Thai celebs break silence on protests

City talk | Dene-Hern Chen 20 Oct 2020

A K-pop superstar, beauty queens and TV personalities are among a growing wave of celebrities backing Thailand's democracy movement, sending out messages of support to millions of followers on social media.

Political statements are rare from Thai celebrities, whose lucrative endorsements rely on the billionaire clans that are a pillar of the country's establishment. But some prominent figures broke cover after police fired water cannon at peaceful protesters in Bangkok on Friday.

Thai-American K-pop idol Nichkhun, better known as the "Thai Prince," told his 6.9 million Twitter followers he cannot "stand idly by" amid the latest strife, which is an escalation after months of student-led protests.

Nichkhun, a member of South Korean boy band 2PM, said in a message that was retweeted by tens of thousands within hours: "Violence has never helped anything. I hope everyone stays safe."

That was after the first such use of force by the current government against protesters, who are calling for the resignation of Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former military chief who took power as premier after a 2014 coup, and demanding reforms to the monarchy.

Nichkhun wasn't the only celebrity to speak up.

Amanda Obdam, the newly crowned Miss Universe Thailand, took to Instagram with pictures of a lone protester pushing against riot police wielding their shields.

"A picture says a thousand words," the Thai-Canadian model wrote, who then addressed the cops: "Your job is to protect the people, not harm them."

Until now, many stars have remained conspicuously silent on hot button issues in celebrity-obsessed Thailand, where careers and income are often tied to product endorsements.

Alienating potential employers may have been a reason for silence in a nation where every sector hums along under the oversight of huge business empires - traditional supporters of the staggeringly wealthy royal family. But business student Min, 18. who arrived at a protest with a helmet and a gas mask, argues that celebrities have a moral obligation to speak up. "Their voice is vital."

That voice also grew louder, with former beauty queen and TV personality Maria Poonlertlarp saying in a video on Facebook that the treatment of protesters is "completely unjust."

She has grown more vocal since Thai democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit was kidnapped recently in Cambodia, where he lived in self-exile

"People have been silenced from speaking up about the double standards and the abuse of power," Poonlertlarp adds in tears. "We've had a lot of injustice going on in Thailand for decades."

Seated next to her was partner Wannasingh Prasertkul, a television presenter whose parents were part of a student movement that saw a massacre in 1976 by royalist forces in Bangkok.

Even some celebrities who have mixed with Thailand's leaders have spoken out. Popular girl band BNK48 visited Prayut at Government House in 2018, where officially released photos showed the gruff premier chatting cheerfully with the group. The visit drew ire from critics, who saw it as an attempt to soften the image of the former army chief, who besides masterminding the 2014 coup retained power after controversial elections last year.

But BNK48 member Milin "Namneung" Dokthian left no room for doubt about her feelings in a message in urging protesters to "stay safe." She added: "We wouldn't have to say 'be safe' if we had a true democracy" in a post on Facebook that was shared by fellow band members.

The support from some celebrities and silence from others is not lost on young protesters.

Juggling goggles and a helmet at Saturday's protest, 25-year-old Aim scoffed at those who refuse to speak up.

"Perhaps they are out of touch," she says, but "we will abandon them because they are ignorant people and are silent."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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