When famous rocker turned philanthropic runner Artiwara “Toon Bodyslam” Kongmalai recently announced another charity run, he was faced with a different political environment. Instead of a unison and warm receptions, a hero’s welcome for Toon’s return after four-years absence from a very successful run to raise donations to buy hospital equipment, his latest bid to raise 28 million baht to fund 109 school children raised more questions.
The criticisms became news. On Tuesday, the Thai-language Twitter hashtag #whyiselderbrothertoonrunning (#พี่ตูนวิ่งทำไม) trended and received over 200K mentions.
Detractors say what Toon had done in the past and about to do again now is a dole out attempt without touching structural problems of inequality. They say charity is no replacement for the government’s failures to ensure equal access to public health care as well as education.
Some critics from pro-democracy camps also pointed out to Toon’s chummy relationship with then junta leader cum prime minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha four years ago when he managed to raise 1.3 billion baht after he spent 55 days running across the kingdom from the south to the northernmost district to funds 11 public hospitals.
What difference does four years make. Now faced with young generations coming of age politically, they are fed up with Toon’s method, a method they see as prolonging the endemic and structural problems facing Thai society. This led some of Toon’s supporters to launch a hashtag #savetoonbodyslam and ask while someone who is engaging in a major and very visible philanthropy are being villainized?
To be fair, there is no denying that what Toon did was directly beneficial to those who could have access to some life-saving medical equipment at some public hospitals. There is also no denying that Toon’s latest project will benefit 109 needy students who may otherwise have to leave schools due to economic constraints. There are currently about 120,000 students who left schools due to economic woes, education expert Sompong Jitradab told a local media earlier this week.
Perhaps Toon doesn’t deserve to be ridiculed or even villainized. In a normal democratic society, people should generally rejoice.
In a less than democratic society, getting too chummy with the dictator in your philanthropic endeavor has led to making retroactive questions and criticisms. The photos of Toon meeting and prostrating upclose at the dictator after a ‘successful run’ was supposed to be the highlight four of his achievements four years ago in Dec 2017 but now a new generation were put off by such image and say Toon actually is part of the problems plaguing Thai society.
How you judge Toon depends on what you value most, if it’s good intention and instant gratification then you are probably sympathetic if you don’t adore Toon. I understand this sentiment though I think Toon played an instrumental role in setting himself up as an example of a cannon fodder for military dictatorship since he has no qualm working and paying respect to then Prayut the junta leader cum PM. Toon is among those well-known people who, intentionally or not, helped normalize military dictatorship. The message sent was that it’s okay, the military regime is just like any government and the lack of legitimacy is a non issue. To him, working with a military dictatorship for ‘a good cause’ is nothing controversial. Generations of coup makers wannabes can always count on famous people like Toon to make staging military coup seems like something mundane and legitimate.
That’s no longer the case and Toon’s past is catching up with him faster than he could run away from. A new and different generation in Thailand will no longer accept him without questioning or even condemning people like him.
Yes, the same Prayut may now has become an prime minister under an elected government, but who could say without doubt that Prayut could have managed to stay this long in power after the 2014 coup and post-elections without the junta leader’s power that paved the road for prolonging his powers until today.