On March 11, Pintong Lekan filed a defamation lawsuit against Matichon and their columnists Suwapong Chanfangpen and Pensri Paoluangthong in the Khon Kaen Criminal Court. The case relates to an article Pensri penned in Matichon (which has since been removed), claiming that it was in the DNA of Isaan women to seek social mobility by marrying foreigners instead of seeking education.
When Pensri’s article first came out in a Matichon December 2019 issue, it elicited a firestorm of pushback from Thai feminists. Poetry of Bitch wrote a viral summary of the article and its discontents. Jessica “Bee” Difford, the subject of the photo accompanying Pensri’s article, made a live video airing her dissatisfaction that the picture had been used without her consent. Matcha Phorn-In, a prominent Isaan feminist, wrote a response article in Isaan dialect calling the article both racist and sexist.
In her response, Matcha cited the structural reasons behind Isaan women’s lack of opportunities, including limited access to education, health services, and a persistent gender pay gap. A 2017/18 UN report found that 62% of people that drop out of secondary school adolescents are girls. A World Bank report found that Thai women are paid 16% less than men. Simultaneously, the average wage rate in Bangkok is twice that of Isaan. Sitting at this perilous intersection are Isaan women, who disproportionately shoulder the burden of the region’s poverty.
“When there aren’t enough resources to send all their children to school, mothers will choose to send their sons to school with the belief that their daughters won’t be the head of the household. So Isaan men are told to study, to become leaders. Isaan women aren’t told that,” Matcha told Thai Enquirer.
“Isaan women do have agency,” Matcha stresses, “but they have limited choices. They choose to walk these paths with the intellect and skills they have on hand, and to make the best choices they can given the circumstances.”
Countless reports demonstrate the complexity of forces behind Isaan women’s choices. Yet, this is done little to stem the disdain Matcha and Pintong have faced. With the lawsuit, Pintong wants to call Pensri and Matichon to account, but also aims to open up a conversation in Thai society about discrimination.
“On the broadest level,” said Pintong, “We want to create awareness in Thai society, not to disparage or look down on other people, regardless of their gender, ethnicity or level of education.”
In addition to highlighting gender inequities, the case Pintong filed speaks to longstanding rifts in a Thai ‘imagined community’ that has often not included Isaan in its imaginings. Although Isaan is Thailand’s largest geographic region and home to one-third of Thailand’s total population, it has historically been allocated less than 10% of the government budget.
“No matter how hard Isaan people try, it is never good enough for Bangkok or Central Thais to see that it is good,” laments Pintong.
“Thailand has always been proud of never having been a colony, but we have had internal colonization,” Matcha emphasizes, speaking to the distinctly Lao heritage of Isaan society. This is the ‘racial’ dimension of Pensri’s derogatory comments.
“The Thai nation has constructed “Thainess” with Bangkok at its center, with one group – the Thai Chinese – holding economic, political and ideological power,” Matcha reiterates.
Thongchai Winichakul famously wrote of the “geo-body” as a powerful technology of nation-building. The ‘colonization’ of Isaan is typically dated to the 1893 Franco-Siamese war, when Thailand’s Northeast was carved out of Laos in the resulting treaty. Yet the proximity of Isaan to the Thai-Lao border makes it a site of continued alienation. “Here the geo-body offers the entities of otherness to history,” Winichakul writes.
The vexed social identity of the ‘borderland’ resonates with Matcha and Pintong’s grievances.
“Thai people feel like we are superior to Laotians, Burmese, Cambodians – that we’re more ‘civilized’,” says Matcha, “and it is reflected in our denigration of migrant labor from Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia.”
Matcha points to the inequities in education for indigenous communities – a problem she knows well, as her NGO, Sangsan Anakot Yawachon Development Project, works directly to mentor stateless children. The aforementioned UN study finds that 50% of students are not taught in the language spoken at home. “They are not taught local histories,” she says.
Pintong points to more recent events related to phi noi, or South Korean migrant workers as watermarks for the tides of injustice.
“You can clearly see how the government handles the [phi noi] issue. They set up camps, making them sleep in tents. This doesn’t solve anything – in fact, it just brings the sick and the healthy together to spread the disease. These workers are mostly from Isaan – Udon, Buriram, Khon Kaen,” Pintong specifies.
“When you compare it with news today that the government is opening hotels for tourists who are coming in from South Korea, or that wealthy people return from Japan and don’t even have to self-quarantine – when you compare that to the treatment of these migrant workers, it becomes abundantly clear that the government thinks it can treat Isaan people any way it wants to.”
Where the case goes from here
Although the case invokes the Computer Crime Act, the case substantively hinges on Section 25 of the 2017 Constitution, which covers the protection of victim’s rights.
“There have been similar cases that the court has not accepted, because the defamatory claims did not directly attack specific people.” Pintong relates.
However, she asserts: “In our case, we believe that it is more specific – it directly targets Isaan women, women who marry foreign men, Isaan women who have low levels of education, low-income Isaan women. It’s clear racial discrimination, and there are sections in the Constitution about this. But other than the constitution, there are no clear laws.”
It remains unclear whether the courts will accept such a case, but the defiant spirit in which the case was filed has already reverberated across the feminist community. Pintong makes it clear that not everyone in the Network for Isaan Women agrees with her, but she still believes that it’s an important step in righting deeply rooted wrongs.
“I believe that in America, in Europe, this kind of racism and sexism exists – I think this is an international problem, and I want to elevate the problem of Isaan women onto the international stage,” Pintong declares.
Pintong closed the interview with a call to the international community: “Thai society does not help us strengthen our cause. Conditions are such that not every woman who wants to join the fight is able to do so. We need global strength.”
The words were both inspiring and cynical – cynical in their skepticism of the change that can be achieved in Thai society, inspiring in their aspiration to go beyond the challenges faced by the Isaan feminist agenda. The call will hopefully not go unheard.
Update as of March 13, 2020: The Khon Kaen Court did not accept the case, stating that the discrimination was not targeted enough to qualify as “discrimination.”