Celebrating the Thai female heroes you probably didn’t know about

Women’s History Month is set aside every year to celebrate women across the globe, past and present, who have made remarkable contributions to their communities and helped shape the world into what it is today.

It is a chance for us to honour all the amazing women out there whose unwavering courage, dedication and sacrifice have created the space for us today to thrive better and stand taller.

It is the perfect time to recognize all that women have accomplished – and also a reminder of how far we have come, and how far we still need to go. 

We present to you some Thai female heroes you may or may not have heard about and celebrate their achievements.

Amdaeng Muean

Phuying pen kwai, puchai pen kon (women are buffaloes; men are human).

Before 1865, this adage rang true. The women of Siam were, for lack of better words, regarded and treated like animals.

Siamese women had no legal rights over their own lives. They were not even allowed to get an education or learn how to read or write. Women were considered unworthy – a different kind of species below men.

The person who rejected the status quo, stood up for her rights, and changed it all for the rest of us was a young peasant named Muean.

Muean was born in 1845, in a village in Nonthaburi Province. During that period, women were destined to a life of housekeeping, tending, and caring for their families while the men were able to go to school, venture off, and do as they pleased.

Muean was curious and had a strong, independent spirit. She begged the monks for a chance to learn in the Buddhist temple along with the boys. While she was there, she met a young man named Rid, and they fell in love.

Love didn’t mean much back then. When Muean turned 21, her parents decided to sell her off and forced her to marry a rich man named Phu against her will. She rejected, escaped her arranged marriage twice, only to be captured again. During that time, she was also constantly abused, beaten, and framed by her parents and Phu in their relentless pursuit to force her into marrying him.

Phu tried to claim legal rights over her with the authorities in Nonthaburi. Muean fought back against the corrupt system and was eventually thrown in jail. In jail, the prison guards continued to beat and torture Muean to force her into marrying Phu. She still refused.

Rid, her lover, helped her escape. They fled to Bangkok, and Muean headed to the Grand Palace to petition in front of King Mongkut of Siam on the 10 December 1865.

After considering her plea, King Mongkut issued a royal decree pardoning Muean, sent his officials to handle the case and ordered her parents to pay back her dowry, allowing her to marry the man she truly loved. Her case further inspired the King to revise Siamese law and acknowledge women’s rights in choosing their own husbands and fates. As a result, it also became illegal in Siam to sell a daughter or a wife.

Thao Thep Krasattri and Thao Si Sunthon

In the early Rattanakosin, the Kingdom of Siam once again found itself fighting for independence from, and victory over the Burmese. The survival of Siam’s southern vassal state of Mueang Thalang (currently Phuket) from a Burmese siege was thanks to two sisters — Than Phu Ying Chan and Khun Mook.

Born as daughters to the governor of Mueang Thalang, legend has it that Chan and Mook grew up playing with swords to the point that they were scolded for being too unladylike. Chan, the older of the two, was particularly clever. She was married to Phraya Surinrachaphimon who later became military governor of Mueang Thalang. 

During that time, Siam was in the midst of change and chaos as it was introduced to a new king (Rama I) and thrust into a new dynasty (Chakri). Across the kingdom, insecurities and crime rates were at an all-time high. Because of this, it is believed that instead of training the women of the island to sew and cook, Than Phu Ying Chan decided to train them in sword-fighting.

Bodawpaya, the king of the Konbaung Dynasty of Burma, sought to use the chaos to his advantage. He prepared over 144,000 men in an ambitious attempt to subjugate Siam by means of four different routes throughout the region. One of their main goals was to capture Mueang Thalang.

The people of Mueang Thalang were not only outnumbered, but they were also unprepared and untrained. They also had hardly any contact or help from the palace in the capital. The island’s military governor, Phraya Surinrachaphimon and husband of Than Phu Yhing Chan, had also just died. But upon hearing the news, the sisters quickly rose to their feet and prepared for battle.

Than Phu Yhing Chan gathered the people of Thalang, particularly women, to dress and disguise as soldiers, coated coral woods with tin to disguise them as weapons, and ordered several cannons to take position along the city walls every night. This caused the Burmese to reconsider the perceived strength of the defences and to keep holding off the attack.

A month went by, and the Burmese forces were running out of food supplies and getting weaker by the day. When they eventually attacked Mueang Thalang, Than Pu Yhing Chan and Khun Mook fired back with cannons, gunfire, and fire torches, burning parts of their campsite and eventually sending the soldiers into a panic frenzy and causing the entire Burmese force to retreat completely.

Upon hearing the news, king Rama elevated their styles to Thao Thep Krasattri and Thao Si Sunthon.

Every year in the first two weeks of March, Phuket will host one of the island’s biggest festivals – Thao Thep Krasattri – Thao Si Sunthon festival – in remembrance and celebration of their victory.

Orapin Chaiyakan

The 1932 Siamese revolution gave way to numerous changes throughout the kingdom, and one of them was to finally allow Thai women to participate in politics. It wasn’t until 17 years later, though, that a woman was finally elected.

That woman was Orapin Chaiyakan, the first woman to ever be elected and to hold a post in the Parliament of Thailand by becoming a member of the House of Representatives on June 5, 1949.

Orapin Chaiyakan was born on 6 May 1904, to a middle-class family in Ubon Ratchathani. At school, she was described to be incredibly smart, driven, and hard-working. After graduating top in her province, she was granted a full scholarship to study education in Bangkok.

She returned to Ubon Ratchathani to start teaching, eventually becoming headteacher of the school. There, she met her husband, Liang Chaiyakan, who later entered politics.

After starting her own vocational and training school, Orapin became a candidate for the Democrat Party of Thailand and was elected as a representative for Ubon Ratchathani province in 1949 – becoming the first woman in Thailand to ever do so.

Kanitha Wichiencharoen

Khunying Kanitha Wichiencharoen was a Thai lawyer and women’s rights advocate. She is considered the pioneer of women’s advocacy in the Kingdom of Thailand. Of her various accomplishments, she founded The Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, established the first emergency shelter for women and children in distress as well as the first college in Southeast Asia to train women as Buddhist nuns.

Born as Kanitha Samsen in Bangkok, Thailand into a prominent Thai family, she was educated at St. Francis Xavier and went on to study law at Thammasat University. Upon graduation, she worked as a counsellor with women who had suffered abuse and discrimination for two years before moving to the United States to study international law at the American University and Columbia University. She then moved to Switzerland to pursue yet another degree – international relations at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

Upon returning to Bangkok, Wichiencharoen began her career at the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs for three years before returning to the United States to study social welfare at Howard University in Washington D.C, returning to Thailand again in 1955.

When she permanently moved back to Thailand in the 60s, Wichiencharoen started serving and advocating passionately for women’s rights advocacy and issues. She was the president of the Women Lawyer’s Association in Thailand for three years, instituted Saturday workshops where women lawyers gave pro-bono legal advice and assistance to the community and public and was a legal counselor to the United Nations and various developmental NGOs.

In the 1970s when she was selected as president of the International Women’s Association of Thailand, Wichiencharoen founded The Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women (APSW), an organization dedicated to campaign, revise, and amend laws to provide better protection and treatment for women and children in Thailand. At the same time, she became the chair of the National Council of Women’s standing committee on Women and Labour, opening up her home as an emergency shelter to assist abused, unemployed and elderly women when the country still did not have any.

In the 1980s, Wichiencharoen raised funds to open the first women’s shelter in Thailand – the Emergency and Relief Fund for Women and Children in Distress – and continued to expand the shelter in various areas around Bangkok. She also opened the Women’s Education and Training Centre, an educational facility providing education and vocational training as well as establishing a clinic to assist with pregnant women following the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

In the 1990s, she established the Gender and Development Research Institute, an NGO and policy research centre analyzing and advising on socio-economic and political issues impacting women’s lives.

In 1993, Wichiencharoen became ordained as a mae-chee (lay-nun) in Sri Lanka and later founded Mahapajapati Theri College, the first college in the region to offer women a bachelor of arts degree in Buddhism and philosophy.

Wichiencharoen remained a mae-chee until her death in 2002.

Princess Dara Rasmi of Lanna and Siam

Many Thais may have probably heard of her name, but her significance and contributions are unquestioned. Princess Dara Rasmi represented so much more than just being one of the queens to King Chulalongkogn (Rama V) of Siam. In fact, she may have very well been the unifying fabric that has made present-day Thailand what it is today.

Princess Dara Rasmi was born on 26 August 1873 in Chiang Mai, Lanna – now known as Northern Thailand – to King Inthawichayanon and Thip Keson of the Chet Tong dynasty and Lanna Kingdom. Throughout her childhood, she was educated in the many languages as well as the traditions and customs of the various kingdoms. She was fluent in the Thai, Tai Yuan, and English and was proficient in the traditional royal customs of both Lanna and Siam.

The British had captured Burma and was a great threat to the neighbouring kingdoms during 1880s and 90s. There were also widespread rumours of Queen Victoria’s intentions to adopt Dara Rasmi in an attempt to subjugate and annex Lanna. Fearing this, King Chulalongkorn of Siam sent his brother to Chiang Mai to propose to the princess and become one of the king’s wives.

Devoted and dedicated to the well-being and future of her kingdom, 13-year-old Dara Rasmi agreed. She left Chiang Mai in 1883 to enter the Grand Palace in Bangkok with some of her entourage and was given the style Chao Chom Dara Rasmi of the Chakri Dynasty.

Princess Dara Rasmi had great pride in her Lanna kingdom and customs. She kept her long hair, continued to style herself and her entourage in traditional Lanna textiles with their long hair pulled up into a bun – a stark contrast to what was considered siwilai (civilized), fashionable, and common by Siamese women. Throughout her time in the Grand Palace, princess Dara Rasmi was constantly bullied, branded as “Lao ladies” as well as teased for smelling of “fermented fish.” Despite this, the princess remained proud of her heritage and refused to change under any circumstances.

She remained close to the king until his death in 1910. She returned to Chiang Mai four years after his death and continued to dedicate her life helping her people. She died on 30 June 1933, at the age of 60.

Today, she is celebrated for being the unifying figure in the merging of the two kingdoms – Lanna and Siam.

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