By James Austin
The Thai New Year Festival has come to an end, the streets are eerily quiet, and online news media is mopping up the aftermath of the festival’s more negative impact on society. This year, arguably, was a stand-out out year for official extremism concerning safety initiatives, with Thai people being exposed to a very long list of crackdowns relating to: water-squirting weapons, alcohol consumption, dangerous driving, and “improper dances or performances that do not reflect Thai culture”.
In terms of crackdown success there was reason to rejoice; the use of water-squirting weapons that might cause a victim to feel slightly aggravated was down. However, not surprisingly, there was still a lot of road accidents and deaths, in fact, in spite of the rigorous crackdowns, this was one of the worst years on record for traffic accidents and deaths.
In terms of cultural impropriety, most of which concerns how women dress, or dance, one cannot be sure how to quantify success. Prior to the beginning of the festival, Sin Suesuan, the Director of the Thailand’s Moral Promotion Center, had told the Thai public that women should dress appropriately during Songkran as inappropriate dress could result in sexual assault. This is reminiscent of General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s comments after the murder of David Miller and Hannah Witheridge in Koh Tao, when he said wearing bikinis might not be safe on Thailand’s beaches.
We don’t know how many rapes occurred during this year’s festival. We do know that Samorn Khlangdet, a 33-year-old Thai woman, was brutalized, and murdered, by someone who police now say is a serial rapist, in Chiang Mai. To accord the abject violence of this attack, in any nth of a degree, to a woman’s failings in dressing appropriately, is obscene. But one would think, given the above statements by Thai officials, that the victim was partly to blame.
Thailand’s Ministry of Culture criminalized ‘underboob selfies’ in March, stating that offenders could face up to five years in prison for an offense. Such acts are seen as un-Thai behavior, despite a globally renowned status as a country pervaded with illicit sexual activity, which is open-air and is prevalent in many of the county’s tourist hotspots; or despite the fact that the majority of newspapers and magazines when you walk into a convenience store are painted with scantily clad women. Sexuality, the allure of almost naked women, is Thai, as much as it is global. In fact, toplessness in Thai provinces was the norm until government ministries outlawed it in the early 20th century, so saying that nakedness, or near nakedness, does not conform with Thai traditions is hogwash. If anything, it’s a purist attitude to dress code.
“The ministry tried to create a new culture that was more ‘civilised’, and attempted to obliterate the old culture,” said Chiang Mai historian ajarn Vithi Phanichphant on the subject of toplessness and other Thai norms, in an interview with Citylife magazine. We might ask if women were raped more frequently in the past, or if modesty has incurred more sexual violence… or perhaps, in a more rational light, that rape is a man’s problem, his own unethical deformity, that unfortunately has been obscured behind a lot of victim blaming.
In an interview with Asian Correspondent, feminist and cultural critic Kaewmala said, “The short phrase ‘sexual assault due to inappropriate clothing’ is so heavily loaded with so much of why sexual violence continues to be a serious problem in Thai society. It shows the blame-the-victim attitude is pervasively held, persistent and deep-rooted, especially among authorities. Despite the modern, sometimes even risque clothing you see Thai women wear in mainstream media and social media, at the core Thai society is still very conservative, if at times schizophrenic. Ultimately Thai women are still held responsible for their own safety, no matter what.”
She asks is it, “more effective to at least also restrain the perpetrators from unleashing their primitive instinct?” adding, “The flip side of telling women to dress modestly to protect themselves from harassment and rape is telling the potential molesters and rapists it’s not their fault when they harass and rape.”
Would the perpetrator of the recent rape and murder in Chiang Mai feel some mitigation concerning his actions after reading the ‘moral authorities’ extol their cultural wisdom relating to alleged female impropriety? Do Thai women feel like they are caught in some kind of trap, a contradictory compliance that at once compels them to be attractive, sexy, but at the same time tells them being so is un-Thai and runs them the risk of being assaulted, or even killed?
Men are attracted to women, and on a daily basis most virile men might see someone who they would like to enjoy a sexual experience with, oftentimes with a woman who is sexually attractive due to her physicality, or even what she is wearing. But we expect this, it is healthy, and normal, but to equate this often non-mutual mental, ephemeral infatuation, to a reason for enacting a despicable violent act that takes away a woman’s freedom and her rights to feel safe, is tantamount to justifying it as a byproduct of social order. In Thailand women are still seen as the problem for a man’s perhaps most unequivocal failing at being good, and acting ethical in spite of his sometimes impulsive sexual urges. All rape campaigns should be aimed at men, and their failings to act in a humane way.
Victim blaming is not a phenomenon present only in Thailand, although in Thailand perpetrators of the said act arguably seem less aware of their wrongdoing; we know this, because in spite of the tsunami of criticism that follows matters concerned with victim blaming, it occurs again, and again. Thai officials often seem to endorse not Thai traditions, but espouse the primitive nature of the beast.
However, the mindset surrounding victim blaming might be more prevalent than we think, only criticism and activism may compel people in other countries to watch what they say. Still, the song remains the same outside of Thailand.
This month Sussex Police in the UK made a public apology after releasing anti-rape advertising campaigns whose main imperative was on women to stay together on nights out, rather than on men not succumbing to inhumane acts of sexual violence. In the same week an anti-rape campaign focused on victim-blaming, ‘This Doesn’t Mean Yes’, asked to stop blaming the victims. In an article in the London Evening Standard, Dr Fiona Vera Gray of the charity, Rape Crisis, which supports the campaign said, “We want to live in a world where perpetrators of rape and sexual assault are held entirely responsible for their actions, and survivors are believed and supported. A world where everybody seeks active, embodied and enthusiastic consent as the minimum, and respects the human rights of women to bodily autonomy and freedom.”
This statement, if something similar were released by Thailand’s officials, or the moral authority guardians of Thai society, would be a start in accepting how rape has been so terribly been misjudged in Thailand. It might even prevent Thai soap operas, that are religiously watched in almost every household from the Bangkok slums to villages wedged on mountain slopes in the north, to realize that rape victims, in the real world, don’t fall in love with the ones that caused them damage. Where rape in is concerned, Thailand is due a massive paradigm shift.
About the author:
James Austin is a journalist and fiction writer living in Thailand.