11 July 2024

As Thailand’s deep political divide cracks even wider, celebrities, businesses and media outlets are learning the hard way that harsh consequences lie in wait for those who take sides.

The latest celebrity to fall into this deep chasm is famous transgender TV personality Ornapa “Ma” Krisadee.

On Monday, Ornapa was forced to give up her job as co-host of Thairath TV’s news show “Khao Sai Kai” and Channel 3’s “3 Zaaap” programme after supporters of anti-establishment protests launched a boycott against her after she hurled insults at protesters on Facebook.

“Keep playing with your [expletive] at home. Don’t go to school, you demon kids,” read her message, which was widely shared on Sunday. Her comment appeared to target recent high-school protests held in solidarity with anti-government rallies.

Students in many schools nationwide wore white ribbons and raised the three-finger “Hunger Games” salute during morning assembly to show support for the anti-government protesters, who are seeking dissolution of Parliament, a new Constitution and an end to the harassment of activists.

Angered by her online attack, pro-democracy supporters launched the #MaOrnapa hashtag and called for a boycott of brands that sponsor her TV programmes. Others, however, came out in her support, saying she did the right thing in chastising the young protesters.

No details were provided as to why she suddenly left a show she has co-hosted for five years, but the general belief is she was dismissed in response to public pressure.

Ornapa first caught the attention of the pro-democracy movement when she voiced support for the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) rallies in 2013-2014, which led to the coup that ousted Yingluck Shinawatra’s government. The PDRC’s campaign was triggered by her government’s blanket amnesty bill, which would have absolved politicians including Yingluck’s brother and former PM Thaksin of corruption charges.

Ornapa is not the only TV celebrity in the political crosshairs, however.

Netizens are also pushing to have Pawanrat “Miew” Naksuriya removed as co-host of the popular “Khao Sai Khai” show and have even shared an old clip of her mocking victims of “popcorn gunman” Vivat Yodprasit in 2014. Vivat fired at red shirt protesters in Bangkok’s Laksi intersection on February 1, 2014 in a shoot-out that left one dead and three injured.

Photos of other celebrities at PDRC rallies are being widely shared on social media, while Thai actress Sinjai “Nok” Plengpanich has come under fire for supporting Ornapa and now faces a boycott via the top trending hashtag #NokSinjai.

Celebs who posted messages celebrating Her Majesty Queen Sirikit the Queen Mother’s 88th birthday on August 12, marked as Mother’s Day, also became targets.

Among them was heartthrob Nadech Kugimiya, whose image of the Queen Mother on Instagram was retweeted by a Twitter user with the message “stop watching Nadech’s TV soaps and buying products he presents”.

However, some netizens are calling on people to respect other’s freedom of expression and “stop the witch-hunt”.


Pressure via social media

Media outlets have also been targeted. Last week, news channel Nation TV was hit by a boycott campaign over its coverage of a student-led protest.

Hashtags #BanNation and #แบนสปอนเซอร์เนชั่น (#BanNationsSponsors) top-trended on Twitter for several days after netizens learned that its field reporter had lied about which channel she came from to get interviews from protesters during an August 16 anti-establishment rally at Democracy Monument in Bangkok. The 10,000-strong demonstration was the largest since the 2014 coup.

The reporter’s behaviour saw her media company labelled as unprofessional and biased, leading to an online boycott of Nation TV and products of its two dozen sponsors.

Two Nation TV sponsors – online food delivery service foodpanda and Yanhee Vitamin Water – responded by pulling out. Foodpanda was the first to withdraw its advertising from the channel after netizens called on people to delete its app from their mobile phones.

The #BanNationsSponsors campaign has continued unabated, with new sponsors being targeted.


Boycotts ‘ruining lives’

The boycotts against media, sponsors and TV celebrities have been dubbed “cancel culture”. This, say critics, prevents debate by “cancelling” public figures and companies who do or say something considered offensive by one side of the political divide. This group shaming has become a popular public trend, with participants far too keen to ruin lives over mistakes made many years ago, they add, pointing out that targets rarely get a chance to redeem themselves.

The idea of “cancelling” someone first surfaced in the 1991 New York crime film “New Jack City”, before gaining popularity among black American Twitter users in the mid-2010s to target discrimination and racism.

Keith Hampton, a Michigan State University media professor, warned the practice had helped polarise American society but not led to changes in opinion.

US President Donald Trump criticised cancel culture in a speech in July, comparing it to totalitarianism and claiming that it has become a political weapon to punish and shame dissenters.


Celebrity influence

Meanwhile, Thai celebrities who have voiced support for the pro-democracy movement have been praised for daring to stand up for the people. Hashtags like #HaveCelebsCalledOutToday? (#วันนี้ดาราcalloutหรือยัง) began doing the rounds on social media two weeks ago as netizens urged public personalities to speak out in solidarity with calls to end intimidation by authorities.

The reason for the move is simple. Celebrities’ voices are louder, more powerful, draw media attention and can “normalise” stances viewed as radical.

Hashtags calling on celebrities to speak out began top trending after protest leaders Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul and Parit Chiwarak faced arrest for raising the topic of monarchy reform on a rally stage – a move seen as breaking deeply entrenched taboos in Thailand.

In response celebrities ranging from beauty queens, actors and actresses to film directors, musicians and artists, began posting social media comments against the harassment of anti-establishment activists. Most called for authorities to respect people’s rights and freedom to debate and express opinions.

Among the celebs supporting the movement was former Miss Universe Thailand Maria Poonlertlarp, who has always expressed strong public support for democratic principles.

The Thai-Swedish beauty queen recently posted on Instagram a photograph someone had taken of her at the August 16 protest with a message reading “Do you hear the people sing? #ประชาชนปลดแอก @#DemocracyMonument”.

Her post won a flood of support, “likes” and “love” from fellow celebrities and fans, who referred to her as the queen of democracy. At the same time, opponents called for a ban on the products she represents.

Among other young celebrities who have joined the political battle are several members of the girl group BNK48, who voiced support for freedom of expression.

“You can imprison a man, but not an idea. You can exile a man, but not an idea. You can kill a man, but not an idea. Stand up!!” a recent post from Namneung BNK48 read.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk