Boon Rawd Brewery has been around since 1933, and is most well-known for Singha brand of beer, soda water, water, as well as other famous products like Leo Beer and Moshi Green Tea. The owners, the Bhirombhakdi family, are the 6th richest of the lot in Thailand, headed by the formidable 86-year-old Chamnong Bhirombhakdi. Now, his young granddaughter has put her foot in a massive puddle of their family’s beer by speaking before thinking.
Chitpas Bhirombhakdi could be forgiven for her tactless words because of her age (28), or she could be seen as a disrespectful youngster living in a world of upward-turned noses and snobbery. It seems the latter is the general consensus in the Northern and North-eastern part of the country, where most of the Singha and Leo fans are based.
The impolite faux-pas came in the form of an afterthought during a conversation with foreign reports about the upcoming elections, where she insisted “the Democrat Party is not taking away democracy. We just need some time to reform the country before we can move on to democracy.”
She then went on to say that corruption and vote-buying are serious problems that need solving before free and fair elections can take place. Those points all seem appropriate for a prominent figure in business to discuss in a public forum, and should be encouraged throughout the country as free speech and political debate. However, what she said next has caused a furor which sees her future career in politics and business severely compromised:
“Many Thais lack a true understanding of democracy… especially in the rural areas.”
The Chulalongkorn University student’s not-so-private life is now being torn apart and scrutinized, with a letter written from one family member to another which was shared with the media. In it, Singha Corporation’s Executive Director Mr. Santi Bhirombhakdi writes to Vice President Mr. Chutinant Bhirombhakdi, expressing frustration over the public’s backlash and concern over the growing trend of boycotts against their company’s products. He seemed especially worried about the impact of Chitpas’ comment on the family’s image and business, and has wisely said that “the company is in debt to the customers” and does not want to see their successful business used as a pawn in the political game.
Chitpas’ father Chutinant has expressed his disappointment in his socialite daughter, who is now being urged to change her surname in order to distance herself from the family. Mr Chutinant Bhirombhakdi also apologized for his daughter’s remark, saying “This upset a lot of people and I understand that all Thais have equal rights and freedom and we should respect others’ opinions. Her saying is thus inappropriate.” He also said she would continue to pursue her career in politics.
The internet-popular Chitpas, who was hailed as one of Bangkok’s most eligible young ladies by Thailand Tatler, has an impressive collection of selfies on her instagram account, with an average of 300,000 likes per photo. Many consider her a poster-child for the Thai elite class, with the Democrat Party member publicly and alarmingly calling for harsher lèse–majesté laws, and whose political portfolio consists of a failed attempt at snatching a seat in parliament in 2011. She has been quoted as saying her ultimate goal is to become the Thai Prime Minister, and faces a future inheritance of 2.6 billion baht.
In response to the stir caused by her comment, Democrat Party leader Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiva says, “I sympathise with her because her political path has affected her. I also sympathise with her family and her company because they were affected by it, too…” He then went on to say, “But Ms. Chitpas is an adult. She has chosen to do political work because she believes it will benefit her country.”
However, that goal might be hard to bring to fruition in the country’s more rural parts, where social media and word of mouth have made the offensive comment public knowledge. Many people are hurt by the notion that they are hillbillies and want to remind the Democrat Party that their votes are just as valuable as anyone else’s – in fact, they are vital to the elections as Northeastern Thailand alone makes up one-third of the country’s population.
Another fact that will weigh heavily on the Bhirombhakdi family is that the offended people’s wallets determine how popular Singha and Leo beer are, and at the moment, that is not very popular at all. Some restaurants have stopped serving the two beers as they don’t want to further anger customers, while others have reported their patrons pouring the drinks on their feet. Facebook is now rife with the photos depicting the trend of people drenching their feet with the beer – a very negative symbolic gesture in Thai culture.
Individuals have claimed they will never touch another sip of the beer, while shopkeepers have promised not to stock their shelves with the tainted products. The extent of the damage to the company at present remains unclear, but what is evident is that people hold power not only with their votes but with their money as well. The news has spread as far as the New York Times, who quoted a shopkeeper from Udon Thani as saying, “We had been drinking this beer for many years. The taste has not changed. My feelings have changed.”