11 July 2024

When it happened in 2020, the death of three-year-old Nong Chompoo was one of Thailand’s most tumultuous criminal cases. However, the Criminal Court’s trial, which began a few months ago and has been almost half way through now, has gone eerily quiet, showcasing only social media rivalry between supporters and opponents of the suspects whereas the mainstream media have practically stayed out of the way.

From Day One, the case has been fascinating in a few aspects. It shows how the social media can influence or even manipulate public opinions, rightly or wrongly. It tests the conventional justice system’s ability to cope with unconventional and forceful presentation of information that may contain both new facts and fresh lies. It opens up a whole new world where criminal suspects and their backers can operate YouTube channels to proclaim they are “innocent”, and where their critics, detractors and blatant haters do the same to tell the world they are not. It asks a tough moral and legal question concerning donations solicited by the suspects or initiated and handed out willingly to them by generous “sympathizers”.

The danger of all of the above is amplified by the near-silence of the mainstream media since the key suspects decided to shut out journalists. One-sided information has been clashing badly with nobody caring to balance it out. Loong Phol’s admirers would only watch YouTube channels that speak exclusively highly of him, whereas the other side slams every content to pieces and presents its own information as the one and only truth. Charges of witnesses being intimidated or bought off have abounded.

Here’s a quick recap of the case: Chaiphol Wipa, better known as “Loong (Uncle) Phol”, has been charged in connection with the death of Nong Chompoo in Mukdahan in 2020. She went missing before her body was found in a mountainous jungle, which is near her home but too far for a toddler to walk to alone. Chaiphol was charged with unlawful abandonment of a small child who died as a result, but the opposing camp insists on the social media that it looked like a murder conspiracy, as he and his wife have also been charged with tampering with evidence to mislead investigation.

In court, the accusers are armed with Chaiphol’s obviously-inconsistent statements regarding his whereabouts and related events on the morning when Nong Chompoo disappeared, and some scientific evidence concerning her cut hair and undisclosed hair which was not hers but found near her dead body. His defence is saying that the girl was playing with a dog, followed it, unfortunately lost her way and starved to death on a mountain.

What’s happening is the second phase of a phenomenon. In the first phase, after Chaiphol became an “unofficial” suspect and before he was formally charged, he became a singer who had his own songs and was invited to join famous artists on stage and drew loud shrieks like The Beatles. He and his wife turned into freelance fashion models and YouTube celebrities. They set up a company and succeeded at online selling with everything they sold flying off their home faster than hot cake from bakery. They solicited jaw-dropping amounts of donations, and built a gigantic naga structure which for a while was a tourist attraction. A new car arrived and the house which had been covered by blankets as parts of its walls due to his poverty was richly renovated. The couple’s menus went from basic I-saan food to luxurious meals at popular restaurants or resorts sometimes.

That was when the social media were in virtual unison about his “innocence”, during which the parents of the dead girl suffered massive online abuses and had to beg for public sympathy in what looked like the greatest travesty of it all. The second phase has seen a mushrooming of “counter-offensive” YouTube channels, some of which belong to Loong Phol’s friends-turned-foes. They have sought to make sure that donations drop, celebrities stay away from him and the trial progresses along side absolute character assassination. His loyal YouTubers are defending him ferociously and many in his fan club are still sending donations or buying his company’s cosmetic products and coffee online.

Both phases challenge the orthodox justice process. While there have been some positives, like exposure of certain clips or recordings that otherwise would not have been known, a lot of justified questions have gone unasked. Should a criminal suspect be allowed to do what he does? Should opponents of a criminal suspect be allowed to do what they do? Of course, he has barricaded himself against the mainstream media, apparently because of “unfavorable” reports, but isn’t it the mainstream journalists’ duty to show both sides of the story no matter what?

Since nobody saw any actual crime in this case, circumstantial witnesses are important. However, witnesses on both sides have been discredited, both before and after testimonies. Some charges are sound, backed up by undisputed video or audio clips, but others border on mere mudslinging.

Scientific experts will testify next, but it looks like some major “damage” has been done as the climax is near. A court verdict is expected at year’s end or early next year, but the one-sided nature of what is going on has all but ascertained that whatever the ruling is, a large number of people will question it, possibly vociferously. As Thailand has been busy with something else, the case, its treatment and its aftermath can redefine many things, not least the term “justice”.

By Tulsathit Taptim