Toon Bodyslam: Just What Thailand Needs
November 15, 2017
Sometimes, inspiration comes from the most unexpected places.
One of Thailand’s leading rock stars, Artiwara “Toon” Khongmalai—who sings for the popular Thai rock band Bodyslam—has been running across Thailand, raising money for hospitals that give care to the poor. This 2,191 km, 55-day run started on November 1 at Betong on the Thai-Malay border, and his destination is the border town of Mae Sai, Thailand’s northernmost point on the Thai-Myanmar border. His pace is impressive, running nearly a marathon every day, and taking only one rest day for every four days on the move.
For the past two weeks, Thailand has been captivated by his story. Newspaper front pages have given daily updates on his progress, with photos of large crowds greeting the tattoo-covered rocker with scenes of jubilation and outpouring of contributions.
Why so much excitement?
Toon’s run across Thailand is giving the people of Thailand a symbol of unity, at just the right moment. Just last month, Thailand said goodbye to the much beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The late King was a source of national pride and unity, based on many decades of leading programs to promote development across the country, and embodying high moral character through his actions and teachings.
Many Thais are feeling uncertain about the future. After three years of relative calm, the Government of Prayuth Chan-ocha has promised to hold elections in 2018, completing their roadmap for a return to civilian democratic government. From 2005 to 2014, Thailand was affected by political turmoil, short-lived governments, and large-scale protests in Bangkok. While most would agree that the elections are an important and positive step, the return to electoral politics raises the prospect of re-igniting the national political divisions that caused so much turmoil in the recent past. Is this the calm before the next storm?
Thai people are craving unity. They want something to make them proud, and bring them together. Toon’s run across the country has uplifted the national mood, tapping into the hopes and anxieties of people from every corner of the country. He is raising money for 11 hospitals, covering every region of the country, from Bangkok to the under-developed Northeast, to the conflict-affected Deep South. The run is generating an avalanche of stories of kindness, unity, and generosity.
Toon spent the first four days of his run in the conflict-affected provinces of Yala and Pattani. Despite concerns about his safety, Toon went ahead with his plans, and raised more than THB 70 million (approximately $2.1 million) in the majority Muslim provinces. For many of the people living in these restive regions, the run symbolizes a rare form of inclusion in a national movement. Not only did Toon start his run in Yala province, but he is also raising money for Yala Hospital.
There are feel-good stories all along the route so far. In Songkhla province, Toon took a detour to visit to an elderly woman confined to her hospital bed, when he was told that she wanted to donate and was devastated to be missing him. In Hat Yai, local tee-shirt producers reported that some local business people were attempting to copy the popular tee-shirts that Toon is selling, and sell them to would-be contributors while pocketing the profit. The group of tee-shirt factory owners collectively refused to accept the orders, and informed the media that some unscrupulous people were trying to take advantage. In Nakorn Si Thammarat, a local wealthy businessman donated THB 10 for every person in the province—that’s THB 16 million ($475,000). Toon contributed to scholarships for local kids in one poor area. Kids have been showing up with their piggy banks ready to donate all along the route.
Nike contributed five pairs of running shoes specially designed for Toon’s feet. While some have complained about the potential for commercializing the run, the company has not asked for any advertising beyond the Nike symbols on the sides of his shoes. Dozens of other companies have also contributed.
Toon has a long way to go still, so it’s likely that this wave is not even close to reaching its highest point. As of Monday night, Toon was 525 km into his 2,200-km journey, and had just passed Nakorn Si Thammarat. Along the way, he will pass through at least four major towns and cities, including Bangkok (late November), and Chiang Mai (mid-December), before reaching the destination by December 25, Christmas Day. He has raised THB 216 million ($6.4 million), out of his target of THB 700 million ($21 million).
Even if this moment is transitory, it seems to be bringing people together across the political spectrum, from various ethnic and religious groups, in ways that we have not seen for a long time. Toon has reminded people here that Thailand can accomplish great things when it’s possible to transcend political divisions. The remarkable response illustrates how much people in Thailand are ready to embrace a unifying cause, based on shared values.
If you want to follow his progress, or donate, you can visit www.kaokonlakao.com. As I write, you can watch the meters and kilometers flicking by—it’s almost like you’re running along with him. I’m thinking about running with him when he comes to Bangkok, though I suspect I will have to share the route with a few hundred thousand other runners, following in Toon’s footsteps.
Go Pii Toon!
Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Thailand. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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