BANGKOK: He turned heads on the red carpet at Cannes earlier this year with his face tattoos and is one of Thailand’s most popular social media stars, but gangster-turned-actor Panya Yimumphai is now back behind bars.
Better known by his gang name “Keng Laiprang” (Keng Camouflage), Panya began a three year jail sentence on Wednesday on a conviction linked to a crime committed 10 years ago, back when he was an inmate.
But the sentence has since sparked a heated online debate in Thailand.
In recent years Panya has become one of Thailand’s best known — and most eye-catching — celebrities, largely thanks to a full set of face tattoos he acquired in jail while serving an eight-year sentence for robbery.
After his release in 2011 he became an online video star and actor, amassing more than two million Facebook followers along the way and endorsing everything from his own food brand to sexual enhancement pills.
International recognition came earlier this year when Panya starred in “A Prayer Before Dawn”, a critically acclaimed drama by French director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire that tells the story of a British convict forced to box in a Thai prison.
Unsurprisingly Panya was cast as a key gangster figure, a role he needed no method actor training for.
But Panya’s past has caught up with him once more.
In 2014, three years after his release from prison, police filed a new charge against him for drug possession that dated back to a 2008 prison search in which Panya was allegedly found in possession of a packet of crystal meth.
On Wednesday he was sentenced and jailed after pleading guilty.
Fans flocked to his social media pages in support.
“Even though he has criminal records and tattoos but it doesn’t mean that we cannot give him a second chance. We shouldn’t add insult in injury,” wrote fan Srikanay Srion.
His girlfriend Saitharn Wangprasert wrote on his online account: “No matter what happens, I will wait for you.”
Others said it was right Panya should pay for his crimes.
“I don’t understand why people idolise these internet stars, made famous by either their criminal records, money or flashy cars,” wrote one commentator.
Keng’s family plans to appeal the ruling and have requested bail. A decision is expected in the next few days.