Should Thai celebrities make political comments?
Actress Bongkot Kongmalai is no stranger to the front page. Her recent appearance in the spotlight, however, strays far from the usual showbiz melodrama or popping bosoms.
Right after the death of lese majeste convict Ampon Tangnoppakul, better known as Ah Kong, Bongkot expressed her contempt for the man and his followers with harsh words on her Facebook profile page. The public reaction has been widespread. Those who agree with the actress celebrate her "honesty", which is seen as a rare quality in celebrity circles, and royalist stance, while the opposite camp condemns Bongkot for her insensitivity toward a death of a human being and her "uninformed" opinion.
Social networks went crazy sharing her posts with all sorts of comments from praises to curses, so much so that fellow actor Attachai Anantamaek composed an open letter to Bongkot in a lecturing tone, and revealed his political stand in the process. Parts of the letter reads: "I know you personally, and I believe that you're straightforward, and you have a good heart. You're also of grassroots class. I believe that your posts came from the fact that you don't truly understand. You must get rid of [your lack of knowledge]..." and "We [entertainers, celebrities] belong to the people. We must love them. You owe every single one of them, even Ah Kong."
The political frenzy generated by entertainment personalities usually stops short in social media networks or a few mentions in the mainstream media. But in the case Bongkot, the plot became thicker when she was mobbed and harassed by Red Shirts on the motorbikes while on a location shoot in Pattaya.
Bongkot, so far, is possibly the most extreme case that outspoken celebrities have to endure as it involved physical threats. Other media personalities, who are adamant in stating their political convictions, from both sides, usually receive heavy-handed criticisms, ridden with anger, abhorrence and hurt feelings. In this political climate, ideological differences are treated not as a challenge of mind, but rather as a personal vendetta, and local celebrities, being constantly under the spotlight and scrutiny especially in this cult of personality culture of ours, end up eliciting bigger reactions from left, right and centre.
So where does that leave them? Should entertainers and famous faces remain silent and hide their political inclinations? What are the consequences for them when they boldly state their political preferences, rendering support to parties with vested interests? Are they merely political pawns? This is, after all, Thailand where idol-worshipping is not just a ritual but a part of life.
"I believe in expressing my opinions truthfully. It's something one should do, no matter who they are," said director/screenwriter Chookiat Sakveerakul.
"Celebrities can also form opinions. It's human nature to have thoughts... If social pressure can stymie political opinions, then celebrities and artists will become Barbie dolls with no hearts and no souls because society puts them in a locked frame."
Tiva Sarachudha, editor-in-chief of Season magazine, also believes that people from all walks of life should be able to enjoy freedom of speech as long as it is within legal limits.
''Some say that famous people should keep their mouths shut when it comes to politics. That just shows how politically ignorant they are. They choose to ignore basic human rights which are freedom to speak, think and write... no matter what occupations they are in, and if you don't agree with them, then present your in own arguments in a civilised, non-violent way,'' he said.
Besides hardline participants such as Sarunyu Wongkachang or Tom Dundee, Chookiat is among the first batch of people who frankly voiced their political mindset in the social media.
''I went against the grain, and it felt like I became a target somehow. My posts have been [mis]interpreted, and sometimes put in a different context. Also, I get a lot of hate messages. On a personal level, I'm not so bothered because people either agree or disagree with you. But I'm constantly reminded that whatever I do, it's always linked back to my political beliefs somehow,'' said Chookiat.
Not only being publicly branded to certain camps, local celebrities also face the risk of losing popularity, and/or work opportunities, let alone suffering from verbal onslaughts and social-media crucifixion.
And it doesn't matter what colours they belong too. ''A good side of being well known is that you can generate income from being a public figure among other perks,'' said Thitiphan Anawatchapong, drummer with Slur. ''But the downside is that you lose your privacy and some personal rights. Whatever you say or post can be shared with the masses, and that has a lot of consequences because you have no control over it,'' he said.
Musicians typically have more leeway in articulating their thoughts on social, cultural and political issues. They can do so through their compositions _ sometimes clear-cut and sometimes veiled. Tul Waitoonkiat, singer with Apartmentkhunpa, strongly voices his opinions through his lyrics, and he's been lauded and loved for his poetic convictions. ''When celebrities choose to be straightforward, they can run into a lot of trouble here. They can lose their fan base. I think it's because the fans have certain expectations of their idols. They've drawn images inside their heads, and once their beloved celebrities are not of the same opinions as they are, they become very angry,'' he said. ''But if you take a look at certain artists like Ad Carabao or Hugo who have been opinionated all these years, they can get away with it because people are used to them having opinions. I can also get away with it without having to risk anything because people understand that this is the way I am, and how my music works. I think if any celebrity would like to declare their political stance, they should feel free to do so because people will get used to it,'' he said.
Then there are those who choose to stay away from all the political mess. To name a few, Superstar Thongchai McIntyre, or Phi Bird, was rumoured to side with the Red Shirts, and he went to the trouble of denying it publicly, while soap opera queen Khemmanij 'Pancake' Jamikorn immediately appeared at a Democrat Party function right after her appearance at a Pue Thai Party event created a buzz.
Needless to say, it seems as if famous stars are expected to have a moderate view on things while keeping mum to avoid confrontations and headache. Unlike their global superstar Hollywood counterparts, if they care enough, rightfully enjoy political and social activism in whatever ends. Charlton Heston spoke out against racism, but later in life became president of the National Rifle Association. George Clooney champions his Dafur cause among so many others, while Sean Penn writes open letters to a president, and Lady Gaga stands for gay-marriage rights. When Barack Obama ran for office, numerous stars rallied behind him. And all of them seemed to be doing so without having to worry about their popularity. This can't be said for Thailand.
''Our society is very immature. We can't seem to separate an artist's works from his/her personal opinions. And when we react, we react childishly, emotionally and aggressively. We have too many imposing taboos,'' said Chookiat.
It is, then, not a major surprise to learn that there are more than a few celebrities who shy away from making political comments. Or it's possible that they genuinely don't give a monkey's about politics. Case in point: sourcing opinions on this subject on the back of the Bongkot debacle hadn't been a cakewalk. ''Still, we cannot and should not scold those who wish to remain silent. It's also their right to not express any opinions... But it's just not for me. I refuse to be politically naive so I can be liked,'' Chookiat added.
Political disputes will never end, but it's how one manages one's words against others. Celebrity or not, freedom of speech is a birthright, but an alert conscience and sensitivity should automatically accompany such freedom rather than hatred, prejudice and deep-seated anger.
''I encourage celebrities to speak up actually so that political discussions in civil manner can finally become a norm in Thai society,'' said Tul.
By Onsiri Pravattiyagul
23 May 2012