11 July 2024

Move Forward Party MPs Wuttipong Thonglour and Chaiyamparwaan Manpianjit were expelled from the party after it was decided by the party’s disciplinary board that they had sexually harassed party volunteers.

Way before the final decision was made, however, no apology could be heard from the two embattled politicians. What is much more obvious is how they defended themselves with their side of the story, from accusing the victims for also sexually harassing them, exposing messages they exchanged with the victims and even blaming the accusers of being part of a smear campaign to damage the party’s reputation.

These two cases are evidence that sexual harassment is not uncommon in Thai political circles, but why?

Male-dominated politics

Jaded Chouwilai, the Director of the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation, an organisation devoted to gender equality, commented that sexual harassment and assault persist in Thai society due to the power imbalance between those committing the acts and their victims. In most cases, the victims are too afraid to speak up or report what has happened to them, because abusers hold power and authority over others. This reinforces the authoritarian system in Thai culture, where the powerful think they can abuse anyone who is beneath them.

Politicians, in particular, think that their social status gives them increased “power” over others. This is compounded by cronyism within the political parties, which enables them to get away with such behaviour relatively easily. Jaded also noted that political parties are still largely dominated by men, which can lead to more frequent sexual harassment, as the patriarchal mindset would be reinforced among them.

“Of course, large political parties contain people from various walks of life, but you cannot forget that most political parties are male-dominated and female participation, as politicians, is still low, even though there are actually more women in politics. Therefore, the patriarchal mindset and the abuse of power will remain a problem, regardless of whether it comes from older or younger men.”

If we look back at the Thai general elections in 2023, the percentage of women in Thai parliament is 19.88%, an increase from the 2019 elections which saw only 16.20%. Most of the female MPs come from the Move Forward party (27) and Pheu Thai party (26), while other parties, such as Bhumjaithai, United Thai Nation and Palang Pracharath, each have no more than 10 female MPs. Nonetheless, despite some improvements in female representation, Thailand is still below the world average of 26.8%. When there are not enough women in politics, it is very likely that the patriarchal beliefs among male politicians will continue to be reinforced.

Women’s rights advocates exchange views on sexual harassment

Social outrage and impact

The case of the two MPs will definitely affect the Move Forward party’s reputation, especially when the party itself has prided itself on its advocacy for gender equality, through its regulations and policies. Therefore, Jaded believes that the party will be scrutinised more than others.

“Sexual harassment can occur in all political parties, not just Move Forward. Because the Move Forward party has taken a clear stance on tackling sexual harassment and advocating for gender equality, however, it will be scrutinised more than other parties, especially when they have their own regulations and policies to tackle sexual abuse.”

Although the Move Forward party has policies and disciplinary measures in place, Jaded also noticed that the party’s decision-making may have come from the lack of experience in taking action on such cases, which appeared to be slow.

“The policies and measures of the Move Forward party are great, but they may not have enough experience in taking action, particularly against sex offenders, because taking such action requires considerable knowledge and experience. So, I understand that, as there are not many best practices in Thailand and that is why people ask why it took the party so long to take action. At the same time, there seem to have been double-standards in punishing the MPs, so some people might have wondered if the party was being sincere.”

Meanwhile, the social outrage is a clear indication that Thai society is changing, as people, especially the younger generation, have a greater awareness of sexual harassment, compared to the old days.

The case of Prinn Panitchpakdi has undeniably had a significant impact on this issue. Many Thais were shocked to discover that one of the rising politicians of the Democrat Party was accused of sexual harassment and assault. What also came as a rude awakening was the fact that sexual abuse in political circles is more prevalent than many might have imagined. This incident became the highest profile #MeToo case in Thailand. Eventually, Prinn was found guilty of sexual assault and has been sentenced to four years and eight months in prison on two convictions.

“I think the case of Prinn ignited awareness among the younger generation,” said Jaded. “Also, the victims were youths, so people asked how a politician, who has so much power as a deputy party leader, and is very famous, could sexually abuse so many young girls. This is what people find unacceptable. This was why the issue blew up, but the case of the Move Forward party came in the aftermath.”

Biggest political meltdown of 2022: Prinn and the Democrats

What needs to be fixed?

The Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation monitors cases of sexual harassment and assaults from news reports. A total of 98 reports were published in Thai newspapers in 2021, 38.8% of which were rapes, 30.6% were sexual assaults within families and 11.2% were online and verbal sexual harassment. 45 of the reports stated that the sex offenders were people the victims knew, such as teachers (including school directors and tutors), neighbours, ex-partners, relatives of their parents or their husbands, colleagues and managers. 30 of the reports stated that the sex offenders were family members, such as step-fathers, fathers, uncles, grandfathers and husbands. This emphasises that abusers are mostly those in positions of power, not only politicians, which allows them to throw the blame on victims, to evade the consequences of their wrongdoing.

“We have had many complaints that the abusers deny the wrongdoing,” said Jaded. “Particularly with teachers, who accuse the victims for being “into them” first, or they have submitted to sex themselves, or that the victims are “dek-jai-taek” (เด็กใจแตก, or spoiled youngsters who often commit immoral acts, such as taking drugs or prematurely engaging in sex) to begin with.”

From Jaded’s perspective, apart from reforming the laws regarding the prosecution of alleged sex offenders, what must be fixed urgently is the patriarchal mindset that is still deeply ingrained in Thai culture, which he says, has barely improved. One example is how conservative families still teach men to be breadwinners, believing that men will have better opportunities in life because they are men, while women are taught to be housewives and to take care of their husbands.

“Even the education system doesn’t reinforce gender equality, so there isn’t enough debate on gender at schools,” Jaded explains. “Some of the classes are still repeating the traditional gender roles, namely that women should be housewives and should dress modestly or else they risk being raped. The media, especially comedy shows, still normalise sexual jokes or touching women without their consent. This is not acceptable and you really have to change this mindset. We need to take serious action on this problem. If not, there will be more and more people cultivated with this patriarchal mindset and using it to abuse their family members or others.”

He also suggested that political parties should set out a clear code of conduct, especially measures to prevent sexual harassment and for taking immediate action when harassment is reported. A few suggestions include setting up a complaint centre within the organisation, providing lectures on what sexual harassment and violence against women are and, most importantly, measures to punish those who are proved to have committed sexual harassment.

“Politicians must know that, to solve the problem, they need to have a code of conduct, especially on sexual harassment,” said Jaded. “I think political parties have to realise that sexual harassment or violence against women (in Thai culture) will not be so easy to sweep under the carpet anymore, because the whole society is watching.”

By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World