Student protesters are taking back the ideal of the proper Thai woman in their fight against the state and for reform of the crown.
When Jatuporn Sae-ang strolled the red carpet in a pink phaasin at the October 29 protest on Silom road, it was not her but her dress that turned heads. Unprompted, fellow protesters mock bowed at her feet and reverently reached for her hands, as if she were a queen.
Three months later, the 23-year-old was charged with violating Thailand’s infamous lese majeste law.
“I just saw that it was a pink Thai dress, I wanted to honor Thainess,” she confessed in a December 17 interview with Voice TV. “I didn’t know a 700-baht dress would cause such a sensation (bang).”
The ruling came as a surprise to many – Jatuporn was a guard with the ‘WeVo’ volunteer protest guards, not a prominent protest leader. Furthermore, Article 112, or ‘112’ as it’s informally known, is specifically worded to protect “the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent” – none of whom were seemingly connected to Jatuporn’s 700-baht costume.
Why would a 23-year old restaurant worker in a phaasin and blouse have drawn such bitter ire?
Gender and civilization
Since at least the inception of Chakri rule, the Thai elite have deployed female dress in general and the phaasin in particular to construct narratives of civilization: to construct and reconstruct “Siamese” and later “Thai” identity, to secure sovereignty and to deflect attention from authoritarian rule.
As the Kingdoms of Southeast Asia fell to European rule, King Rama VI sought to ‘civilize’ his Kingdom by raising the status of Siamese women equal to their Western counterparts. This was not done by increasing their access to education or providing meaningful marital rights. Rather, he wanted them to change the way they dressed. He strongly encouraged court women to wear the skirt-like phaasin over the more comfortable pant-like chongkraben, to adopt long hair, and to don hats in the manner of European women.
This strategy was effective, at least in some quarters. In a 2016 feature on fashion in the Sixth reign, the Bangkok Post enthuses: “Siamese women dressed according to modern international fashion standards while maintaining Siamese uniqueness and enjoyed better status and bigger roles in the society.” There is scant evidence that women of the Sixth reign enjoyed better status. Rather, they were advised to show devotion to the nation by showing devotion to their husbands and children.
Plaek Phibunsongkram, Thailand’s third Prime Minister and coup-maker, adopted precisely the gendered nationalism of King Rama VI in the face of international pressure.
With Japanese armies installed as dangerous “guests” of his regime, Prime Minister Phibun promulgated the National Cultural Development Act of 1942. The most visible, satirized element of the Act proclaimed a new national dress codes for women: they were required to wear hats, stockings and phaasin to convince European nations that Thailand was more like them than like the Japanese. This, he insisted to his Education Minister, would secure Thai sovereignty. Simultaneously, he continued to fight beside the Japanese invaders and imposed an iron grip of militarist rule in Thailand.
A decade later, as the Cold War intensified, King Bhumibol and the youthful Queen Sirikit deployed feminine Thai dress to solicit military aid for Thailand in their highly publicized 1960 tour of Western nations.
The Queen achieved the apotheosis of King Rama VI’s and Phibun’s efforts to westernize Thai dress, by recruiting famed French designer Pierre Balmain to design her Western-style wardrobe that she paired with the traditional phaasin. She won over Western nations as the epitome of civilized elegance, even as the Sarit Thanarat military government pursued brutal anti-communist campaigns at home.
Jatuporn’s wearing of the pink phaasin, situated historically, subverts these painfully constructed narratives of elite nationalism. Instead, it uses Thai feminine dress to draw attention to the government’s injustices.
Regardless of Jatuporn’s (lack of) intention, this striking moment has become another element of an entire protest movement that systematically uses gender to dislocate hierarchy.
Female protest leaders defy elite standards of femininity: Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul is loud and outspoken on stage; Passarawalee “Mind” Thanakitvibulphol serenely refuses to submit to authority on talk shows. They are abundantly clear in their demands and conform to no standard of ‘femininity’ in the way they dress. 22-year old Rung faces three 112 charges, 25-year old Mind faces two, each carrying a potential sentence of 3 to 15 years.
Instead, it is men like Parit “Penguin” Chirawak who dons such dresses in scathing satire. At a protest on December 10, Penguin wore a pink silk phaasin adorned with strings of pearl. Appearing at the December 17 protest for Jatuporn’s 112 hearing, Penguin showed up in solidarity in heavy white makeup, faux-emerald earrings and bright red Thai dress.
“I thought I would ‘come out’ by revealing my boyfriend,” Penguin joked on Twitter, “but instead I’ve come out by cosplaying Auntie Somjid.”
Penguin faces seven 112 charges.
Article 112 has been described as feudal in its cruelty. In the Prayudh era, it has become another way for protecting authoritarian rule, by once again controlling standards of ‘proper dress’ for women. The phaasin against the people.
By trying to protect the Thai image of queenly civility, however, the government has revealed its barbarism. It has provoked international protest: the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights declared it was “deeply troubled” over the mounting pile of lese majeste charges against protesters; their average age is 25, the youngest protester charged being only 16. The German Ambassador to Thailand has tweeted in support of human rights for the protesters, the US Senate has introduced a resolution decrying government action against the protesters. The image of the “Land of Smiles” embodied by the smiling Thai woman is coming apart at the seams.
Luckily, this generation isn’t scared to subvert tradition or authority. With its demand for democracy and reform of the monarchy, young protesters have brought up a host of other important issues: LGBTQ rights, sexual abuse and harassment, women’s rights.
Perhaps, through such protests, the realities of gender equality will finally live up to the national myths.