Letter From Bangkok

How a Thai murder case created a YouTube star

Social media users elevate prime suspect in girl's murder to celebrity status, admiring his calmness under scrutiny and even good looks

It's dark as villagers gather outside a house in north-eastern Thailand for some sticky rice and chicken soup.

Seated on the mat among them is a man who looks a little trendier than the usual rural folk. Sporting a crew cut and fitting T-shirt, he sips the soup, then grunts with satisfaction into the microphone he is holding in one hand.

With the other, he stuffs a knob of rice into his mouth, then carefully licks his fingers.

"Kin khao der," he says to his companions, telling them to eat in the local lingo, as two people film his every move. One of them is streaming this scene live on the Internet.

This would have been a run-of-the-mill amateur reality show, if not for the fact that the protagonist is Chaiphol Wipha, the prime suspect in the murder of his three-year-old niece Orawan Wongsricha.

In May last year, the girl's naked body was found on a mountain in Mukdahan province some 2km from her home. This June, police arrested 45-year-old Chaiphol and charged him with child abduction, destruction of evidence and causing the child to starve to death. They later charged him with murder.

"Uncle Phol", as he is nicknamed, was granted bail and banned from leaving the country.

But it hardly mattered. He walked straight out of his brief detention and back into his life as a YouTube star. The video of his chicken soup meal last Tuesday, for example, garnered 8,400 views in two hours. By Friday, over 29,000 people had watched it.

His online fans were forgiving. After all, it was this murder case which made him a celebrity.

Casual mentions of the phenomenon by this writer tend to get reactions that range from embarrassment to discomfort to outright disgust among middle-class Thais.

"The accused person in a case like this became widely accepted, in a way," says Thammasat University anthropologist Yukti Mukdawijitra. "Even in Thailand, it is not normal."

Some, like Chiang Mai University sociologist Kengkij Kitirianglarp, describe it as a largely rural phenomenon, because the free-to-air TV channels that gave blanket coverage to Orawan's murder are most popular in the countryside.

By her mother's account, Orawan seemed unusually attached to Uncle Phol before her death.

Word of her disappearance in May last year drew hordes of reporters to the quiet Mukdahan village. The discovery of her body a few days later triggered a media frenzy, as journalists tracked the police investigation as well as scoured the area for their own clues.

Reporters grilled the girl's parents on air. News presenters pored over footage, commenting on the unusual behaviour of key suspects. Their movements on the day Orawan disappeared were re-enacted using computer animation.

Public interest was so intense that national police chief Suwat Jangyodsuk helmed a press conference in October last year to give updates on the case.

Uncle Phol was then an odd-job worker. Initial suspicions that he could have been guilty turned into sympathy and admiration as the public noticed how calmly he handled the endless media queries and was barely flustered before the cameras. Some found him handsome.

Believing he was maligned, fans made "SaveUnclePhol" a trending hashtag on Twitter. Donations poured in to renovate his home and fill it with new furniture. Uncle Phol was hired to endorse body scrub and herbal tea. He sang in a music video alongside country music star Jintara Poonlarp which scored 23 million views on YouTube.

The publicity brought even more media outlets to Uncle Phol's doorstep. They trailed him round the clock, hoping to fill their online channels with viral videos of the accidental celebrity.

Uncle Phol embraced the spotlight, growing into this Truman Show world. He danced before dozens of live-streaming mobile phones.

In a sense, Thailand's social media environment was made for the mania. According to Datareportal, a website reporting on digital trends, the country had 55 million social media users in January this year. Among the leading social media platforms, YouTube had the highest penetration rate of 94.2 per cent.

Political sentiments were at play too, says Dr Kengkij. Rural folk watching the life of Uncle Phol unfold on screen identified with him.

"The media presented him as a poor guy who was a good person," he says. "This is what people want now. They cannot hope that the people in power do something good for them, so even though they don't know Lung Phol personally, they want to believe that there is a guy who can be a moral model for the people."

"Lung" means uncle in Thai.

Stories about him were also a welcome distraction for people disillusioned with the state of Thai politics and widening inequality. "They just wanted a hero," says Dr Kengkij.

"Lung Phol Pa Taen Family", a YouTube channel created in August last year, has since amassed 407,000 subscribers. Pa means aunt, and Taen is the nickname of his wife, who is often the main videographer. Taen has been charged with abetting him in the murder but is similarly out on bail.

Typical fare on that YouTube channel, uploaded with roughly 12-minute clips several times daily, shows Uncle Phol harvesting rice, laying cement and fixing up farm equipment. In one clip, he accepts a little girl's challenge to arm wrestle him, declaring after that: "Enough! I cannot drive the car after this."

In the videos, there are usually several people filming him simultaneously with their mobile phones. Taen calls them "FC", or fan club.

Critics allege this is the result of journalism gone wrong. Media outlets, they say, threw caution to the wind in pursuit of viewership, allowing a potential killer to win public sympathy.

"It was like a vicious circle," says Dr Nattha Komolvadhin, news editor of Thai Public Broadcasting Service. "After the media gave him more attention, they got a larger audience and attracted more sponsors. Thai viewers loved it. A large number of people followed his news quite closely as they were curious about this guy. And at one point, people just forgot that he was related to the case."

The whole episode, which she describes as "bizarre", was a sobering reminder of the need for Thai media to stay focused on ethical standards even when under pressure to draw viewers and sponsors.

A court will hear Uncle Phol's case tomorrow. But for the 169,000 members of the Facebook group "Lung Phol Chaiphol Wipha FC", he can probably do no wrong.

"Fight, fight, fight, uncle!" wrote one supporter by the name of Saithong Kaewngam.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 21, 2021, with the headline 'How a Thai murder case created a YouTube star'. Subscribe