School rapes happen so frequently in Thailand that they no longer shock, says a leading newspaper columnist. (Image: AFP)
A series of sexual assault cases involving children and teenage girls this month has roiled Thailand, bringing fresh attention to the rape and sexual abuse of minors around the country.
In the latest case, a 38-year-old man in the northern province of Lamphun has been arrested after his 18-year-old daughter filed a criminal complaint with police, saying her father had repeatedly raped her over nine years since she was in grade 4.
The man allegedly injected his daughter with alcohol in January to force her to suffer a miscarriage after she became pregnant last August.
Police said the man served a four-year prison term in 2012 after he had been found guilty of raping other victims. Upon his release he resumed raping his own daughter until she became pregnant in August.
The man, whose wife previously divorced him over repeated instances of domestic violence, has denied the charges.
“The victim tried to get away from her father by visiting her mother, but he began threatening to kill his daughter, ex-wife and ex-wife's husband if the victim did not return home,” a local newspaper reported. “Police said that is when she sought help from law enforcement.”
In another case, a 47-year-old university lecturer in the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima is being investigated over claims by his wife, a fellow lecturer, that he had sexually abused their two children, a seven-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl.
The man allegedly molested his children on several occasions and threatened to kill their mother, who has sought help both from police and the province’s governor. The man has denied the charges.
In yet another case, a three-year-old girl was found dead in a forest in the northern province of Mukdahan last week. The preliminary results of an autopsy indicate she had been sexually abused before she was killed.
The girl went missing from her home in a village on May 11 while she was being looked after by older sister as their parents were away running errands.
The toddler’s body was discovered three days later in a forest, about two kilometers from her home. No suspects have been identified so far, but villagers are convinced she had been abducted, raped and killed.
“It’s impossible for a three-year-old girl to wander that far into the forest,” a woman who lives in the same village told local media. “We won’t have peace until the culprits are arrested.”
In another recent case that has caused nationwide outrage, five teachers are accused of gang-raping two students, aged 14 and 16. The men are suspected of having raped the girls repeatedly for a year at a school in a town in Mukdahan province. Two male students allegedly participated as well.
The two teenage girls are left traumatized by the experience and require specialized care, according to media reports. The seven men, who have been charged for the alleged crimes, have all denied any wrongdoing.
In recent weeks several other cases of teachers at primary and secondary schools allegedly fondling and molesting students have been reported.
Although these myriad cases may seem disparate, they point to a culture of rampant sexual abuse of minors in Thailand, both at home and in schools, according to women’s rights activists and observers.
“School rapes in Thailand happen so frequently that they no longer shock,” argues Sanitsuda Ekachai, a prominent columnist working for the Bangkok Post, in reference to the alleged gang rape of the two girls by their teachers.
“But not this one. Not when underage schoolgirls were repeatedly gang-raped by their teachers. Not when other teachers callously defended the rapists and paedophiles as ‘good teachers and family men,’ dismissing the heinous crime as consensual sex and blaming the victims as bad girls,” she adds.
The columnist is referring to widespread support expressed online for the teachers whereby commenters have sought to portray the two victims as lascivious.
Others have argued that prison sentences would be too harsh a punishment for the teachers because they are “respected” members of the community. Even a female teacher at the same school has spoken out publicly in their defense.
Apologias in cases like this hold no water with Sanitsuda, who argues that an embedded social hierarchy facilitates the sexual exploitation of children in Thailand.
“Such systematic nepotism fosters a culture of impunity. School rapes occur routinely and rapist teachers are rarely punished,” she says. “Had it not been for the fierce public anger on social media this time, these men might have been spared by the school’s nepotism again.”
Sanitsuda alleges that other teachers at the school knew of the abuse but decided to turn a blind eye to it.
“These men were sexually exploiting their students and treated the school as a brothel, yet their superiors and colleagues thought nothing was wrong with it,” she posits. “The crime went on for over a year. It is not possible that nobody knew about it until the matter came formally to light when a victim's grandmother found out and reported it to the police.”
According to a survey conducted last year by the market research firm YouGov, a fifth of Thai women have experienced sexual harassment. Meanwhile, nearly 90 percent of rapes go unreported in the country, according to the United Nations.
Most victims of sexual harassment and rape do not report the crimes for fear of being shamed or further victimized. Many victims of sexual abuse also have little trust in law enforcement officials, who often fail to follow up on reported cases, especially when the accused are “respected” members of a community.
To make matters worse, many Thai women also risk facing ostracism, being fired or other forms of discrimination at work if they report being harassed or abused, activists say.
“There have been few complaints in the past because the victims are afraid of their harassers who are usually their bosses,” said Usa Lerdsrisuntad, director of the Foundation for Women. “We need to ensure that they are protected and will not be laid off or prevented from being promoted.”
In response to the cases of sexual abuse and rape, the government has called on victims of such abuse to file complaints with police.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has pledged that “disciplinary action will be taken [against wrongdoers] and that those who file complaints are protected,” according to a government spokesperson.
Protecting victims of sexual abuse and helping them get justice will be vital if Thai women are to be better protected, women’s rights activists stress.