July 2024

Savitree Wongsricha’s deep sorrow and great anger were the most glaring in four shabby pieces of paper few people have seen or remembered. In them, she pledged that anyone responsible for the untimely death of her three-year-old daughter must eternally suffer. “I can never forgive whoever did this to my little girl,” she wrote.

She had to write her feelings down partly because she was a reticent person, so much so that she might have come across as stern and aloof, and partly because she had nobody to turn to at the beginning, since much of Thailand was thinking she killed the toddler herself and people near and far hated her for that.

There were times when Savitree could not leave her two-storey house, because the social loathing spread to and consumed her Mukdahan neighbourhood, and could not go upstairs, because that had been where Nong Chompoo used to sleep or play with her.

Orawan Wongsricha, or “Nong Chompoo”, disappeared on May 11, 2020. Three days later, her body was found naked, up on a hill several kilometres from her house. Chaiyaphol Wipa, aka Loong Phol, who was the girl’s uncle-in-law, became a suspect a few weeks later but the mainstream media turned him into a scapegoat, evoking a groundswell of public sympathy and donations.

Loong Phol led a search army to the girl’s body, and he cried when the media and police arrived. He also cried during TV interviews and his comments were very suggestive of Savitree’s involvement in the child’s ill fate. That enabled him to build a huge fan club, even after he was officially implicated in the case by the police in the middle of 2021.

In the following year, he and his wife, Somporn, aka Pa Taen, became court defendants despite their immense and unprecedented popularity. From a family that used blankets as parts of house and toilet walls, the couple managed to buy a brand-new van. Songs were written for them. They appeared on catwalks.

His fan club existed throughout Thailand and in many places overseas. They sent trucks loaded with furniture and basic necessities to his home, which was renovated beyond recognition. Video clips of him eating rice and plain omelet had millions of views on YouTube. When he appeared on concert stages, shrieking audiences treated him like a rock star.

He brought a log to his home and shortly afterwards it became a miracle log worshipped by visitors who turned his house into a tourist spot. After the log was seized by forestry authorities, he built a giant Naga statue near his house. The construction triggered more donations _ and gossips by detractors. Crowded ceremonies involving religious adornment and glamourous traditional Thai dancers took place often, joined by high-ranking local officials, senior monks and famous national celebrities.

Most of these were taking place just a few minutes’ walk from Nong Chompoo’s house, where Savitree had to lock herself up most of the time. When she went out, she saw the giant naga, and when she saw the giant Naga, Nong Chompoo’s face flashed before her eyes.

Savitree’s small online business selling traditional cloths nearly collapsed initially. Many people visiting her online shop did not want to buy anything. They just wanted to tell the woman that she must rot in hell. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in this case took place when a TV host managed to get the secluded Savitree and her husband before the camera.

Asked what they wanted to say to the public, the couple “wai” and bowed and humbly urged the viewers not to judge them. Relatives disclosed that, when alone, the couple often hugged the remaining daughter, “Nong Sading”, and the three would cry together.

Another most amazing scene materialised before police officially named Loong Phol their suspect. This time it was a police news conference on the case. As Savitree and her husband watched the live telecast at their home, Chaiyaphol attended the news conference in person, sitting near the front row and surrounded by big celebrities.

Loong Phol finally cut his ties with the mainstream media following some negative news reports, moved his family to Sakon Nakhon and maintained his fan club through loyal YouTubers, who virtually demonised Savitree every day. Over the past two years, however, her support grew, too, and her online business was back on track. Yet if Loong Phol’s social media strength was an aircraft carrier, hers was a yacht.

Last year, Mukdahan’s provincial Criminal Court arraigned Chaiyaphol and Somporn, who the prosecutors believed must have helped him rearrange the body and alter the crime scene. During the trial of Loong Phol and her own elder sister, Savitree’s online presence was limited largely to selling cloths, with only occasional outbursts against him. She attended every court session as a joint plaintiff along with the prosecutors, but she kept all testimonies to herself, frustrating friends and foes alike.

Her subtle attacks on him and Somporn intensified when the trial concluded earlier this year, with the cloth-selling content giving way to her response to Loong Phol’s YouTubers and the man himself. Yet the court card was kept close to her chest, apparently because she did not want to give the other side any tip.

Wednesday’s verdict gave Loong Phol 20 years and acquitted Somporn, Savitree’s elder sister. It was a rare moment that the public saw Savitree cried. There were only two other remarkable moments in which she shed tears in public _ first when the search party called to tell that Nong Chompoo’s body had been found, and then when the court postponed its ruling from October 31 to last Wednesday.

Both sides would appeal. The Savitree camp felt Loong Phol should have been found guilty of murder rather than manslaughter. His lawyers would maintain that he was innocent. Another issue to be decided is how much Nong Chompoo’s family would actually get as compensation, which she demanded. The appeals and supreme courts await.

Now, there has been laughing, partying and drinking among Savitree’s innermost circles. Some of her supporters are not comfortable, saying that over-celebration could backfire. After all, Loong Phol became whatever he is apparently because of overwhelming sympathy, induced by the media and social media whether it was right or wrong. The Savitree camp, these concerned backers say, should not celebrate too much and too soon.

The caution is both understandable and ironic. It’s understandable because everyone knows what the mainstream media and social media can do. It’s ironic because Savitree had to endure a lot for being perceived as too rigid and emotionless.

by Tulsathit Taptim