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Protesting stars are rocking entertainment industry

Celebrities entertaining anti-government rallies will win neither fame nor riches, but they should earn our respect

Election day saw singer Jirayu "Joe" Wattanasin become the latest artist to step onto an anti-government stage, performing live at what protesters dubbed a "national picnic". He raised more than Bt1 million for those financially hampered by the rallies and joined a big line-up of stars who have appeared on the protest stages, including his rapper brother Jettrin "J" and TV producer-actor Pongpat Watchirabanjong.

Good publicity for their careers, you might think. But you would be wrong. Anyone who understands the Thai entertainment industry knows that it takes real guts for a star to criticise the government of the day. By appearing at these rallies, they are making a bold statement of their political affiliation to the public.

In a mature democracy like the United States, stars often take political stands, and many celebrities are renowned for their battles against big business and authoritarianism. Think George Clooney, Bono and Leonardo Di Caprio, to name just a few. Yet in Thailand, celebrities typically have little to say on politics and social issues. Instead they are the faces of marketing events, charity activities and, occasionally, government-sponsored campaigns.

Taking a political stand involves risks. Thai show business has close ties to government-controlled TV or to media companies with political connections. All entertainment companies want their stars to stay away from politics lest their behaviour compromise business. Whatever their political leanings, Thai celebrities are expected to at least appear neutral.

Thus politics has a real - though often unspoken - influence on the industry, with the government sitting atop the power pyramid. Recently the TV series "Nue Mek" was taken off air because of a storyline about corrupt politicians, while a documentary critical of the government's water-management project was banned altogether. To prosper, TV stations need to maintain a good relationship with the state and the stars must do likewise with their TV stations.

However, those joining the rallies seem to have overcome their fear. Their careers might be at risk if the government's Centre of Maintaining Peace and Order summons them to explain their roles in the protest. But the artists could be facing more serious long-term consequences. Their fame often rests on a large army of rural fans, many of whom are likely to be government supporters. With the country bitterly divided, the chances are high of fans boycotting a star for his or her political leanings.

The number of performing artists at anti-government rallies is unprecedented. And, unlike their traditional work fronting marketing campaigns for products or the government, these activities will win them neither fame nor riches. Voicing a political opinion is still alien to most Thai artists. Doing so takes real courage, against the risks to money, career and fame.

Whether they are fighting for the right cause is, of course, debatable, but they are no longer the pretty and passive playthings of advertising or government. They are making their own choice to take an active part in a movement that could change the political course of Thailand. As long as their intention is real and not tainted by self-interest, they deserve praise for their courage. Maybe in years to come, celebrity activism will become the norm in this country. Then the protesting stars of today can look back with pride as pioneers who rid the entertainment industry of its taboo on politics.


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