BANGKOK – As tens of thousands of people have gathered for a series of pro-democracy protests in Thailand in recent weeks, their ranks have been dominated by an emerging political force: young women.
Many of the earliest and most vocal organizers of the rallies have been female students. At recent protests, women appeared to make up the majority of participants, too.
While the demonstrations are aimed at urging Thailand’s old guard to embrace new ideas, they have also addressed concerns that often don’t make it to the national stage. Many of them are specific to women, including abortion, taxes on menstrual products and school rules that force girls to conform to an outdated version of femininity.
Most of all, women are increasingly speaking out against a patriarchy that has long controlled the military, the monarchy and the Buddhist monkhood, Thailand’s most powerful institutions. They have joined a broader range of voices calling for greater say in a country where democracy has been in retreat, though the challenges for women remain steep even within the protest movement.
“The monarchy and the military have all the power in Thailand,” said Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, one of a core of female students who have galvanized the political opposition. “I shouldn’t be afraid to say that men have almost all the power in Thailand.”
The protests are rooted in resistance to the military, which most recently carried out a coup in 2014. The generals who led the putsch said that protecting the palace from critics was one of their major reasons for doing so.
The government’s stance on women’s issues in particular has galvanized some activists. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, the coup leader, who retained his position after disputed elections last year, has dismissed the idea of gender parity, even though he serves as the head of a national committee dedicated to that ideal.
“Everyone says that we have to create justice, women and men have equal rights,” he said during a speech on vocational training in 2016. “Thai society will deteriorate if you think this way.”
Prayut, a retired general, said that women had authority over the home.
“Outside the house, we are big,” he added, of men. “At work, we have the power.”
Such notions have irked women.
“The male supremacy society has been growing since the coup,” said Chumaporn Taengkliang, a co-founder of Women for Freedom and Democracy, a political alliance that has helped spearhead the anti-government rallies in Bangkok.
That needs to change, Chumaporn added.
“Women are not taking the back seat,” she said. “They are the front line.”
It’s a phenomenon happening not just in Thailand. In Belarus, hundreds of women were arrested last week while marching in Minsk to protest the return to power of the country’s strongman, President Alexander Lukashenko. And in the United States, women and girls are often at the forefront of Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality.
In some ways, it should not be novel that women are helping to lead the protest movement in Thailand, which by some measures is one of Asia’s most equitable societies for women. It gave them the right to vote in 1932, one of the first countries in the region to do so. More Thai women than men go to college. They make up 45 percent of the labor force. About 40 percent of private enterprises are headed by women, higher than the global average.
But women lack a voice in institutions like the military and the palace. Their political representation is paltry. Women occupy just 14 percent of the seats in parliament. (That, at least, is better than after the 2014 coup, when only 5 percent of the legislature was female.)
Although female warriors in Thailand’s history were famous for having helped repel foreign invaders, the nation’s top military academy does not accept women. Last year, the Royal Thai Police Cadet Academy, which had been open to women for about a decade, effectively closed its doors again to female applicants.
Women have taken part in previous protest movements. A core of so-called aunties, many from rural areas ignored by Bangkok’s ruling elite, were integral to an opposition force called the Red Shirts, who occupied downtown Bangkok for weeks before a bloody crackdown in 2010.
But in protest leadership, women had been mostly absent.
“In previous democracy movements, it was almost all men,” said Jutatip Sirikhan, a student at Thammasat University in Bangkok who was arrested this month for her involvement in the current protests. “Until now, Thailand has not had a gender political movement.”
The involvement of social media-savvy young women has shifted the tenor of the current protests. Many are well-educated daughters of the middle and upper-middle classes, and they wonder why the #MeToo movement has bypassed Thailand.
They have brought their defiance to some of the country’s fanciest private girls’ schools, raising their hands during school assemblies in a defiant, three-fingered salute from the “Hunger Games” books and movies rather than paying respect to the national or royal anthem. Many of them are bound by school rules on hairstyles, uniforms and even underwear that they consider invasive.
As the rallies this summer grew bigger, women took to protest stages to criticize a persistent wage gap and denounce what they call rape culture. They decried the government’s classification of feminine hygiene products as cosmetics, which could make them liable for higher taxes.
They highlighted abortion laws that, in their view, fail to give women control over their own bodies by restricting the procedure to cases in which physical or mental health is compromised. And they spoke out against beauty contests, popular in Thailand, which they said dismissed women as demure, decorative objects. (A beauty queen who expressed support for the pro-democracy rallies was denounced online for having dark skin.)
“The young generation today has the vocabulary to name what’s wrong with society when it comes to gender issues,” said Duanghathai Buranajaroenkij, an expert in gender studies at Mahidol University in Bangkok. “When I began studying gender, most people in Thailand didn’t even know to use a gender lens to look at things.”
During an overnight rally last weekend, the largest since the 2014 coup, female speakers took aim at the patriarchal traditions of the Thai royal palace. Succession laws specify that the crown must go to a male heir. The Privy Council, a select group of advisers to the monarch, is all male.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn has been married four times. Two of his previous wives were purged. Last year, the king stripped titles from his royal consort, a position akin to an official mistress that, until he brought it back, had not existed since before the country abolished absolute monarchy in 1932.
The consort had been accused of “misbehavior and disloyalty against the monarch.” But this month, the palace announced that she had been reinstated to her former position. It is not clear why.
On a protest stage in front of the Grand Palace on Saturday night, Chumaporn, the co-founder of Women for Freedom and Democracy, raised an issue that is rarely discussed in a country where criticism of the king can earn people up to 15 years in prison. (The king was not at home because he spends most of his time in Germany.)
“We ask you to add one more point,” Chumaporn said, to cheers from the crowd. “That is to destroy the male superiority structure under the monarchy.”
But the weekend rallies also showed that a movement powered by many leaders is now coalescing around fewer individuals — and most are men. Of the 18 keynote speakers Saturday, only three were women. (Panusaya did present a protest letter meant for the king, however.)
One of the male speakers was Attapon Buapat, an activist who said that “women, honestly speaking, are a nosy gender,” to even greater applause than Chumaporn received. “That’s why God cursed women to have a weak body, in order to effectively reduce their meddlesomeness.”
In a Facebook post, Attapon later apologized, saying he had not “considered the subtlety of this matter.”
Sirin Mungcharoen, a student leader at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said she had tried to promote feminism, along with LGBTQ rights, as integral to democracy. When she did, some male activists who had been fighting alongside her began mocking her, she said.
Meanwhile, online harassers have been making fun of her appearance. They passed around her picture and said that her hair, dyed blond, made her look like a loose woman. She left social media.
“They could not see that one person could work on the issue of democracy and women’s rights at the same time,” Sirin said. “Thai society is still very patriarchal.”
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