Opinion: Pimrypie Saga and the Voiceless Young Rural Thais

Image: Pimrypie / YouTube

When a female YouTuber recently visited a far-flung highland community in Chiang Mai and decided to spend half a million baht installing solar cells and setting up a large TV for 40 children and posting the video online, it ignited a storm of reactions.

Pimradaporn “Pimrypie” Benjawattanapat, 30, who released the video on Jan. 8 met with not just praise but a barrage of criticisms and a swift reaction from the local education agency.

The director of Om Koi’s Office of Non-Formal and Informal Education Wilailak Sooksai issued a directive on Jan. 9, a day after the video was released that featured a local teacher in the district as her collaborator for the clip, saying that teachers must not ask for donations.

“Large amounts of information on online communities like Facebook, Line, e-mail, and Twitter are affecting the office in both positive and negative ways,” part of the announcement read.

Nonformal teachers in Om Koi district were also banned by the order from expressing “any negative views [about the community they work serve] on social media”.

The announcement was a knee-jerk reaction to the embarrassment that the Thai state has suffered online as a result of the video released by Pimrypie and for failing to provide the very basic infrastructures like electricity for some Thais in remote rural areas such as Mae Kerb village. The village up a mountain is 300 kilometers from the city center of Chiang Mai.

The director apparently cares more about her face and that of her agency than the prospect of a quick uplift in certain infrastructures for some poor rural children at Mae Kerb village who gathered to watch TV surrounded by strings of lit light bulbs over head, courtesy of Pimrypie.

In the 10-minute video released just before the Thai National Children Day, which has attracted 22 million views and shared nearly half a million times by press time (Friday), Pimrypie chronicled her trip up the mountain to the village. It shows kids walking barefoot, eating rats, and not knowing what a TV is when asked by the Pimrypie who sells cosmetics online.

“They are cavemen. They don’t have electricity. The most pitiful thing is they are born with no dreams. They simply exist day by day. I can’t just let it be,” Pimrypie said in the video where a local male teacher was featured prominently as a collaborator.

Soon enough, on Monday, or two days after the first order and more online outrage about the rural hardship, this time focusing squarely on the education agency’s reaction, the director issued yet another directive rescinding the first order.

The justification? The first order was the result of a “miscommunications,” period.
Another major reaction, this time from a different angle, came from Chiang Mai University anthropologist Pinkaew Laungaramsri.

Pinkaew on Jan. 9, or a day after the released video, criticized Pimrypie for imposing her class-based bias on the children as to what the kids should aspire to become. The YouTuber claims these kids have “no dreams” and can find dreams as to what they want to be by watching people of various professions on television.

“Are dreams so easily created by setting up a TV and installing solar cells?…This is no dream of hill children. It’s the dreams of [Pimrypie] wanting to act like a savior to lower-class animals. The urban middle-class are ignorant and do not care about the problem of disparity, the suppression of ethnic minorities and exclusion from access to all things in society..,” Pinkaew lambasted on her Facebook page.

The comment was shared nearly 5,000 times on Facebook as of press time and was reported by the local media.

Pinkaew may have chosen a far less than diplomatic way of expressing herself but she was trying to make a point. The point is there exists a persisting structural problems of disparity and unequal access in Thai society. She attacked the piece-meal dole-out approach as more of a moralistic voyeur to satisfy Pimrypie’s “feel-good” needs or to generate more fame.

I will not succumb to cynicism and think Pimrypie should at least be given the benefit of the doubt, if not a break, even if you disagree with her dole-out deeds which may likely not be sustainable.

What’s evident in the saga, however, is that through all the week-long debate and counter debate, the underprivileged children in that village in Om Koi had no voice to really speak for themselves.

Even in Pimrypie’s video, they were treated simply as a supporting cast to the formulaic narrative with Pimrypie as the generous protagonist at best. They are marginalized to the point where others took turns, speaking and enthusing on their behalf as to what might be best for them.

I don’t purport to know whether these kids truly want electricity, TV or canvas shoes given by Pimrypie or not or whether they would rather prefer to have something else first.

I don’t think any community or ethnic group is monolithic so there are probably differing opinions among them.

The irony is that Pimrypie, Wilailak and Pinkaew are all middle class. They each think they know what might be best for these kids in the far-flung rural village who have little or no voice to speak for themselves.