Opinion: ‘Pimrypie’ controversy shows need for greater government attention to remote communities

In Thailand, the concept of “doing good” — tum kwarm dee — has historically been a relatively uncontroversial idea. 

Elders in Thai society consistently exhort others to be good people and to do good deeds. The maxim tum dee dai dee, tum chua dai chua (“do good things, and good things will happen to you; do evil things, and evil things will happen to you”) is a common refrain, included in countless Buddhist teachings. 

And so it was a little surprising that controversy erupted when the online influencer Pimradaporn Benjawattanapat, better known as Pimrypie, went to donate solar panels, electronics and money at a rural village in Chiang Mai.

On its own, nothing much should have been controversial with such a charitable act. Pimrypie visited Mae Kerb village in Om Koi district and found that the village still lacked many basic necessities, such as electricity. Seeing this despondent state of affairs, she self-funded the electrification of the village with solar panels and installed a TV, while also purchasing clothes for children there. Her video has now been watched over 5 million times on YouTube.

Certainly an innocuous video on its own, and appropriately described as perfectly representative of the Thai concept of tum kwarm dee. Yet Pimrypie managed to become both an internet sensation and a lightning rod for contentious debate over, rather surprisingly, the royal developmental programs led by King Bhumibol Adyuladej of the past few decades. 

The protest leader Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, for example, tweeted an image of a banner that read: “If the four thousand projects were truly good, why is Thailand still undeveloped after seventy years?” Hashtags related to Pimrypie trended for two days as both royalist and anti-royalist netizens waded into the controversy.

Such a comparison seems misguided. To say that the late king did nothing for Thailand’s hill tribes is certainly inaccurate. The accomplishments of the Royal Project Foundation, for example, which provided alternative sources of income for opium-growers, are well documented. Seeking an objective assessment of the royal projects’ efficacy is valid, but to denigrate decades of tireless work is unfair.

Indeed, Pimrypie herself disavowed the use of her example to devalue the work of others. In a later video, she asked: “Why the hell are you making all these links? Now, can people even keep doing good deeds?” 

Pimrypie also found herself under fire from some scholars, such as Chiang Mai University Professor Pinkaew Laungaramsri who said that Pimrypie’s acts simply represented the “dream of the urban middle class, who has never cared about inequality or minorities, to play savior of the lower class.” 

Suddenly, the simple act of “doing good” was no longer quite so simple.

But we would also do well to remember that these debates — whether the monarchy did enough for the hill tribes, or whether private citizens from the cities sufficiently center rural voices in their charity work — would be moot if successive Thai governments were able to more effectively address the issue of development in rural areas, especially in the most remote communities.

Where are the elected Subdistrict Administrative Organization and Provincial Administrative Organization officials? Why have they not already been working to ensure that remote villages in their areas have reliable sources of electricity and access to communication technologies?

Or the Member of Parliament? The constituency Om Koi belongs to has been represented by Pheu Thai and its predecessors since 2001 (except the years of unelected military rule.) Given such a long period of single party control, surely there would have been time at some point to support this village?

And what about the successive governments that have run Thailand?

To say that officials have entirely neglected the hill tribes, or that they have not bothered electrifying remote villages, would of course be unfair. One key issue has been the fact that many villages are located in forest reserves, which makes development and electrification a little thorny. 

But that also reflects governmental and bureaucratic failures. The Community Electrical Plants program that was started by former energy minister Sontirat Sontijirawong, for example, withered away after Sontirat’s departure from office. Such a program, which would have allowed local communities to produce electricity without endangering conservation efforts and protected forests, should surely not have been allowed to die so easily.

Overall, let’s not forget that private citizens and the monarchy are not the only two actors here that can help contribute to the electrification of a village in Om Koi.

In Thailand, what is considered a “good deed” is rather expansive. It could be something as simple as putting a 20 baht banknote into a temple’s donation box. It could be volunteering and helping others. Scrutinizing the work of government, elected officials and bureaucrats and holding them accountable have not typically been seen as a standard meritorious act.

But perhaps it should. If it were so, perhaps villages without electricity would not need to wait for well-meaning online influencers before they receive national attention. 

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