By Kaewmala

Note: Readers unfamiliar with Thailand’s bare breast painting scandal may benefit from reading two previous articles here and here first.

Ms. Duangjai Jansaunoi, Thailand's Got Talent contestant, painted on canvas with her bare breasts earlier this month. She said ordinary painting would not be so interesting. Her performance sparked outrage and quick interventions from various Thai authorities.

Is female toplessness a human rights issue?

Ordinary people likely won’t think of bare breasts and human rights together but Thai authorities may make you rethink it.

Here’s how. A member of Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Police General Wanchai Srinuannat told the press that he was distressed by the recent topless painting antic. He recounted the shock and horror and pointed out that even those in the same entertainment circle had a fright. Just look at the female judge, he said, her jaw dropped and her eyes became as big as goose eggs (my embellishment – he just said they became very big); evidently she couldn’t believe such a thing could happen in Thailand.

The head of the NHRC sub-committee on strategic implementation on rights in the judicial process Pol. Gen. Wanchai then weighed in from a rights perspective, in an interview given while he was on duty in Khon Kaen (Khaosod):

Personally, [I think] the contestant has a right to do so in her own privacy or within her own group. The public won’t see her body parts. Therefore, it wouldn’t be considered obscene. But don’t expose body parts to the public where the law doesn’t allow. She should have given it a careful thought because her action was both positive and negative. It can be considered art or not. Youth can be misled to think that such an act was already well considered and approved by the grownups to be shown to the public. If children emulate what’s shown to the public from Thailand’s Got Talent show, many social problems will arise, causing chaos in our morality and culture and our tradition will surely suffer damage.

Therefore, there must be a careful screening of the [content of] programs that can negatively affect morality, culture and tradition before they are shown to the public. Any images that will not benefit the public should be stopped…. The NHRC will appoint a special committee which is the sub-committee on children’s and women’s rights to investigate the facts in the matter in order to prevent it happening again. Those who have been found guilty will be brought in the regulatory, social, and legal processes, so that this won’t happen for the second or third time because it has no benefit at all for the Thai society.

With impressive speed, the press (Komchadluek) got the said NHRC sub-committee’s input in another news. Ms. Visa Benjamano, head of the NHRC Sub-Committee on Children, Women and Equality, identified two victims in this topless painting crime.

The first was the topless painter Ms. Duangjai as she suffered severe public criticisms. As a woman, I feel sympathy for her, especially given the news saying that she was paid to do the stunt and may not have known what was going on. The second victim was the public who watched the program, including children without necessary discretion who might have been misled to believe that the act was a good artistic performance and may copy the act.

Such a caring and interesting human rights perspective. Some may snicker, but there is a human rights angle to this. Article 27 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) stipulates:

Article 27: (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

Only that in the Thai interpretation, everyone, in this case Ms. Duangjai “has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts,” as long as she participates in her own privacy or in her own group away from the public eye. It would be entirely in accordance with the standards of international law, while also being culturally appropriate in the Thai context, no?

This interpretation makes a lot of sense, and would explain why there are no or only feeble cries from Thai authorities about the many bare breasts and bare bodies involved in varied “talent” performances in numerous establishments in Bangkok. I’ve heard of talent shows involving use of ping-pong balls, darts and other objects with certain body parts which are said to be quite popular attractions in certain areas in Bangkok as well as in other major tourist attractions. From the sound of it they would make winning performances on Thailand’s Got Talent show. But I digress, only imagine the reactions — the acts would prove too violent an attack on the public eye. Besides, kind consideration must be given to the TGT female judge, whose jaw would certainly drop on the floor and eyes fall out of the sockets, if she didn’t swoon first.

As for the human right of the public, also identified as a victim here by one of the commissioners above, I had a little trouble finding the appropriate right from the UDHR. Here’s one that comes closest:

Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Given the furious outrage about the shame and damages suffered and injuries inflicted on the morality and health of the public, it’s easy to be convinced that the sight of Ms. Duangjai’s bare back and paint-covered bare breasts can amount to torture or cruel and degrading treatment or punishment for the innocent public, especially children.

Given that Thai authorities take the utmost care to protect the innocence of Thai children, taking all conceivable and inconceivable measures including blurring pre-puberty breasts of cartoon characters on Thai TV even when they are in swimsuits, the seriousness of real-life adult female breasts needs no elaboration.

A gentle reminder for Thai NHRC

If bare breast painting can be considered a form of violence against the public, and a call for human rights concerns, then the concept of violence against the public in relation to human rights demands some serious pondering.

I can’t help remembering – as it is not easy to forget – the violent incident two years ago which was displayed before the Thai public eye for a lot longer than the topless painting act on the Thailand’s Got Talent show. In fact, the violent images then were broadcast and widely shared on social media both inside and outside of Thailand for days and weeks.

Although the esteemed NHRC has not expressed any outrage about that and the public has a distinct impression that it cares little about it, I am sure all NHRC commissioners could still recall that very long and painful public episode of violence that left over 90 people dead and many more injured. The Thai public eye was then constantly assaulted by the shocking and violent images of heads, chests, legs and other body parts being blown off, pierced or cut, and bloodied bodies lying limp, lifeless, or hastily dragged away from the bullets on Bangkok streets. There were countless pictures and YouTube videos. We were all there to see it, and I’m sure members of the NHRC, too, were there.

It can be quite convincingly argued that those images, though not sexually obscene of course, were obscene in other ways, caused much distress and pain and seriously negatively affected the Thai public’s health and morality. They hurt the public’s delicate sensibilities and innocence (children saw them, too). And they also severely damaged Thai culture — there is such a thing as political culture, besides sexual culture, artistic culture, and so on.

Members of the Thai public must surely have felt badly violated at home, and there were those directly witnessing the scenes first hand and those who were injured and killed on the streets themselves. Which takes us to another human right, the first and foremost prescribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

More than 90 people were deprived of this right during that violent incident in April and May 2010. Among them was a young woman who was just 25 years old at the time. Like Ms. Duangjai, she became well known both within and without Thailand – but posthumously in her case.

Another victim in naked violence

“Nurse Kate” Ms. Kamolket Akhad, a 25-year-old medic killed while helping the injured in Wat Pathum designated as a safe no-fire zone during the May 2010 violence. Picture credit: thaienews.blogspot.com

Nurse Kate lost her life and with it the opportunity to enjoy the liberty and security she might otherwise have, had she not been shot (three times) while trying to help the injured in the so-called safe, no-fire zone in that temple. (See a report of her death in The Independent.) Some might argue that if she had stayed at home or at the hospital she might have lived, but the fact is, she didn’t; she was part of a rescue team whose job was in the conflict zone and there was supposed to be no firing into that temple.

The hands of the law have been quick to reach out in the case of the topless painting ‘violence’ against the public. The perpetrators have been swiftly brought to account: The TV channel operator was given a hefty fine, the show producers have been severely reprimanded, and the topless aggressor-cum-victim has paid her price to society and is likely to pay the price to the law as well soon.

But who will be made accountable for Nurse Kate’s death? Will her killers be made to pay the price? It’s been two years but the question still has no final resolution, despite the final result of police investigations. Do the members of the NHRC also feel distress and sympathy for Nurse Kate and other victims in this case of violence?

The Nurse Kate example was given only to help jog the memory of the NHRC of a few other human rights in Thailand that sorely need attention. Another important one is:

Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Scores of Thais have become prisoners because they exercised this right. An old man has died of illness in prison because he was not granted bail, even though there was no reason to believe he was capable of fleeing given his lack of resources and his seriously ill state of heath. Most still have not been granted bail and few people know how their cases are progressing and whether they have been given a due process. This is another right guaranteed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Thailand is a State party and is bound to comply with.

Article 9:

1. Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law. (…)

3. Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release. It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial, at any other stage of the judicial proceedings, and, should occasion arise, for execution of the judgement.

Thailand’s NHRC must undoubtedly be aware of all these, especially the head of the NHRC sub-committee on strategic implementation on rights in the judicial process Pol. Gen. Wanchai, even though we tend not to hear much about the NHRC’s implementation to ensure the protection of these rights.

It would be extremely desirable if the NHRC would attend to some of these important rights issues and at least share with the public what it has done in this regard. Not that bare breast violence is not important, but protecting the innocent public from such cultural violence can very well be covered by the earnest Ministry of Culture which really does need something to do. It would be kind to leave the breast issue to MiniCult.

Let ThaiMiniCult protect Thai ‘culture’, ‘morality’ and ‘tradition’. The National Human Rights Commission is a serious institution worthy of tackling serious issues with its expertise, which is or should be, on Human Rights.

Kaewmala is a writer, a blogger and an avid twitterer. She blogs at thaiwomantalks.com and is a provocateur of Thai language, culture and politics @thai_talk. Kaewmala is the author of a book that looks at the linguistic and cultural aspects of Thai sexuality called “Sex Talk”.