- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 14, 2010

BANGKOK (AP) - Thailand’s “Academy Fantasia” reality show has been providing welcome distraction from the country’s bitter political schisms. But now reality has butted in.

One of the 12 contestants suddenly announced he would drop out this week because of a spiraling controversy over comments he posted on Facebook criticizing the prime minister _ some using vulgar language.

The incident was a sign of the deep societal divisions that remain in Thailand two months after anti-government protests brought bloodshed to the streets.

Witthawat Thaokhamlue, a hip-looking 17-year-old student, suggested on Facebook that protesters might not have set buildings on fire if the prime minister had dissolved parliament and called an election, as the demonstrators demanded.

Government supporters attacked Witthawat, and many viewers expressed their disapproval. Many on the anti-government side became his fans. The whole affair received widespread media coverage.

All that led to a contrite news conference on Wednesday, at which Witthawat said he would leave the show after this weekend.

“I feel sorry for the bad thing I’ve done,” he said. “But I admit I did it because I was still thinking like a teenager and didn’t have good common sense.”

He also apologized to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Thai media experts said the affair shows the country’s political crisis is not only not fading away, it’s rippling out to a broader cross-section of society.

“This phenomenon … represents the real and deep political conflict in Thai society,” media analyst Supinya Klangnarong said. “More battles here and there _ in the entertainment industry, in politics, in schools, in universities or even in homes _ will be occurring, I think, throughout the country.”

The show, “Academy Fantasia,” features 12 contestants who live together in a house, their routine activities broadcast live 24 hours a day on cable TV. Called “dream chasers,” they perform together on stage every weekend, when viewers vote for who should stay on the show.

Last Saturday, as the scandal peaked, Witthawat’s parents asked the show’s producer not to have their son perform on stage, saying they didn’t want him to be in the middle of any conflict.

He still managed to get the most votes, apparently drawing support from both fans and political sympathizers.

“A lot of my friends voted for him after he was attacked by pro-government people on the Internet,” said Wilailak Jangjaicharoen, 27, a die-hard Academy Fantasia watcher. “They felt sorry for him and couldn’t understand why other people wouldn’t tolerate different opinions in society.”

This weekend, Witthawat plans to appear on stage with the 11 other contenders for the last time.

Thailand’s political crisis made headlines worldwide earlier this year, when nearly 90 people _ most of them protesters _ were killed and more than 1,400 people injured during nine weeks of demonstrations.

The protests were crushed when the army moved into the main protest site in Bangkok’s central commercial district on May 19. In a final paroxysm of violence, some protesters set fire to about 30 buildings around the capital, including an upscale shopping mall and the stock exchange.

Discontent has been brewing for years, ever since protests were launched in 2006 accusing then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of corruption and abuse of power.

The military ousted Thaksin in a September 2006 coup, but he remains popular with his mostly rural followers, who together with democracy activists formed the so-called Red Shirt movement that led the most recent anti-government protests.

Witthawat is a native of Chiang Mai province, Thaksin’s birthplace and stronghold.

Phansasiri Kularb, a journalism lecturer at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said such incidents could recur as long as Thai society fails to allow more space for criticism and diversity of opinion.

“As a contender in a singing contest, Witthawat challenged pop culture custom by bringing up politics,” she said, “and the view he voiced happened to be different from what the general public wants to hear.”

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