Protection International launches exhibition of quilts by women human rights defenders

On 4 February, Protection International (PI) launched the “Art for Resistance: Quilt of Women Human Rights Defenders” exhibition of 54 quilts by 52 women and 2 men human rights defenders from all over Thailand, at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC).

At the exhibition, photographs of the women are shown next to the quilt they made. 

PI representative Pranom Somwong said that quilting is often seen as a craft and as women’s work rather than as art, and in artistic spaces, women are often the subject who is being gazed upon by the artist, but here, women are using a craft to tell their own story and their battle to defend human rights.

The quilt project began with 20 women human rights defenders in 2017, the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and was inspired by the South American arpilleras quilts, which have been used by women to tell the story of their hardships. In Chile, for example, groups of women, sometimes known as the arpilleristas, used this quilting technique to tell the story of the suffering, oppression, and violence they faced under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from December 1974 to March 1990.

The quilt making process

The project was then expanded to include 34 other human rights defenders to increase visibility and to open up space for expression for women human rights defenders who work on issues such as land rights, refugees, disability rights, and poverty issues, among others.

“We hope that from this exhibition, we will get to see and be encouraged by the women in Thailand who are contributing to protecting everyone’s human rights,” said Pranom. “We should be inspired by the women who are upholding justice, or by the things they seek and fight for, which are the fundamental rights that we all value, be they land rights, the right to migration, to peaceful expression, or the right to choice in a multicultural society, or to gender diversity, as well as the battle of women with disability who are removing obstacles to access for women with disability, or resisting unjust power.”

The project was funded by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI), and the exhibition will be on the L floor of the BACC, in front of the library, until Friday (7 February).

Sarah Taylor, Ambassador of Canada to Thailand

Sarah Taylor, the Ambassador of Canada to Thailand, said in her opening remarks to the exhibition that the Embassy’s support for PI’s project is “very much in the spirit of solidarity and humility.”

“For us in Canada, human rights and women’s rights are extremely important as well, and we recognize that we have our own shortcomings and our own problems,” said Taylor, “so this is about being able to share experiences and work together about something we all believe is a very important value.”

Taylor emphasized the important role of human rights defenders in building “inclusive societies,” and that, from a Canadian perspective, “inclusion is about creating a society where diverse views are not just respected but also empowered.” She also stressed that diversity allows organizations, governments, and society perform better. 

“I want to thank all the women and men human rights defenders who are exhibited here and of course participating here for the very courageous work that you are doing to advance human rights,” said Taylor, “and also to thank my diplomatic colleagues and other advocates for their support for the work of human rights defenders, especially women human rights defenders, here in Thailand and to bring you our best wishes, in the spirit of solidarity, from Canadian human rights defenders as well.”

Pranom stressed that these stories are those of ordinary women in Thailand who are fighting to protect our fundamental rights and freedom, which resonate with million of women in this region or in the world.

“It is hoped that these stories will help trigger social reverberation through the use of artwork to speak truth to power, to shed light against uncivilized power,” said Pranom. “Women human rights defenders also want to encourage people to stick to their dream and imagination for a better society to ensure Thailand will have a future, have a dream and an imagination.”

Women human rights defenders in a pseudo-democracy

The launch also included a round table discussion on the situation of women human rights defenders in a pseudo-democracy, highlighting the obstacles facing women rights defenders since the 2014 coup and up to today, almost a year since the 2019 general election, including intimidation from state officials, SLAPP lawsuits, and lack of access to the Ministry of Justice’s Justice Fund.

The panel consisted of representatives from PI and from the women human rights defenders who participated in the project. They were joined by Angkhana Neelapaijit, former National Human Rights Commissioner and recipient of the Magsaysay Award.

Pranom Somwong

Pranom said that PI found that within the first three years after the 2014 military coup, 179 women human rights defenders have faced judicial harassment. Despite a call from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) for the Thai government to put an end to judicial harassment against women human rights defenders, the number of women human rights defenders facing legal prosecution have not decreased but instead risen.

PI found that, since 2014, at least 440 women human rights defenders now face legal prosecution, with 235 in the Bangkok Metropolitan region, 129 in the northeast, 44 in the north, and 32 in the south. The charges these women face include trespassing, defamation, destruction of property, sedition, as well as charges under the Computer Crimes Act and the Public Assembly Act, and eviction lawsuits.

Pranom also stressed that women human rights defenders are not only facing legal prosecution but are also facing violence. Only a few days ago, on 1 February, Kannika Wongsiri, a local subdistrict chief in Pha Tang, Nong Khai, was murdered in her own home. The police suspect that the motive for her murder is related to a local land rights dispute, since Kannika was representing local residents in negotiations with a land owner who blocked off a route community members had been using for a long time, causing them difficulties.

Meanwhile, PI’s research found that only 25 women human rights defenders have access to the Ministry of Justice’s Justice Fund. Angkhana said that this is because the Fund’s committee does not see human rights defenders as innocent, since they are often resisting state power. As a result, their funding requests are often denied. 

Angkhana Neelapaijit

Pranom said that state welfare is necessary, and that this will facilitate social movements as it will help support those who have the responsibilities of caring for their family. She also said that the state must stop harassing human rights defenders and to acknowledge their complaints and recommendations.

Meanwhile, Angkhana said that women’s participation in the political and social life is still limited, and that women often do not have the opportunity to take part in the decision-making process, while important state policies still lack a gender lens. She also said that the creation of an atmosphere of intimidation by both the private and government sector affects social movements, and that the authorities must stop seeing human rights defenders as enemies.

Anticha Sangchai, an activist from Pattani and founder of the Buku Bookstore and the Buku Football Club, said that during the last six years, the situation in the Southern border provinces has worsened. The undemocratic atmosphere has made it difficult for activists to work, and social movements are often seen as a national security issue. Women human rights defenders are also often “visited” by state officials, causing strain on their physical and mental health, and making it difficult for them to participate in social movements, and that there is a systematic effort to use information operations to attack their reputation.

Anticha also said that, in the cultural context of the deep south, it is difficult for women to take part in public participation. She also noted that women are socialized into caring for others, and women activists often face mental health issues as they feel that they are not allowed to take the time to care for themselves. They also face the double pressure of having to care for their families as well as the stress of the situation and their role in the movement.

Anticha Sangchai

Anticha highlighted the issues women human rights defenders face within their own movement, as they are often pushed into the background. Some women activists face sexual harassment from people within their own organization, while some human rights defenders still lack an understanding of gender issues. She said that civil society organizations need to have a policy on gender as well as on physical and mental health, since the health issues facing activists combined with the stress of legal prosecution will undermine the movement.

Chiang Mai disability rights activist Katchakorn Thaweesri said that women with disabilities face a unique set of issues. She noted that while disability rights activists are not being prosecuted, they are invisible to the society. Disability rights issues are often not talked about, since a person with disability is seen as their family’s embarrassment and a burden.

Katchakorn Thaweesri

Katchakorn said that people with disabilities are often denied access to formal education. Around 45,000 people with disability in Thailand receive no education, and only around 3,000 have a Bachelor’s degree.

She also stressed that accessibility issued made it difficult for people with disability to take part in social movements. Katchakorn herself uses a wheelchair, and said that she has difficulties traveling to and participating in demonstrations and similar events, and that her family does not support her participation in activism because of her disability. She also said that the intersectional aspect of disability rights issues, such as LGBT people with disability, people from ethnic minorities, or migrant workers, is often ignored.

Puttanee Kangkun, Fortify Rights’ Senior Human Rights Specialist, reflect on the situation of women refugees in Thailand, who are a highly vulnerable group in their day-to-day life. Puttanee stressed that she is speaking on their behalf, as many refugees cannot participate in public events due to their fragile legal status. She said that there are around 5,000 refugees in Bangkok, many are illegal migrants, and while some have received official refugee status from the UNHCR, it does not mean that they can stay in Thailand with dignity.

Puttanee Kangkun and Somboon Khongkha

Puttanee said that the Thai government has signed an MOU promising that they will not detain refugee children and their mothers. However, for the women to be released, they need to post bail of 50,000 baht, and since refugees cannot work, they are unable to find such a large amount of money. Puttanee also said that, since the men are not released under this agreement, the burden falls to the women to work to make a living and also care for their children. They are also not allowed to see their husbands.

She noted that, last year, new legislation transferred the responsibility of screening refugees from the UNHCR to the Thai police, which caused a concern, since the police lack the necessary knowledge to help refugees and that there is a problem with their tendency to see refugees as a threat. She also said that in many countries, there is evidence that, once the state authorities screen refugees themselves, more people are likely to be disqualified.

Puttanee said that many refugees have potential. Many were doctors and teachers before they had to flee their countries, and that they have the potential to become an asset to Thai society. She also said that the state has an attitude issue in that authorities often see refugees as a threat to national security, even though, according to the statistics, refugees are unlikely to commit crime.

Participants of the project with members of diplomatic missions and representatives from PI

Somboon Khongkha, President of the Four Regions Slum Network (FSRN), which works on the issue of urban poverty, said that even after the election, their complaints are still going unacknowledged by the authorities. Many members of the network, most of whom are women, are also facing legal prosecution.

She said that the network places emphasis on issues of living spaces, and calls for the authorities to allocate land for the poor to live in the city rather than selling it to private companies. She also said that the state should revise the qualifications for access to state housing, as currently a pay slip and a bank statement is required, something which those who work on a day to day basis and have no bank account cannot supply, meaning that they are constantly trespassing on both private and public land to find a place to live.