Controversy surrounding Sitala is here to stay

With the ongoing political division in Thailand, controversies and boycott campaigns surrounding Sitala and other right-wing celebrities will not go away any time soon.

With a showcase event and social media campaign, Sitala’s first album with K-pop band H1-KEY has been released. In response to the controversies over her and her father’s role in anti-democracy protests which led to two military coups in 2006 and 2014, she said that she was young at the time and now wants diverse opinions to co-exist peacefully.

Her response faced another public backlash from pro-democracy elements in Thailand as the Twitter hashtag #bansitala soared in Thailand for a second time, citing current chaos in the country resulting from the suppression of the voices of dissent. In this divided nation, however, she did not fail to receive a welcome from conservative supporters and people who believe in keeping art and politics separate.

Controversy surrounding Sitala Wongkrachang emerged in December 2021 when GLG Entertainment announced that Sitala would join H1-KEY along with Korean artists Seoi (Lee Ye Jin) Riina (Lee Seung-Hyun), and Yel (Han Shin Young). According to Kprofiles, Sitala, born in 1996, was the fourth member to be announced.

The source said that she went to Korea in 2016 (when the junta government led by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha held a referendum to approve Thailand’s constitution, designed to prolong its power). After graduation from Ehwa Women’s University, Sitala became a trainee at Lionheart Entertainment in 2018. Her work towards becoming a K-pop star has been pretty smooth until now.

Her debut faced a public backlash when social media users, most of them young progressives still without the right to vote in 2016, exposed her and her family’s questionable past. The opposition party that young Thais voted for in 2019 and their two-year protests against the establishment in 2020-2021 have suffered relentless repression from the political establishment and security forces.

Saranyu Wongkrachang at a yellow shirt protest in 2008. Source: Wikipedia

Thai memes said that Saranyu Wongkrachang, Sitala’s father, resembled Tom Hiddleston who was cast as Loki for Marvel’s Avengers. But his royalist politics was dangerous. As an actor, director, and right-wing political activist who led protest after protest against elected governments, he paved the way for the military to seize power in 2006 and 2014.

Saranyu died from liver cancer in 2020 at the age of 59, having devoted his life to what he believed to be the defence of the monarchy and the country from corrupt, elected politicians. Little did he know that his political legacy would soon affect his daughter’s career as young people posted a flood of Tweets damning her and her family’s political profile.

Bruce Banner said he was “always angry” as he transformed into the Hulk and later in the Avengers threw Loki like a stuffed doll. The Thai progressive youth are acting in a similar manner. Their public outcry has torn apart the hypocrisies of conservative celebrities, who profess immense love for their country and a paranoia of foreign political interference, but send their family members abroad for better lives.

In December 2021, Yuenyong ‘Aed’ Opakul warned that Thais should not trust foreigners who want to colonize the country using democracy as a rhetorical device. Netizens responded by reposting photos of a grinning Yuenyong walking his daughter Nicha ‘Zen’ Opakul to the altar to marry a Scottish man. Yuenyong is Carabao’s frontman, famous for composing royalist and anti-American imperialist songs, and also a yellow shirt activist with a long anti-democratic political record in Thailand since the 2000s.

Jetrin ‘Je’ Wattanasin is a Thai singer and a People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) activist who gave nationalist speeches calling for the overthrow of the Yingluck Shinawatra government in 2014. While ranting on social media against pro-democracy protesters who demanded reform in 2020-2021, he invited a public backlash by sending his three sons to study in the UK. Young Thai progressives asked why he sends his children abroad if he loves the country so much.

With the anti-Sitala hashtags gaining more and more traction in Thailand in December 2021, GLG Entertainment, the manager of H1-KEY, responded to what the Bangkok Post called “the fuss“, saying that they “cannot hold Sitala accountable on the basis of her father’s past decisions and actions that were beyond her responsibility” and they had “made the decision not to change the members of the group.” The netizens countered this by reposting a photo of Sitala herself participating in an anti-democracy protest.

Amid the public backlash and calls for consumer boycotts, Ja Mezz (Kim Sung-hee), a rapper and the CEO of GLG Entertainment, announced that the company would be dissolved after accusations against him of aggressive behaviour and drug use. The disbanding of the parent company GLG Entertainment left the fate of H1-KEY and Sitala uncertain, a moment of catharsis for pro-democracy netizens. Then the H1-KEY debut and Sitala’s reply led to another wave of controversy on 5 January.

At the time of writing, Athletic Girl, the first H1-KEY music video, has 1.9 million views on YouTube. The Manager Online, a pro-establishment outlet, used the headline “more boycott, more views” as the song reached three hundred thousand views during the first 24 hours. In contrast, Matichon Online, a pro-democracy outlet, talked of “just hundreds of thousands” in its headline during the first 19 hours.

How can we measure the impact of a political backlash on the success of a debut? As of now, we have not been able to find an average number of views for a K-pop band debut. It would be unfair to compare a new K-pop band with well-established bands like BTS, Blackpink, or Twice, which have billions of views per year. The list of K-pop artists with the highest average views per music video also does not give comparable data.

According to Statista’s research for 2018, 46.1 per cent of entertainment agencies said that “the debut rate of their trainees is around 60 to 90 per cent,” while another 26.8 per cent said that “less than 60 per cent of their trainees can debut.” And “to debut as a singer in Korea took around two years and four months on average.” While it is common sense that sex scandals or criminal allegations will impact celebrities’ debuts or careers, political opinions and political division are more ambiguous as a factor.

According to the Harvard Business Review, any business should make concessions if the issue is one-sided (such as child labour) and avoid talking if it is polarizing (such as same-sex marriage in the US). The responses from companies related to H1-KEY, both in the case of Ja Mezz (one-sided) and Sitala (polarized), are to some degree right out of the textbook.

But will they pay the price? A drastically divided nation like Thailand ranked third in 2019 with 8.1% to the K-pop global viewership, behind Indonesia (9.9%) and South Korea (10.1%) itself. However, Bangkok surpassed Seoul in terms of views per capita (115 to 91), second only to Ho Chi Minh city (392). Mass protests in 2020-2021 saw hundreds of thousands gathered in Bangkok. While political division may not be a significant factor, it could not be ruled out of the equation.

We know where the anger of pro-democracy protesters comes from. During 2020-2021, more than a thousand protests were held across Thailand demanding various reforms. None of the demands has been fully achieved as inequality is rising. A number have been injured and arrested. When right-wing celebrities, who in their eyes have been working tirelessly to deprive them of their future, send their children abroad for better lives, a backlash should not be unexpected.

When the pressure from netizens has led to a real reduction in advertising revenue, several right-wing celebrities resigned from TV programmes. Some young Thai progressives would not even consider accepting a formal apology from public figures who have sided with anti-democracy forces. Regardless of the young progressives’ impact, controversies surrounding Sitala and other celebrities will not get away soon.

Meanwhile, left-wing celebrities may as well buckle up to face a public backlash from right-wing supporters. As long as there are no changes in the political system, these trends will stay, causing celebrities headaches. Now that their political standpoint, even at a young age, needs to be considered, entertainment companies that welcome stars may need to hire more public relations managers to craft more statements.

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