This year in the month of September, Thailand exploded with pro-democracy protests. In an event in Bangkok, young people in Harry Potter costumes gathered together to demand the military step away from daily life and politics, brandishing chopsticks and batons as wands to wish this true. Students gather for flash protests and take pictures holding up the three-finger salute from The Hunger Games as a symbol for the pro-democracy movement. This summer, protestors have protested against the regime of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has been in power since 2014 after deposing the country’s first female PM, Yingluck Shinawatra. At the forefront of this movement are young women, bucking traditional hierarchical structures of power like Thailand’s patriarchy, monarchy, and the Buddhist monkhood.
It is evident that patriarchy grips Thai society. PM Prayuth Chan-ocha has frequently ignored calls for gender equality saying that “Thai society will deteriorate” if men and women have equal rights, though he later said that he was “joking.” Women lack a voice in government but do not lack in means of education level, entrepreneurship, and labor. More women than men go to university in Thailand, about 40 percent of private enterprises are run by women, and they make up 45 percent of Thailand’s labor force.
Thai women make up integral parts of society but are still excluded from institutions of power like the military and the monarchy. However, the pro-democracy protests undergoing in the country are giving Thai women the space to speak out for gender equality. In a statement for the Women for Freedom and Democracy group, Activist Kornkanok Kamta said, “We cannot claim to be a true democracy when decisions about our bodies and reproductive health are still controlled by the government.”
Even within the pro-democracy movement do women encounter sexism. Attapon Buapat, one of the pro-democracy protest leaders, said “Women, honestly speaking, are nosy gender. That’s why God cursed women to have a weak body in order to effectively reduce their meddlesomeness.” However, women’s roles in catalyzing Thailand’s most sweeping pro-democracy gender political movement is because “the young generation today has the vocabulary to name what’s wrong with society when it comes to gender.” This analysis comes from Duanghathai Buranajaroenkij, an expert in gender studies at Mahidol University in Bangkok.
In order to find out more about the intersection of the pro-democracy protests with calls for gender equality, I spoke to Professor Darren Zook, Professor of International Human Rights at the University of California, Berkeley.
TRS: “How deeply entrenched is the institution of patriarchy in Thai society and governmental institutions?”
DZ: “In governmental institutions [patriarchy] is deeply entrenched. I would say, for instance, that patriarchy is much more conservatively entrenched in a place like South Korea than it is in Thailand. If you go to a university, there are women faculty [in Thailand] but in Parliament, you notice it. So when you get to positions of power, especially political power, you see a distinct expression of patriarchy. I think the reason [patriarchy] is associated with the current protests in Thailand is because one of the institutions in Thailand that has to be patriarchal is the monarchy.”
Professor Zook explained that the current King of Thailand is hated. His sister, who is beloved by the public, was unable to assume the throne because of her gender. He believes the anti-patriarchy and pro-democracy protests are connected because of this snubbing.
TRS: “Do you think the constitution could ever change to allow a queen?”
DZ: “The current king is a train-wreck and a half of a human-being so it’s forcing this moment where, for the first time ever, younger Thai people are saying ‘maybe we don’t need a monarchy. You know, not have a queen or a king but just ditch it.’”
TRS: “What do you make of PM Prayuth Chan-ocha’s quote that Thai society would ‘deteriorate’ if men and women achieved equal rights?”
DZ: “You hear this a lot, especially in Asian countries about how Asian culture is patriarchy for a reason. So if you insert equal rights for women, you westernize [Asian culture], which means you erase culture. You invoke culture to avoid change. So it’s the invocation of Thai culture, as if Thai culture has never changed over time, to argue that equal rights for women is a mistake. The good news is the defensive response of Prayuth Chan-ocha shows that people aren’t going to put up with that. It’s been done too many times, this idea of using culture to resist change.”
TRS: “If the democratic protests succeed, do you see women’s rights as being a priority in reshaping Thai government?”
DZ: “I mean this is that moment, right? You’ve had a female prime minister and even though this anti-patriarchal stuff has been added on to what was just a pro-democracy–and indirectly anti-monarchy–protest, lots of people–especially younger Thais–are realizing this is the time to have this conversation. There are brilliant female Thai academics, everyone loves the Crown Princess. There’s a point where it is so absurd to insist that patriarchy has to remain, it becomes an indefensible position. If there has ever been a time in Thai history since 1932, when it first became a democracy, to have a conversation about women’s rights, that moment is now.”
TRS: “Wrapping up questions, with Americans fearing for the state of their own democracy, why is it important we care about these pro-democracy/anti-patriarchy protests in another country where it feels as though these issues are very alive in the United States today?”
DZ: “[It’s important to care] because you realize [freedom] is a universal struggle. It used to be the story of American exceptionalism, where America was always different from other countries. Well, it’s not different now and you can look to Thailand to draw some inspiration [from their protests]. That’s one reason. The second reason is that there is a new Cold War between countries like China and Russia, who push the idea that democracy is a failed form of governance and that authoritarianism is better. Having people in Thailand take to the streets to say ‘I’m willing to lose my life or go to prison for freedom to think what I want to think’ is something valuable about freedom. The power of having the freedom to dissent and change the nature of politics is a very important right to have.”