Popping the question of hero or killer
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Popping the question of hero or killer

A hero to some is a murderer to others — how I wish the world were less tortuous.

Vivat Yodprasit, better known as the popcorn gunman, was recently sentenced to 37 years and four months in prison for murder and illegally possessing an assault weapon at the bloody, chaotic clash at Laksi between a People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) mob, who had laid siege to a polling booth, and pro-government counter-protesters.

It was Feb 1, 2014, the day before the cursed election, and one bystander was tragically killed and left in a puddle of his own blood for hours. Armed with an M16, Vivat hid the weapon in a green and yellow popcorn sack, hence the nickname he was given. At the height of the confrontation Vivat, a low-paid labourer from Phitsanulok, was part of the PDRC’s “protection team” that was urged to shoot at “whoever pops up”.

While justice was served, some people have chosen to see the whole thing from a different perspective. After news of the sentence came out, some PDRC members turned up in “popcorn T-shirts” to show support for their hero. They wanted to raise funds to help Vivat’s poor family (he refused). To them, Vivat was a shield, a talisman, a protector — but protecting them from what? From evil, of course, either real (the M79s that hit the PDRC site during their long protest) or imaginary (the persistent ghost of electoral democracy).

As many of us let out a sigh of relief as a killer has been punished — there are other killers out there — some PDRC alumni insist on propping their man up on a cross, a symbol of their struggle against the nefarious Shinawatras.

So here we are: men and women cheering for a convicted murderer. As disturbing as that may be, it is the latest, unsurprising symptom of a deep wound that still festers. More than that, somehow the sight of popcorn-lovers seems to me like the logical outcome of our ridiculous decade where things have gone topsy-turvy by way of paranoia, ego, excessive love and extreme hatred. It has been a decade in which ideology has slain humanity.

This applies to all sides of the divide. Vivat committed a deadly crime, but remember that heavy weapons hit PDRC gatherings too. In Trat during a protest, a girl was killed, and so on and so on.

Rightly, the law is making Vivat pay for what he did. But the popcorn guy who was told to pop whoever is in sight was a lonely figure, according to reports, at the court sentencing. His wife was there, along with some friends, in a scene of heartbreak, but not the PDRC members who later decided to make him a martyr — who perhaps saw a chance to highlight their cause through his punishment. The firebrand Phra Buddha Isara came out to defend himself, saying that he never abandoned Vivat and has given financial support to his family since he was arrested and put in jail.

From the other side, there was a sign of satisfaction. When the identity of the popcorn killer was still a mystery after the incident, Suthep Thaugsuban vehemently denied that he was a PDRC guard, claiming the non-violence high ground and mentioning the M79 attacks against his people. When the truth came out, with the gunman now convicted, the tables have turned and the anti-PDRC camp is claiming moral superiority. Look, there’s a killer over there! And look at those shameless cheerleaders!

What does all of this mean? It means that in our present pressure-cooker, humanity is at risk. Everything and everyone is reduced to a character, a pawn, a confirmation, that only serves to strengthen the position we’ve already chosen. Vivat is a murderer, of course. He’s also a person with a family, a foot soldier who is punished while the generals still walk free.

Not to be sentimental about it, but both the camp that chastises him and the other that puts him on a pedestal, are equally cynical, as we risk diminishing a man — it doesn’t matter if he’s a convict — into a mere symbol in our own fight.

I felt a rush of satisfaction upon hearing the verdict too (the image of 72-year-old Akaew Sae Liew lying in a pool of his own blood at Laksi was painful and heartbreaking, even more so when he died seven months after he was shot — an innocent bystander killed by rage hidden in a popcorn sack). But then I heard an interview with Sombat Boonngamanong, a red-shirt activist who met Vivat while they were both in jail after the coup. Mr Sombat, in a sympathetic gesture, said that Vivat joined the PDRC because he, too, felt the injustice around him and he wanted to see a better society. His actions were wrong, but in our fog of ire and ego, let’s just not forget that we’re all human here.

Kong Rithdee is Life Editor, Bangkok Post.

Kong Rithdee

Bangkok Post columnist

Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.

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