How Thai media’s love for ‘LIKEs’ turned a murder suspect into a national idol

Chaiphol Wipha in police custody. (June 3rd, 2021)

It took the media just a few months last year to turn a murder suspect into a national celebrity, who then capitalized on his fame by endorsing products and appearing in music videos. This year, it took an arrest warrant for media and others to reflect on how such a phenomenon could ever have arisen.

Chaiphol Wipha, better known as Uncle Phol, emerged as the prime suspect in May last year after the naked body of his three-year-old niece “Chompoo” was found in a forest in Mukdahan province. Despite that ill-fated turn in his life, luck was to remain on his side for quite some time.

Media outlets shed light on Chaipol’s links to the suspected murder, but they were also fascinated by his personality. With the spotlight on his good looks and suave character, honed while working as a salesman, he attracted a huge number of sympathizers and fans. Most were also willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Talent agent Oop Wiriya saw an opportunity in Chaiphol, as did advertisers. The murder suspect even got the chance to sing alongside look-thung star Jintara Poonlarp in a music video. Donations flooded in from people who considered him a worthy recipient.

Chaiphol’s luck finally ran out on June 1, when police secured a warrant for his arrest. He surrendered the next day and was charged with depriving a child of parental care, abandoning a child in a way that caused her death, and tampering with a body to influence police investigation.

Tragedy, media paved way to fame

On May 11 last year, Chompoo went missing from her home in Ban Kokkork in Mukdahan’s Dong Luang district. More than 200 locals scoured the neighborhood for days before her body was eventually found 2 kilometres away in deep forest.

Police quickly began investigating her death, suspecting the toddler may have strayed into the forest on her own, but refusing to rule out the theory that someone had left her there.

Given the mysterious circumstances of the case, Chaiphol was not the only suspect in the eyes of the public. Many people wondered why her parents had not washed Chompoo’s face prior to her cremation. Suspicion also fell on her 13-year-old sister, who had initially told a lie. Rather than falling asleep while she was supposed to be watching over the toddler, she had actually been engrossed in TikTok videos.

Two autopsies were conducted, one by Sunprasitthipraong Hospital in Ubon Ratchathani province and the other by the Police General Hospital in Bangkok.  As they awaited the autopsy results, the public stayed glued to news reports in hope of discovering the culprit’s identity.

To feed the intense public interest in the case, reporters roamed Ban Kokkork in search of clues, interviewing as many locals as they could.

They even followed Chompoo’s family on a visit to a shaman who had offered to help. The shaman entered a trance-like state and began calling “Is Uncle Phol here? Uncle Phol … Uncle Phol”. Chompoo’s mother immediately pointed the finger at Chaiphol.

However, after two months of growing public suspicion, the tide began to turn. Chaiphol projected a cooperative and sympathetic attitude, and some media outlets began focusing on his personal life. They even made him look charming, for example by encouraging him to sing for the audience. Many people were swayed, especially after a psychiatrist invited by media to analyse Chaiphol’s body language gave a favorable opinion.

By early July, the hashtag #SaveUnclePhol had mushroomed on social media. His sympathisers pointed out he had never lashed out at any of his many accusers.

On July 13 last year, the results of the autopsy showed Chompoo had not been sexually violated, but had died from starvation. With no evidence from the autopsy linking Chaiphol to the crime, public sympathy poured his way. Many people felt sorry for him after his months of being treated as a suspect.

Taking their cue from public sentiment, showbiz figures flocked to Chaiphol. Oop Wiriya secured several entertainment jobs for the new idol. Jintara’s music video with Chaiphol received more than 22 million views.

Chaiphol and his wife, the sister of Chompoo’s mother, even launched their own YouTube channel last August.

Scree grab from a music video that gathered millions of view.

What went wrong?

Chaiphol’s rise to stardom is a classic case of distorted idolization, according to Dr Isaya Sinpongsporn, who teaches innovative media production at Bangkok University.

The “Uncle Phol fever” diverted attention from the investigation and turned the case into entertainment, she said.

“Media should know better about what values it is meant to uphold. It definitely should not be about creating an idol out of a situation like this.”

Meanwhile popular Facebook page @overhyp lamented that several media outlets did not have the courage to resist public sentiment. “They focused on audience engagement and the number of LIKEs,” it complained. “Why don’t the media present facts for the public’s benefit? What does the public get from turning a suspect into an idol who can make millions of baht?”

Revealing his true colors?

At the time of Chaiphol’s arrest, his YouTube channel still had 360,000 subscribers. But his star status has been declining for some time. Over the past year, Chaiphol has parted ways with many of his supporters, among them Oop Wiriya and news reporters who were once close to him.

Oop Wiriya claimed he cut ties with Chaipol after seeing his bad side. In January, Chaiphol scuffled with a TV reporter in front of other journalists before admitting that he was hot-tempered. Meanwhile, many of his supporters have reportedly asked him to return the money they donated.

Jintara also deleted the video and pictures taken with Chaiphol from social media, after a barrage of public hatred against the suspect.

What evidence links Chaiphol to the crime?

Police say they acquired new evidence against Chaiphol after a high-tech device was used to analyse strands of hair collected from the crime scenes.

According to an informed source, one strand collected from the spot where Choompoo was found belongs to Chaiphol’s wife, who insists she has never visited the spot.

This piece of evidence is on top of results from lie-detector tests, witness interviews and various other items of evidence gathered.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk


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