Opinion: Thailand needs a #MeToo movement

Growing up Thai, I have always felt like my culture is quite the paradox. Our Buddhist temples and the white robes of the women who live inside them stand as a testament to our purity, but prostitutes and ladyboys dominate forbidden brothels that pepper the streets of Bangkok before the pandemic.

My parents preach of female propriety, but the advertisements flashing on my daily commute show dresses that reveal more than they hide. There is no curriculum on consent in Thai schools, but Thai soap operas constantly depict and normalise sexual assault scenes. Such a combination – ignorance and denial of sex yet its ubiquity – spells disaster.

This is especially true when being considerate of others, of not making a fuss of yourself, of going out of your way so you would not be an inconvenience to others, is drilled into us women. We have a word for it: kreng jai. Being kreng jai is ingrained in the fabric of our society: because of it, we live in harmony. We are rieb roi, or polite, and we please others.

But it has a dark undercurrent. Kreng jai means conversations on sex occur in muted tones at risk of impropriety, and rieb roi means rape should be seen as a private matter shrouded in euphemisms.

We are not empowered to speak.

When the #MeToo movement led to women standing up against sexual assault by men in positions of authority, I never felt the same sense of liberation to stand up to some of the most horrific crimes that can happen to any woman. The movement may have toppled powerful men – the most famous of which include Harvey Weinstein – in an unprecedented manner in the West, but its consequences didn’t seem to reverberate as much in Asia.

In Japan, for example, Japanese journalist Shiori Ito may have won a high-profile rape case against a prominent TV-reporter with reportedly close ties to the Japanese PM, but the lone victory was only in a civil court where the burden of proof is significantly lower. Japanese prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges, citing insufficient evidence. In other words, the man who raped her only had to pay monetary damages. He will never see prison time.

Thailand, with our culture of nonconfrontation, faces a similar pattern.

Why, society seemed to ask, would you want to speak out and ruin a man’s life over a few minutes of impropriety? That’s not very kreng jai.

This is why Thailand needs a #MeToo movement, especially in our schools. Because society never asks how those minutes of impropriety can impact a victim for a lifetime.  

Because this injustice pervades in our country. Because, with the culture of authoritarianism, teachers in positions of power are always seen as correct even if they sexually assault their students. And the students cannot dare to question that.

Just a few weeks ago, students at Sarawittaya School said they are rising up to protest against sexual assault by their teacher. Despite the fact that as many as fourteen girls have reported sexual assault by a teacher, he only recieved a warning and remains tenured. The teacher remains unidentified.

While it is true that the court of law rather than the court of public opinion should dictate a person’s life, it seems atrociously unjust to allow the teacher to be anywhere near students he reportedly took advantage of until such a serious allegation is properly investigated.

Earlier this year in May, as many as seven teachers at Dongmon Wittayakom School repeatedly molested and gang-raped girls as young as sixteen and fourteen. A female teacher defended them, supporting the rapists and saying that the students should just stay home.

In what world is it acceptable to sacrifice a child’s education – a child’s future – to ensure that the child does not get sexually assaulted? This choice is one that no child nor parent should have to face.

Luckily, this incident prompted the hashtag #7ครูชาติชั่ว (“7 Evil Teachers”) to trend on Twitter. Without this outrage, which led to investigation and justice, I dread to think about the impunity that would have occurred.

These events – and many more that we will never know about – prove willful, systemic negligence on the part of a patriarchal authority. By staying silent, the school directors enabled such crimes to happen on their watch. It is a violation that happened to a vulnerable group of people in the very place and by the very people trusted to foster their development. It shows a wider pattern of society’s failure to take care of our children.

Thailand’s culture is changing, but it is not there yet. The hashtag #donttellmehowtodress went viral last year, prompting discussion on sexual consent. But we are still told to be kreng jai and rieb roi. Women are still afraid to name and shame men who sexually assaulted them. This is why the current protests that shed light on these issues are so important. Solidarity for these students, and belief of victims who risked so much ostracisation coming forward, is key to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice and the cycle of abuse stopped.

With a culture of victim-blaming, where more value is placed on the reputation of the rapist than justice for the victim, most cases will never see the light of day. The law may be there, but if the norms remain, it cannot help. They must be torn down and replaced with conversations where proper regard for consent is instilled. These students’ stories must be listened to, their call of justice echoed, and stand against rape loudly supported as they march to take back control of their bodies.

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