Student Union of Thailand spokesperson Panusaya 'Rung' Sithijirawattanakul (left) speaks beside activist Parit 'Penguin' Chiwarak during a press conference at Thammasat University in Bangkok on Sept. 9, 2020. (Photo: AFP)
Female pro-democracy activists in Thailand who have helped spearhead peaceful protects against a repressive military-allied government over the past year have faced routine violations of their rights, according to a new report by a prominent international rights initiative.
Titled “Standing tall — Women human rights defenders at the forefront of Thailand’s pro-democracy protests,” the report is based on interviews with 22 female protest leaders in Thailand and has been published by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT).
During youth-led protests over the second part of last year, tens of thousands of young pro-democracy activists, mostly female high school and university students, took to the streets of Bangkok and other cities around Thailand to demand sweeping political reforms in a country that has been led by a military-dominated government since a coup in May 2014.
In response, both state and non-state actors responded by targeting female participants, including several who are still underage, “through the use of repressive laws and decrees that do not conform to international standards,” the authors of the report note.
Several of the female pro-democracy advocates interviewed for the report said they had been arrested and detained before being released. Several female activists are also facing 10 or more criminal charges including sedition and royal defamation.
Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a 22-year-old university student who has become one of the most prominent leaders of the pro-democracy movement, is facing several charges of royal defamation for openly calling for constitutional limits on the monarchy during speeches at mass rallies last year.
“Authorities also subjected WHRDs [women human rights defenders] and their family members to frequent harassment, intimidation and surveillance, including by visiting their residences and educational institutions to intimidate them or gather information on their activities,” the report’s authors note.
“Other abuses were gender-specific: WHRDs reported attacks by state actors, which mostly took the form of verbal abuse and harassment directly aimed at them simply because of their gender and/or their gender expression. This often overlapped with their experience of online attacks and harassment by non-state actors,” they added.
Although most of the demands by young protesters have been aimed at political reforms, several others have targeted the paternalistic system of regimentation at government-run schools, which require female students to wear identikit uniforms and keep their hair short.
Female demonstrators also challenged traditional gender roles in Thailand by demanding greater representation for women, transgendered Thais and LGBTQ people.
“During the demonstrations women took to stages to criticize gender stereotypes, unequal power relations and other injustices in Thai society that obstruct women and LGBTQ people from enjoying their fundamental human rights,” the report authors write.
Women have traditionally been under-represented in senior decision-making positions in Thailand, including the government. In 2014 the country’s first and so far only female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was overthrown in a coup by the military, led by then army chief Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, who remains the country’s current prime minister.
Prior to the military takeover, Yingluck was routinely derided and mocked in overly sexist terms by royalist anti-government demonstrators, whose months-long street rallies served as the pretext for the military to seize power and “restore peace and order.”
In 2016 Prayut disparaged the idea of gender equality in a speech he gave.
“Everyone says that we have to create justice [so that] women and men have equal rights,” the former army chief said. “Thai society will deteriorate if you think that way.”
He added that while women may have influence at home, “outside the house we (men) are big [and] at work we have the power.”