By Sirin Muncharoen and Jasmine Chia
In 2014, two tourists were murdered in Koh Tao – one of them, a woman, was raped and bludgeoned to death. In response, Prayudh Chan O-Cha blamed female tourists for wearing bikinis, saying:
“If [tourists] wear bikinis in Thailand, will they be safe? Only if they are not beautiful.”
It’s not sexism, people in the junta said, it’s just how he speaks. It was a joke.
Prayudh again took to the stage in 2016, to refer to women as “mothers” and “birth-givers.” If men and women had the same rights, he said, “Thai society would deteriorate!”
Once again, it was just a joke.
Was it still a joke when, in 2018, a high-profile rape case in Koh Tao was dismissed because authorities denied the 19-year old girl’s DNA evidence on the basis that the ‘tide was too high’ for the rape to have happened? Or when, after the 2014 coup d’état’, the number of women in parliament fell from 16% to an abysmal 3%?
Thai militarism is the enemy of feminism. It is patriarchy incarnate, and its “jokes” mask a negligence that has deeply failed Thai women – especially low-income or rural women – who was already suffocated by a patriarchal society.
But Thai feminists are fighting backend continuing a proud tradition. After all, across the world, the fight for gender equality and the fight for democracy are two sides of the same coin.
The history of Thailand is told as a history of monarchy and military leaders – but this narrative omits the involvement and resistance of Thai women in shaping national politics.
The first known instance of ‘feminist’ resistance, according to Dr. Duanghathai Buranajaroenkij, was under King Rama IV, when a common woman by the name of Amdaeng Muan spearheaded a petition to prohibit the sale of one’s wife and daughter. This eventually became law – up until then, Thai women could be traded like chattel.
Amidst the revolutionary euphoria of 1973 – 1974, female students at Thammasat put gender rights on the agenda, questioning beauty contests that had been popularized at universities. They pushed for more female participation in development and highlighted the problematic conditions of sex work in late capitalist Thailand.
Women also fought for labor rights. As the Thai economy developed in the late 20th century, women came to play a greater role in the workforce. Between 1992 and 1996, women outnumbered men in the workplace by one million people. As the contradictions of capitalism made themselves apparent in the 1990s, students joined hands with female workers in strikes at the Standard Garment Factory, Bangkok Weaving Factory and Hara Factory.
But polices to support women have been absent from both the military government and Thai society at large.
Matcha Phorn-In, a prominent Isaan gender rights activist, described the military as a system of male dominance, reinforcing strong patriarchy within Thai society. “The military’s bullets go through the bodies of women,” Matcha says, “both directly, in the Deep South and various protests through our history, and indirectly, through budget cuts that hurt lower income women.”
While there has been more female representation in parliament since the 2019 election, there is limited evidence that any of this has translated into real benefits for marginalized women. The ascension of the military has led to an unprecedented increase in the 2020 budget for central government spending, to be used at Prayudh Chan-ocha’s discretion. Meanwhile, the education budget was cut.
In fact, government policies like the 2018 mandate to shut down smaller schools actively hurt rural students – particularly rural women. With fewer schools in rural areas, Matcha points out that girls are most at risk of losing access to education. “The policies of the current government don’t help poor people. They don’t help Isaan people, they don’t help Isaan women.” says Kay Lekan, an Isaan gender rights activist and member of the Network for Isaan Women. Apart from education, the government’s policy to ‘reclaim forest land’ has criminalized landless farmers and has been vociferously opposed by grassroots women. 440 female grassroots activists have faced legal harassment.
A more subtle example of the military’s oppression of women is the attitude of government officials policing protests. Chonticha “Kate” Jangrew faced verbal harassment – “You look pretty today” or “I like the way you dress.” In view of the clear power dynamic between male officers and female activists, Kate and other activists have often felt uncomfortable in their presence.
It’s no surprise that the military’s latest opponent and victim of its long arm of intimidation is a woman. The person that runs the Maem Po Dam Facebook account says that she is shutting down her account because she fears for her life. “She” broke the news of the government’s mask smuggling scandal and provoked a response from Prayudh Chan O-Cha himself. As social media rushes to #SaveMaemPoDam, it is a stark reminder that the military’s female opponents are often the most vulnerable.
Even within the pro-democracy student movement, there is work being done to keep the movement safe for women. A few female activists, together with the Democracy Restoration Group, have launched the “Womanifesto” project to distribute guidelines for gender equality within pro-democracy movements.
“Womanifesto” highlights the precarity of women in the movement, as female activists are often tokenized to show diversity, yet lack real opportunities to participate. What’s worse is that they often face sexual harassment in the form of sexual jokes or sexual advances from other activists. On some occasions, this has escalated into sexual assault. The most obvious case is the alleged rape by a member of Dome Revolution, a student political party in Thammasat University. The head of Dome Revolution is renown student activist Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, who came under much criticism for his lackluster response.
Online, the “The Sanctuary of Wongyannavian” Facebook group is a stunning example of Thai pro-democracy men’s dismissal of feminism. The group was created after another group “Thanes Wongyannava” was closed by its own creator, a well-known professor and writer, and the group’s namesake. Fans of Thanes, mostly men, mock feminists as ever-complaining women. They make sarcastic posts and memes about the patriarchy. There is little solidarity between pro-democracy men and feminists.
As the military government threatens the rights and well-being of women, and the government’s opponents dismiss the feminist movement, we ask: What’s left for women?
The most obvious path forward right now is democracy.
With representatives from the people, Thai women have mechanisms for putting forward their issues. There are, however, questions as to whether the voices of women will actually be heard. For example, will the current protests for democracy confront gender-based issues? If the constitution is to be reformed, will women’s rights be a priority? In the male-dominated political atmosphere, where is the space for women?
In order to assure that women’s voices will be heard, the movement for women’s rights must start now. Maybe it is time to rethink the ultimate goal in this fight. The goal shouldn’t be only “democracy.” It’s time for the movement to imagine the Thai society after achieving democracy, too. One of the goals should be the rights and freedom of women in Thailand, especially those who are marginalized or underprivileged.
The liberation of Thai women, who are currently oppressed under the military government, will not come easily. It does not come instantly after democracy is achieved, although there must be democracy for it to happen. But it will come, because it must.