What the 'Pimrypie' sensation foretells
While it became a storm in a teacup, the recent phenomenon involving YouTuber and online retailer Pimradaporn "Pimrypie" Benjawattanapat yields longer-term implications and meanings. Pimrypie's charity drive for Children's Day that provided solar panels and electricity to underprivileged kids in a far-flung village of Omkoi district 300 kilometres from Chiang Mai spoke volumes about the structure and shortcomings of Thailand's paternalist state and what needs to be done to tackle it.
The first implication to note is that all things that really matter in Thailand these days are likely to appear in the virtual world more than in the vernacular media. This means that people who really want to know what is happening in Thailand need to follow social media platforms, such as YouTube and Twitter. As evolving and accelerating information and communications technology drives these platforms, while the state-owned and privately held commercial media become more circumscribed and self-censored, the gulf between official reality and the real world that goes on virtually increasingly widens.
Pimrypie is not a household name to many. Before the 30-something Gen Y-er doled out 550,000 baht of her own money for the solar panels and TV screen to light up and beam programmes to Omkoi village, she mainly thrived in the virtual world. Her official YouTube video indicates more than 30 million views. For those who had never heard of her, internet searchers suggest she has a seven-digit viewership on a regular basis.
As she converted her online power from the wealth and notoriety she has earned into charity, it revealed Thailand's underbelly of under-development and inequality that is fed by official neglect. Who would have thought that there are still many remote areas that do not have access to basic infrastructure, such as electricity and running water, not to mention a proper education.
Instead of showing accountability and addressing these grievances, district officials and higher-ups in Bangkok glossed over it and waited out until the controversy died down. Initially they threatened to go after Pimrypie's tax records from online sales but relented when she turned out apolitical.
Thailand's paternalistic state has long been accustomed to providing handouts and giveaways to disadvantaged folk in faraway corners of the country. That these hapless Thais with no upward mobility can be self-empowered and given means and ways to lift themselves up is an alien concept to state officials. To them and to well-heeled elites up at the top of the pole, poor people are there to be helped and aided in a romanticised fashion. If there are no masses of people down below, what's the point of being the few at the top without others to look down on and give away to.
What Pimrypie did was empowering. She exposed Thailand's relative backwardness in the 21st century, and did it with nonchalance. As one side of Thailand's political polarisation used her solar-powered TV charity to accuse state-led efforts and myriad royal projects over decades of being futile and incompetent, while the opposing side insinuated that what she did was just a publicity stunt and an imposition of bourgeois values on the downtrodden, she told them both off, averting politicisation and partisanship.
Moreover, Pimrypie herself is a showcase of rare upward mobility based on talent and tenacity. As a student at an unremarkable high school in Bangkok's outskirts, she took to e-commerce focusing on cosmetics and beauty products. Her straight-talking authenticity and values like loyalty, humility, empathy, and gratitude underpinned her business success, which she leveraged to fight bigger causes for the disadvantaged.
Poorer rungs of society identify with her because she promotes them without alienating or chastising the rich. In one YouTube episode, typically laden with candid views and profane words, she brought viewers into what the lives of the rich and famous they see on Thai soap operas are actually like, visiting high-end homes and condos and acting the part. As she did with the Omkoi kids by showing possibilities and progress, her way was to dare to "dream" and to work on its potential eventuality.
Her legions of fans mainly are ordinary people with no pedigree who live from one day to the next. They follow Pimrypie because she has made it but always gives back to the roots from where she came. On top of that, she has an entertaining way of conveying it all. Her narrative fits that of the lower rungs, not the higher-ups.
The Pimrypie phenomenon shows that there is hope, that talent and hard work still matter against the odds. It is also clear that the virtual world has superseded the vernacular media, and some day the issue of media reform will need to be re-introduced. Thailand's major TV stations are military-owned, and provide a lucrative revenue stream to the top brass and officers down below, while self-censoring and spouting information that is increasingly short of reality.
The upshot of the Pimrypie story is not that village children should be content with their lot and shy away from urbanisation, modernity, and cosmopolitanism with assorted developmental ills in favour of rural sufficiency and romanticised happiness. The takeaway lesson should be that the poor and disadvantaged should be given choices and opportunities for them to seek out what is possible.
Pimradaporn: Exposes Thailand's relative backwardness in the 21st century
An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University
An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.