Bangkok feminists, where are you?
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Bangkok feminists, where are you?

A WEEK and a half ago many in the Thai social networks were stunned by a comment made on Facebook. A number of people were outraged, especially people from the North. Here’s the comment that started the brouhaha:

AkeyuthFB-1st-insult2Nov2011-621x110

“I really don’t want to say this because it will seem like I look down on women… but the truth is… Northern girls who are uneducated or lazy and intellectually retarded will look for an easy job that normal women won’t do… Mainly it’s prostitution … Therefore, the Northern woman who is devoid of intelligence and extremely stupid yet thick-faced enough to take up the position, you should know what profession suits you.”

That was what Mr. Akeyuth Anchanbutr, a “self-made” businessman, aspiring political pundit and relentless anti-Thaksin crusader, wrote on his Facebook wall on November 2, 2011.

Of course, which particular “Northern woman” Mr. Akeyuth alluded to was not lost to anyone with a functioning brain. Thailand’s first female prime minister is a woman from the North and a kid sister of Mr. Thaksin. Mr. Akeyuth has raised his profile in the Thai political world ever since he accused Mr. Thaksin of manipulating the stock market in 2005. He founded a “No color, no camp, but have the truth” and anti-anything-Thaksin-related website called Thaiinsider.com.

But this article is not about Mr. Akeyuth. As mind blowing as his comment was, for all its crassness and thoughtlessness, more interesting are the reactions to it.

Mr. Akeyuth’s Facebook comment has by now been shared by more than 1,200 people directly from his Facebook wall. This number has probably multiplied by many factors. Judging by the reactions on the original post, most readers didn’t like the comment one bit, though of course it has received 31 “Likes” on Mr. Akeyuth’s wall and probably more elsewhere. Most thought the comment was “too strong,” many pointing to the unfair stereotype, lack of substance in the statement, insult on others’ humanity and dignity, etc.

After much flak and little praise, Mr. Akeyuth reiterated his original comment. The gist of it was, he “did not accuse or look down on anyone but merely spoke the truth,” nor was he looking down on any profession, sex work included. Annoyed by the still nagging critics, Akeyuth put it plainly once and for all: “I already told you that I hate lazy people who want to have it easy, that’s all… Like it or not, it’s up to you.”

And that was from a man on the run for 20 years (until the statute of limitation ran out) from fraud charges for allegedly masterminding a ponzi scheme back in the 1980s. If anyone should have sympathy for Thaksin, you would think it’s Akeyuth. But self-awareness seems to be missing here.

No surprise that there was a public outrage especially from Northerners. An anti-Akeyuth Facebook page went up in no time. The page now has over 4,000 “Likes” and over 3,500 people talking about it.

A day after the comment was made, civil society groups in Chiang Mai gathered to condemn the man. Representatives from Northern women’s groups, Empower the NGO for sex workers, Red women’s group, Chiang Mai City organizations and Lanna University joined to condemn his comment. They said it was a “denigration and dehumanization of sex workers and an insult on the dignity of Northern Thai women.” The group demanded that Akeyuth take responsibility for his comment. A Lanna women’s group filed a complaint with the police against him for defaming Northern Thai women.

The statement by the Lanna University pointed out the economic structure that exploits poor rural women from the North and other regions as a reason for regional inequity that should not be ignored:

 

“To say that Northern Thai women are lazy and stupid is to ignore that fact, and to speak of the prime minister in such a way is to insult the majority of people in the country who elected her… Lanna University faculty calls on all parties to condemn … the view that supports gender oppression, the view that looks down upon the people in a democratic system, and the view that denigrates the leader of the country.”

On November 4, the Phayao women’s networks also came out to demand an apology from Akeyuth.

As a Northerner, I myself was outraged and condemned Akeyuth for his blatantly sexist and racist remark as soon as I saw it on Twitter . Many others—women and men, Northerners and non-Northerners alike—were doing the same on social media. Some were calling the comment a “hate speech.”

Then something occurred to me. Chiang Mai University was missing in action. This is peculiar given CMU has a Women’s Studies Center which has feminists who can usually be depended on to be vocal about women’s issues.

But not all torchbearers of women’s rights were silent. In the first week there were two reactions from high-profile feminists.

The first was a Thammasat University lecturer in Bangkok, Chalidaporn Songsamphan, who responded on the first day with a series of 9 tweets, which was not a condemnation but a mini lecture on public criticism in Thai culture. Some selected tweets:

“It is understandable that many people dislike and condemn PM Yingluck for all kinds of reasons. The way she is reproofed tells us something interesting about Thai society (1).” (original tweet)

“Many groups of Thai people don’t debate on issues or reasons but tend to pick characteristics of individuals to point out how they are wrong such as they are bad people hence whatever they say is wrong (2).” (original tweet)

“Abusing the female PM by referring to her being a Northern woman may gratify those who dislike her, but it shows that in fact Thai society hasn’t moved away from gender prejudices (4).” (original tweet)

“PM Pou isn’t all good. To protect her without considering relevant issues and make her untouchable is not constructive. Abusing her without any reason using vulgarity isn’t  constructive either (8).” (original tweet)

I agree with most of Chalidaporn’s tweets above, but I couldn’t help feeling that something was missing in those tweets. Like feelings. Can feminists get worked up? Oh yes, probably more often than not. It is almost obligatory if one is a feminist actually: Ability to get worked up when the female humanity and dignity is violated. I don’t know Dr. Chalidaporn personally but I suspect she must have a very cool head.

If the first response from the famous Bangkok feminist made me feel like I was surfing in the vast, cool sea of adroitness, the second response from the famous feminist writer, public intellectual and TV host from Chiang Mai was like a bucket of icy water—that was thrown directly at your face. Kamphaka is not known for mincing words. She threw her exact sentiment and her political stance in the face of everyone who read her first response in the form of a 9-word tweet:

 

“Selling pussy is more honorable than killing people, Akeyuth.”*  (original tweet)

The sharp-tongued Kamphaka  more eloquently elaborated her point of view in a Voice TV interview later that day (November 3). The video interview now has more than 12,000 views and spirited discussions in the comment section. Her key points:

Akeyuth’s comment was sexist as well as racist and it attempted to further divide Thai society along regional and ethnic lines.
Sex workers are people who also have dignity.
Akeyuth’s comment presented a good opportunity for Thais to reconsider our views on gender and regional prejudices.

Over the next several days, I looked for more well-known feminists to come out and make a stand. Not that I think Thai women need feminists to tell us where to stand as we can very well manage to find a place to stand by ourselves. Or that I think the reactions thus far from many local women’s and civil society groups aren’t meaningful. To me, they are indeed as meaningful as the muted response from leading feminists in Bangkok.

Still it was strange that the torchbearers of Thai women’s rights were silent.

I recall the outrage against the Oxford Dictionary many years ago, which had the audacity to define Bangkok as “a city famous for its temples and prostitutes” or something to that effect. Thai feminists and non-feminists alike were up in arms, hyperventilating and demanding change in the definition. Was I wrong to expect reactions from feminists in this instance? Especially those in Bangkok?

Why, only a few months ago those leading feminists were weighing heavily in on the first female prime minister of Thailand. Chalidaporn likened Ms. Yingluck’s historic rise to the premiership to her “flying” into it on the [Shinawatra] magic carpet. Arpaporn Sumrit, a lecturer at the Women’s Studies Center at Chiang Mai University, predicted Yingluck wouldn’t do anything for women because she’s a man in a woman’s body (I discussed Thai feminists’ first reactions to Ms. Yingluck’s coming to power here.) What’s more, Sutada Mekrungruengkul, director of the Gender and Development Research Institute made a splash by chastising the PM for calling herself by her nickname “Pou,”** suggesting that PM Pou “could not separate between the personal and the official” and “might risk confusing foreigners” by calling herself by her nickname. (I am not kidding!)

So I thought if these feminists found PM Yingluck’s rise to power, her potential (or lack thereof) and her choice of personal pronoun worthy of discussion before, they would surely think a man suggesting the first Thai female PM should work as a prostitute instead of a PM worthy of a little fuss. I was so wrong.

Luckily, other high-profile women thought it was worth making a fuss about. On November 7, Ladawan Wongsriwong, chairwoman of Thailand’s Women’s Voices Club, came out to condemn Akeyuth and called his comment “a slap on the face of all Thai women.”

A former deputy minister and a banned Thai Rak Thai politician, Ms. Ladawan and friends filed a defamation complaint against Akeyuth with the Bangkok police and called on all chapters of the Women’s Voices Club to do the same throughout Thailand. Her group also burned Akeyuth’s effigy (see news report or the video). Ladawan threatened Akeyuth, if a public apology was not issued by 15 November an aggressive boycott campaign against all his businesses will ensue. She said:

 

“Akeyuth needs to be taught a lesson and made an example of for the Thai society to see that it is not acceptable to insult women like it’s a pastime.”

A heavy counter punch! But that’s what you might expect from such a vocal veteran newswoman, a seasoned spokesperson, and a woman from the North.

Interestingly enough, several Thai men (not from the North) expressed their outrage. Some even wrote about it from the very first day, like this and this. Even the second deputy president of Parliament, Mr. Visut Chainarun, scolded Akeyuth, saying his action was “extremely inappropriate” and his opinion “disrespects women’s honour”. “Mr. Akeyuth should be a gentleman and make an apology to Northern Thai women,” he said.

If leading Thai feminists who are not from the North felt any outrage, they certainly kept it very well hidden. One can only ask why. Now that my expectation was much reduced, I was hoping for just any high profile non-Northern women to say something. Even if it’s obligatory. Somehow I felt the need for some female camaraderie. Perhaps to reinforce my understanding, my hope, that Thai women in all regions are entitled to equal rights and dignity. I didn’t think I was expecting too much. Was I?

On November 8, the first non-Northern Thai woman came out officially at last to plead for fairness for the prime minister and all Thai women. It perked up my spirit a bit. In her opinion piece on Matichon, Ms. Thitima Chaisaeng said:

Ever since the PM came into office she has worked tirelessly … she has never shown weakness. On the other hand, she has shown leadership, patience, perseverance, decisiveness and dedication to her work and not discouraged by obstacles. More importantly, she has never come out to blame anyone, even when information is discovered that some problems are results of the failures of the last government.

The spokesperson of the Prime Minister’s Office said, as a public figure the PM can be criticized, however the criticisms should be based on reasons and in good taste. Akeyuth’s comment was “an attack on the prime minister [and] a strong insult on Thai women.” She called on women to come out to fight against sexism.

Ms. Thitima’s op-ed was the first drop of rain that preceded a storm. I was not at all prepared for what was to come. On that same day, two female Democrat MPs caused a big stir with their direct reproof of Ms. Thitima’s boss. But they weren’t talking about Mr. Akeyuth’s comment. Their focus was the PM’s tears.*** Both blamed PM Yingluck for damaging Thai women’s image by causing women’s leadership to be scrutinized and inviting an insult on the rest of Thai women. In their own words:

Mrs. Siriwan Prasachaksatru, deputy leader, Democrat Party:

 

“Khun Yingluck has caused the fight for female leadership to be scrutinized and her repeated failures and repeated, incredible lies have become the talk of the town. People question: Is that all Northern Thai women have to give? Are they all like this? Why do they always cry if they can’t do a job and use feminine guiles inappropriately? This has caused the Democrat Party to think seriously, especially among us women, because we don’t want the image of women to be destroyed any further. We are probably going to put this matter on the agenda of the Party’s committee on women, so that we can advise the prime minister.”

Ms. Mallika Boonmeetrakul, deputy spokesperson, Democrat Party:

 

“Crying the first time invites sympathy. Crying the second time draws consideration. Crying the third time is suspicious. But crying the fourth time is getting a bit too much and shows the woman must have so much guile that it invites insults… Thailand is one of the leading countries in the world that have women in executive positions but that fact is contradicted by the behavior of the leader of the country… In less than three months, [Ms. Yingluck] has destroyed the image that we women have worked all our lives to protect. Of course, women are sensitive and can cry, but not so much that it becomes suspicious like play-acting, fooling the public…”

Then on the next day, as if to make sure that the message of the two female MPs above (both from the North) came across clearly to the Thai public, the most senior female executive of the Democrat Party stressed the point again. Khunying Kalaya Sophonpanich:

“There are no women or men in politics. When you volunteer to work you must be able to deliver. You must be strong. Be a role model who is strong and determined. Therefore, you should not cry because besides the fact that it doesn’t solve the problem, it destroys the image of women. People won’t believe that women can do the job.”

Prompted by the reporter who asked,: “What do the people feel if the leader of the country show this level of maturity?,” Khunying Kalaya did not miss a beat. She laughed while delivering a retort: “Is there any maturity?”

Any comment from me would be superfluous, I think.

At any rate, it’s probably too much to expect politicians (even those claiming to have “worked all their lives” for women’s rights) to understand that using women’s tears as a point to attack a woman leader isn’t going to advance their cause very far. But the merit of their attack is hardly relevant. Politicians, even the female ones, don’t usually let facts, principles, their own gender, or a sense of female camaraderie get in the way of political point scoring.

As I was about to lose all hope, a long-awaited opinion finally came on November 10 from the feminist journalist whom I have admired for many years, Sanitsuda Ekachai of the Bangkok Post. In her article “A mind dirtier than a pigsty,” Sanitsuda wrote:

“Despite having a big team of babysitters handpicked by her fugitive brother, her inability even to read a scripted speech correctly had made her a laughing stock. Her management of the current flood disaster is simply disastrous.

Criticise her poor performance if you will. That is what democracy is about. But what came from Mr. Akeyuth is not criticism. It is misogyny. It is ethnic prejudice. It is arrogance from the city centre against other regions. It is ugly chauvinism that must not be tolerated.

You don’t need to be a fan of PM Yingluck to feel indignant. You only need to believe that gender and ethnic prejudice is wrong… That is why I thought Mr. Akeyuth’s hate speech would be a good chance to unite women of all political colours to condemn it. How wrong I was.

As community leaders in the red zones with possible political links to the Pheu Thai government, they might be even expected to do something to protect Ms. Yingluck. But the silence from other women’s rights groups is simply deafening.

Why is this so?… Whatever it is, silence is the wrong move because advocacy is an important part of social activism for change.”

Personally I am not at all bothered by the PM’s tears and don’t see her as a laughing stock. Her performance thus far, especially the management of the floods, can be much improved but nothing near disastrous. But that’s a matter of opinion.  Sanitsuda said what needed to be said and I agree with all the other points she made. I commend her for overcoming her perceptible dislike of PM Yingluck to make a principled stand. Hers is a true spirit. But what about other women’s rights advocates whom she was calling out to? Will they be able to do the same? The signs are not very encouraging. It’s been three days and no one else has emerged.

Few insults can better serve than Mr. Akeyuth’s as a showcase of the old prejudice that persists at the root of gender and social inequalities in Thai society. The comment rightly stunned and outraged many. But for me, the initial anger for Mr. Akeyuth is long gone.

What remains is the dismay and disappointment at the unaccountable silence from those who profess to be the advocates of women’s rights: Those who claim to abhor violence against women, who complain about the appallingly low representation of Thai women in politics, but who ignore the blatant and public denigration of the first female leader and the entire female population of a region of the country. Their silence is far more stunning and outrageous than the original insult by Mr. Akeyuth.

So where are you, Bangkok feminists?

Where are you when your Northern sisters need you?

NOTES:

*Kamphaka was alluding to the accusations from both sides: Akeyuth practically telling the prime minister she should become a prostitute and some Reds calling the former prime minister Abhisit “a murderer” for his responsibility in the 90+ deaths in the April-May 2010 protests.

**There is not one neutral “I” first person pronoun that everyone can use in Thai as in English. Thai women often call themselves by their nickname in informal interactions and use the pronoun “di-chan” in formal situation, while Thai men use the common and neutral pronoun “phom” in both informal and formal situations. “Di-chan” is not a true equivalent of “phom,” however, in that it is perceived as highly impersonal. Prime Minister Yingluck uses “di-chan” in official and formal situations such as in cabinet meetings, speeches and interviews.

***Ever since the floods inundated the Thai geographical and political landscapes, certain groups  among Thai media and Thai population have developed an obsession with the PM’s tears. Headlines and pictures have featured her in various stages of crying—actual and presumed—while she toured the flooded communities.

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”.