Tragic and sad case has become controversial in Thailand due to the media coverage of the story where the prime suspect, arrested on Wednesday, Mr Chaiphol Wipha, became both a minor celebrity with his own supporters who believed in his innocence and a reviled figure convicted in the court of public opinion.
Police in Bangkok on Wednesday accepted the surrender of ‘Luang Phol’ or ‘Uncle Phol’ the 44-year-old uncle of three-year-old Orawan Wongsricha, known affectionately as ‘Nong Chompoo’ believed to have been murdered in Thailand’s northeastern province of Mukdahan in May last year, for his part in her death. The long-standing suspect in the case from the outset, who had become a media celebrity in his own right through his protestations of innocence, was later flown back to the province where police were waiting to interrogate him.
The uncle of a three-year-old girl whose tragic death has mesmerized the public in Thailand since her naked body was found on a remote hilltop in the northeastern corner of the country on May 14th last year was arrested by the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok late on Wednesday morning and afterwards flown to Mukdahan province where a warrant for his arrest was issued by the Provincial Court on Tuesday.
The suspect was reportedly not at home in Ban Kok Kork village in the district of Dong Luang earlier on Wednesday when police were sent to arrest him.
The warrant issued on Tuesday specified three charges including taking a child from the care of parents, child abandonment and tampering with evidence to corrupt the course of justice including a police investigation and an autopsy.
Police chief confirms that the death of Nong Chompoo was murder as the suspect is sent to Mukdahan
However, speaking to the press on Wednesday, the National Police Commissioner, General Suwat Jangyodsuk, appeared to indicate that 44-year-old Chaiphol Wipha may face additional charges as he told reporters that the case linked with the death of the young girl is one of murder.
‘It is a murder case,’ he declared.
General Suwat has taken a personal interest in the case of the death of Orawan Wongsricha who is better known across Thailand as ‘Nong Chompoo’ after the story of the girl emerged on May 11th last year.
Naked body of the little girl found on May 14th last year on a hillside in the Phu Pha Yon National Park
She went missing from the small tightly-knit rural village in Mukdahan province on May 11th 2020 and her naked body was found two days later in a forest area on Phu Lek Fai mountain within the Phu Pha Yon National Park. Nok Chompoo’s clothes were found a metre from her remains.
Parents believe the murderer of their little girl this week in Mukdahan was a local to their rural village area
40-year-old Sawittree Wongsricha, the mother of the girl who had left her daughter in the care of an elder sister on the day of her disappearance when she accompanied her husband on a local errand, always claimed that the perpetrator had to be a local within the village who the girl had trusted.
Sister said she simply disappeared after having her breakfast on May 11th 2020 in the small village
The girl’s sister said her sibling had simply disappeared within the small village of Ban Kok Kork in the Klong Luang district of the province near Phu Pha Yon National Park that day after a breakfast of orange juice and some omelette.
The mother of the victim also cast suspicion on the 44-year-old uncle, Mr Chaiphol, by questioning his account of his movements in the days following the disappearance of her daughter.
Press conference last year in October to generate more witnesses to come forward to assist police enquiries
The Royal Thai Police in October last year convened a national press conference in Bangkok which was addressed by the National Police Commissioner General Suwat and officers of the Metropolitan Police Bureau after a review of the case compiled by officers of the Provincial Police in Mukdahan.
The purpose of the press conference was to encourage the public to come forward to investigating police with any further evidence, in particular sightings that may have been connected with the case.
Police, at that time, reported that if there was no breakthrough, the case would be passed on to the Public Prosecutors Office in Bangkok after one year.
Uncle attended the press conference with three lawyers and insisted he was not involved in the case
At the time, the victim’s uncle attended the press conference with three lawyers to assert his innocence and demonstrate, according to him, that he was not involved in her disappearance.
This was despite a statement from police that they had interviewed a prime suspect, at length, at the outset of the investigation and also a suggestion that it may have some link to a local land dispute.
At that time, it was reported that a dossier with 918 pages had been compiled by police officers in addition to 384 witness statements and 154 DNA samples.
Case against the uncle now reported to include DNA samples and witness statements as police confirm the girl was assaulted and sexually violated
On Wednesday, police indicated that the case against the 44-year-old uncle of the murder victim involved DNA taken from three hair samples as well as samples from the young girl’s hair, her shoes and clothes as well as key statements from witnesses and other forensic evidence.
Police have also confirmed that the little girl was physically assaulted by her killer and sexually violated.
This became a controversial issue last year when an initial autopsy performed by the Sunpasitthiprasong Hospital in Ubon Ratchathani showed that there was evidence that Nong Chompoo had been sexually molested but could not say definitively whether she had been raped.
A second autopsy was performed by the Institute of Forensic Medicine and forensics experts there identified fluid in the victim’s genitalia.
Late last year, investigating police had indicated that they were in possession of critical evidence from the scene where the body of little Nong Chompoo was found but declined to disclose it.
Uncle flown to Mukdahan by helicopter on Wednesday
The October press conference also heard from Police Captain Phadej Ngamla-mom of Kok Toom Police Station in Mukdahan which is handling the investigation.
The prime suspect, now already facing charges, Mr Chaiphol or ‘Uncle Phol’, was taken there on Wednesday afternoon for interrogation by police officers and detectives preparing their case against him.
Police also indicated that the place where the body was found was of significance and indicated that only local people with certain skills and knowledge would have been able to negotiate their way to the location where the body was found.
They also let it be known they believed that the 3-year-old was not murdered on the remote mountainside location but had expired elsewhere.
Suspect became a minor celebrity generating fans, cash donations and product endorsement deals
The public interest in this case, in itself, generated into a story because of the activities of the man who now turns out to have been the prime suspect all along, Mr Chaiphol, known as ‘Uncle Phol’ or ‘Luang Phol’ to his many Thai fans in TV land all over Thailand.
This unlikely situation came about, in part, as the result of the activities of two popular Thai TV digital channels Thai Rath and Amarin who, responding to what appeared like an insatiable demand for news on the story, covered it in so much detail and so extensively that the reporting sometimes appeared to sensationalise the tragedy.
Reporting on crime in Thailand is sensational
However, it is the nature of Thailand’s mass media to provide readers and viewers with vivid news reporting on criminal matters and tragedies with news reports often showing dead bodies even with severe injuries.
To some observers and critics, however, the murder of the young girl itself and the serious matter of a police investigation should be pursued in a manner as objective and neutral as possible.
Instead, even more bizarrely, Uncle Phol became a celebrity with a surprising number of people willing to endorse him and give him their support publicly even leading to cash donations and the suspect producing advertising commercials and endorsements of products.
On the other side of the coin, there were also many among the public who reviled and in their hearts, convicted the suspect even before he was charged or brought before a court.
Story that touched the psyche of Thai people
Coverage of the story led, in September 2020, to the resignation of a photographer and lead reporter working with a top news agency who had helped take up the story of Uncle Phol in May 2020 and catapulted him into the limelight portraying him as a misunderstood but innocent party to a tragedy which had befallen his community.
It was a line that played well with millions across Thailand who saw the uncle as a fall guy for the crime.
Of course, this sowed division and conflict on social media with those already convinced of the suspect’s guilt of this appalling crime which has deeply touched the psyche of the Thai public.
Public interest will remain but there may be some comfort for the family that somebody will face justice
The TV coverage also featured interviews with family and relatives of Nong Chompoo along with spirit whisperers and shamans who gave viewers insights into what may have happened to her after her disappearance on May 11th 2020.
Public interest in this shocking and tragic story will undoubtedly remain for quite some time.
Now described by the police chief as a murder, the arrest of the uncle in the case on Wednesday is, at least, a step closer to having the charges against him brought before a court of justice which is some, if perhaps scant, consolation to the parents and family of the girl and the small community she lived in but is as much as any society can offer even in a harrowing tragedy such as this.