Truth and justice drowned out by media ‘soap opera’ surrounding death of Tangmo

Pattaratida “Tangmo” Patcharawirapong

Thailand’s media spotlight has been firmly fixed on actress Pattaratida “Tangmo” Patcharawirapong since February 24 – the day she reportedly fell into the Chao Phraya River from a private speedboat with fatal consequences. Media coverage of her death in murky circumstances has gone into overdrive, even as more important issues like the Russia-Ukraine war and COVID-19 pandemic dominate world headlines.

Hashtags related to Tangmo’s death have been trending on social media for the past week. Millions of these tweets are pumped into the Twittersphere every day, spreading the latest news as well as dark rumors.

The blanket media coverage undeniably reflects a public fascination with the ongoing police investigation into the actress’s death. Yet while there are many reasons why Tangmo’s story is interesting, some observers are concerned it has become a media soap opera.

Concerns with ongoing drama

Among them is Assoc Prof Dr Yukti Mukdawijitra, who teaches at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology. He cautioned media outlets against sensationalizing the news.

“Mainstream media should promote maturity by focusing on the justice process,” Yukti said in a live talk show on YouTube’s Unpuwanart channel recently. “For instance, check who can legally take a boat into the Chao Phraya River or do some investigative journalism.”

TV host Kanchai Kamnerdploy told the interviewer that he tried to address public doubts in his popular Hone-krasae show on Channel 3.

“The sooner the police provide information on this case with evidence, the better,” he said.

Asst Prof Dr. Jiraporn Arunakul, a pediatrician whose Facebook page Takekidswithus is very popular, said that Thailand’s long-entrenched obsession with retribution for culprits can sometimes lead to mob justice.

In her post on the Tangmo case, she pointed out that other current deserved media coverage and public attention, including the ongoing war in Europe, Thai farmers’ protests, rising oil prices, and forest fires in Chiang Mai.

Can media help with investigation?

The late actress’s close friends say they have deliberately granted interviews in the hope that the media spotlight ensures the investigation of Tangmo’s death is conducted fairly and thoroughly.

Some said the other passengers on the speedboat on that night had acted strangely. They have also raised doubts over claims that Tangmo fell off the boat after retiring to the stern to relieve herself without informing the boat driver.

Meanwhile, Tangmo’s mother Panida Sirayootyotin has suggested her daughter may have been lured onto the boat before falling into the water during a struggle.

Several media outlets have conducted their own investigations – interviewing witnesses and experts, checking security camera clips, and reenacting Tangmo’s alleged attempt to relieve herself at the back of the boat.

One reporter even deliberately fell from a boat being driven at the same speed as Tangmo’s boat to see what effect the propeller would have on a body in the water. A deep cut was found on Tangmo’s thigh, but investigators have yet to establish if it was caused by a propellor blade.

Drama in real life

On February 24, Tangmo and her manager Idsarin “Gatick” Juthasuksawat, who is also said to have been her best friend, joined Tanupat “Por” Lerttaweewit on a private cruise down Bangkok’s “River of Kings”. Also present were Phaiboon “Robert” Trikanjananun, Wisapat “Sand” Manomairat and Nitas “Job” Kiratisoothisathorn.

Tanupat, Phaiboon and Nitas own several companies, while Wisapat – a transgender woman – hails from a rich family.

The gathering of friends seemed like a perfect night out at first. The group had dinner at a riverside restaurant before boarding the boat for drinks. They posed for photographs with the Rama VIII Bridge in the background at around 10pm.

Wisapat said that while she was relaxing at the rear of the boat and focusing on her mobile phone, Tangmo showed up saying she wanted to relieve herself. Tangmo held onto her legs and lowered herself down on the swim board, but then stood up, lost her balance, and fell sideways into the river, said Wisapat.

Alerted to Wisapat’s scream, the driver turned the boat around to search for Tangmo. But there was no sign of the victim.

Around 10.50pm, Wisapat called rescue workers. They arrived to find the caller and her friends rather uncooperative and giving confused accounts of the incident.

More confusion followed when friends of Tangmo said Gatick had told them to stay away from the scene. Meanwhile, nobody on the speedboat spoke to the media for the first few days. Tangmo’s body was found on February 26 after a two-day search mission. The autopsy showed she had died of drowning.

On February 27, Gatick and Wisapat appeared before the media to tell their side of the story. However, their account of Tangmo going to the rear of the boat for a pee – coupled with Gatick’s apparent lack of emotion over her “best friend’s” death – spurred doubts. Tangmo loved Gatick’s daughter and even paid for her schooling.

Then on February 28, every member of the speedboat outing except for Robert appeared in a live TV interview to explain what had happened that night. Again, their story failed to convince many viewers.

Soon after, Gatick’s claims that she could not swim were found to be false when a clip of her swimming with her daughter went viral.

Further media frenzy was stirred when another friend of Tangmo – former singer Surattanavee “Bo” Pattaranukool, a DJ and devout Christian – told press that Gatick should tell the truth because “truth will set you free”.

Star-crossed actress

Born in 1984, Tangmo was brought up by her father after her parents separated when she was three before officially divorcing two years later.

Her father remained single and was reportedly totally devoted to his daughter. The strong love between Tangmo and her dad is well documented, given the actress had been in the public spotlight since she was a teenager.

While studying at Ramkhamhaeng University’s demonstration school, she was spotted by a talent scout and handed modeling and acting jobs. She first drew the national limelight when she joined Miss Teen Thailand in 2002. She lost the beauty contest but landed a contract with Channel 7.

In 2007, she suffered a serious car accident that left her needing more than 100 stitches in her face. Yet she continued getting acting jobs.

Tangmo dated several men, including Phakin Khamwilaisak, with whom she tied the knot in 2013. Though the couple called the ceremony an engagement, Tangmo later said it was actually a wedding ceremony.

The couple split up two years later, after which Tangmo apparently attempted to commit suicide by overdosing but survived. The actress had been battling depression for some time before she lost her beloved father to cancer in 2020.

Her finances had also been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, things had started to look up after she met an “understanding man” and landed more jobs. But on Feb 24, her life was cut tragically short at the age of 37.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk

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