#1: A 100-year history of rape in Thailand where the ‘good woman’ frame has never changed

For the first episode in a series on sexual violence, let’s get to know Thailand’s rape history with Pattarat Phantprasit, an academic historian, going from the case of Amdaeng-onsa to the present. For one hundred years the state and society have discriminated without ever changing their ideas. The ‘good woman’ is still the standard used to deal with cases. 

The Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation, which collected 317 news items on sexual violence in 2017, found that there were 153 reports on rape, 40 on attempted rape, 52 on indecency, 10 on gang rape, 5 on child abduction, 25 on forced prostitution, 9 on sexual violence by men on men and 23 on other issues such as stealing underwear, exhibitionism, etc. 

This covers only sexual violence that appears in the news. In reality, just how many other cases really happened would be difficult to find statistics on. We have to accept that Thai society has lived alongside a culture of sexual violence for a long time, under a patriarchal society and authoritarianism which have framed the concept of a ‘good woman’ as desired by the state.

This has created the problem of discrimination in society, which includes the way the state deals with rape cases. After we talked to Pattarat Phantprasit, a history scholar and PhD student at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University, we found that throughout the past 100 years, the Thai state has maintained the same perspective on rape as before.

Retracing literature: rape victims were not condemned for acting inappropriately

Pattarat thinks that the limited historical evidence we have means we know relatively little about rape in ancient Thai society. But literary traces, which can be considered a historical evidence in some sense, reflect interactions between characters which can be called rape.

For example, in Khun Chang Khun Phaen, Khun Chang wrestles with Wanthong to the point that the mosquito net tears. Kaeo Kiriya herself should also be considered as raped by Khun Phaen since she is bewitched into a trance before Khun Phaen starts to coax her.

Or in Inao, Inao makes a big show of raiding the city to kidnap Butsaba and take her to the cave. It can be said that in many of Thailand’s valued works of literature, the main characters start their love from rape – these issues have been studied by academics interested in literary studies.

But Pattarat thinks that society still has not seriously thought about the thing called ‘rape history’ in the meaning that rape is something which happens and changes in the circumstances and context of Thai society in each era, like any other activity. 

Pattarat’s analysis is that in literature, other than scenes where the male protagonist rapes the female protagonist, there is a very interesting point to be found; there is something called “pleading guilty” or at least, there is a show of responsibility to the female character. Like in Khun Chang Khun Phaen, after Khun Chang sexually assaults Wanthong for the first time on the wedding night, it does not appear that he rapes her again. Khun Phaen himself accepted Kaeo Kiriya as another wife and Inao accepts Butsaba as a consort. 

“That’s why in this aspect, rape committed by people in the past shouldn’t be seen only as the use of force to fulfil a man’s desire, but part of it is an obligation where the rapist needs to take some kind of responsibility towards the woman. Another issue is that the rape of women in Thai literature is not for the reason that they act inappropriately. Wanthong, Kaeo Kiriya and Butsaba are all ladies who stay home or in the palace. When each of the three was raped, we do not find that the male side, their families or society condemn them in any way as victims of rape or because of their own behaviour which led to them being raped.”

Pattarat therefore thinks that when one is going to say that rape has always existed in Thai society, an important thing to consider is where is the turning point that makes us feel that some cases of rape should receive exemptions, or why is it that the personal behaviour of rape victims has become an indicator of whether it is appropriate for them be raped or not; both these ideas keep appearing in present day Thai society and don’t seem to be decreasing. 

Turning point: when the state promotes gender equality and frames the concept of a ‘good woman’

Pattarat thinks that an important turning point concerning thoughts on rape started from when the status of women was promoted to be more equal to men, which sounds contradictory.

Pattarat said that in his reign, King Rama IV made an announcement allowing members of the inner court to request to leave the palace to remarry, because he did not want to “jealously detain” the women [1]. Even though this is not directly related to rape, she sees this as a very important point where the Thai elite picked up on the topic of the consent of women, because after this, it can be seen that the Thai elite constantly tried to emphasise the better status of women to show that Siam had a civilization to equal those of Western nations and did not oppress women, and did not see women only as sexual objects as Westerners at that time had often criticised them for. 

In the reigns of King Rama V and King Rama VI, the status of women continued to be promoted. A number of high-ranking women stepped out of their houses/palaces into the public and became patrons of schools, hospitals, public health activities, social work, etc.

Even so, Pattarat said, while trying to make women into a representation of the nation’s civilisation, the Siamese elite created a standard or frame for women at the same time. If we look back to Prince Damrong Rajanubhab’s work “khon di thi khaphachao ruchak” [good people that I know] which writes about the biographies of aristocrats and important people in Siam at that time, we will see that the tradition of a woman who is to be respected and should accord to the Prince’s opinion is of a woman who brings benefits to the nation, religion and family; or the tradition of “daughter, wife and mother” [2] which we are familiar with and which has been passed down to the present.

“It can be said that Thai women have been promoted to be anything within the frame the state has created. The status of Thai women which, it has been said, has developed to be equal with men is therefore not truly free. The question is whether the Siamese state’s policy towards the development of status of Thai women truly covers all groups of women or not. What if one woman is not within the frame of a good woman as determined by the state? Will the state still protect that woman or not?” Pattarat questioned. 

The rape case of Amdaeng-onsa: whether the state has the authority to deal with the case or not depends on being a ‘good woman’

Pattarat herself thinks that the ‘Amdaeng-onsa rape case’ is an important case which illustrates the state’s attitude towards sexual offenses. On 2 June 1914, there was a report from the Ministry of Defence on a rape case in Mukdahan Province, or at that time, Mueang Mukdahan. The report stated that in 1913 when the Siam government sent soldiers out to receive French soldiers, it appeared that two soldiers together raped a local woman named Amdaeng-onsa, aged 17, until she became ill and died 19 days afterwards.

The details of the case are as follows. The two soldiers met Amdaeng-onsa when she came to perform Mo Lam. One of the soldiers took a liking to her and asked for her hand in marriage, but she did not agree. When she did not agree voluntarily, the troupe was hired to perform Mo Lam for three more days and nights. During that time, Amdaeng-onsa was separated from the other female Mo Lam performers. She was taken to be detained in the house of the District Officer and Assistant District Officer. The two soldiers, the Assistant District Officer and others took turns raping her for many days.

A document stated that one soldier raped Amdaeng-onsa in an “abnormal” way and Amdaeng-onsa developed the symptoms of blood in the urine and pain in her lower abdomen. “Her private parts had a tear exuding pus with visible blood in the urine, causing pain in the lower abdomen and fever, but with fluctuating pain.” The pathologist found that “the vulva was bruised with inflammation as far as the uterus which is located in the abdomen, causing the various symptoms.”

When investigations began, one of the two soldiers claimed that he had already married Amdaeng-onsa. He and the others did not detain her in anyway and Amdaeng-onsa even followed him when he went on business to another town. It is possible that he claimed marriage with Amdaeng-onsa because the criminal law that was in force in 1908, Article 243, specified a penalty only for rape on a woman who was not the offender’s wife. 

“Whoever uses physical force or verbal threats to rape a woman against her will who is not their wife, that person has committed rape. That person shall be sentenced to imprisonment of from one to ten years and a fine of no less than fifty baht and no more than five hundred baht. … If that woman dies, the rapist shall be sentenced to imprisonment of from twelve to twenty years in prison and a fine of no less than one hundred baht and no more than two thousand baht” [3]

The conclusion of this matter was that since there was no plaintiff to file a lawsuit, the government of Siam decided only to deprive the two soldiers of their military ranks and dismiss them from government service, since it believed that further investigation of the case would “lead to great uproar and long delays because all the witnesses are in Monthon Ubon Ratchathani.” [4]

In Pattarat’s analysis, there are two issues that can be seen from this case. The first is that the state becomes the one with the authority to decide whether each rape case should be dealt with or not. This was a case involving state officials which were sent from the central administration. Further investigations would be likely to smear the reputation of the government of Siam in the locality and become a scandal. Therefore, the rape of Amdaeng-onsa should disappear in silence rather than be reopened.

The second issue is what kind of woman should be protected from sexual assault. We can see that in the centre of Thailand or Siam at that time, the status of women was being improved by the state. But the status and femininity of Amdaeng-onsa, a local person far away from Bangkok in a Monthon that had just recently been annexed under Siam’s authority not many decades earlier, and Amdaeng-onsa’s status  as a Mo Lam performer – the profession of a performer that has to wander around in search of work wherever they can be hired –is far from the idea of a ‘good woman’ as was created by the state.

“For these reasons, Amdaeng-onsa fell victim to gang rape by soldiers and local government officials, who took turns to detain her in their house for many days with no one daring to question them. The justice Amdaeng-onsa should have received as a citizen of Siam was made to disappear. The status of Amdaeng-onsa, who was already at risk of being violated, became the legitimization of the state’s decision not to prosecute, so that the state’s honour and authority was not destabilized,” Pattarat concluded.

The young women who were violated on the morning of 6 Oct 1976: when the state closed one eye so that some groups of people could go unpunished  

Pattarat provided another example closer to the present, which is the events of 6 October 1976, the suppression of students at Thammasat University. From the Documentation of Oct 6 project she takes the case of “the young woman who was violated on the morning of Oct 6 1976”[5]. Even though the autopsy reports said that female students were not raped or sexually assaulted, the fact is that after she was killed she was stripped naked as a form of insult.

Even though no rape occurred, it is considered to be a type of physical violation. It also tramples on her human dignity and dignity as a woman. All of this occurred due to the branding of students as having communist beliefs and the intention to destroy the nation’s security.

As a female student opposed to the state, the punishment is physical violation through insulting her naked female body. It is certain that the offenders are still out there. Again, the state chose to close one eye to sexual assault of a woman who did not conform to the state’s ideal of a ‘good woman’.

Picture: Watchari Phetsun, third year student at the Faculty of Science, Ramkhamhaeng University, from the article ‘Desecrating corpses on 6 Oct 1976: who, how, why’ by Puangthong Pawakapan and Thongchai Winichakul

According to the “Documentation of Oct 6” project, the autopsy report states that Watchari died from 3 bullets which entered her back and lodged in the chest area. Her body was stripped naked. There was a triangular piece of wood placed on her body, the end pointing to her genitals. This allows the interpretation that she may have been sexually violated after death, but the autopsy report does not mention any traces of such injury.
 
“There are still many other rape cases which illustrate the relation between the state, rape and women. Rape and sexual assault have always been a part of the history of Thai society. It just hasn’t been mentioned often, because we think that rape is just rape. There’s nothing more to it than that.”

“That’s why when we talk of rape history, it shouldn’t simply be about who was raped, when the rape occurred, what are the details, but rape should be linked more with Thai society. It can be said that rape has changed under a variety of conditions and rape often contains a hidden meaning of more than just a release of lust. Most rape is a way of affirming the superiority in authority and power of the rapist and of trampling on the humanity of the rape victim at the same time. In the end, since the state has the authority to decide which kind of rape is acceptable and which is not, impunity for some groups of people therefore occurs,” Pattarat said.

Picture of female students in the 6 Oct 1976 incident who were captured together with other male students/protestors and had their shirts removed 

From Amdaeng-onsa to the present: one hundred years where the state and society has discriminated and never fixed their views

“We will find that authority, both in the form of state authority and patriarchal authority, has taken deep roots, so that when rape occurs in Thai society, the important question is “who was raped?” and “what was the woman like?” If the rapist has authority, no matter in terms of patriarchal authority or official authority, it is the equivalent of saying that their act of rape has more or less some legitimacy. The second question is, are you a good woman according to the tradition of Thai society? If you are a good woman according to Thai moral standards, you will receive pity. You are a victim that should not have been raped. In contrast, if you are a woman who does not conform to society’s standard of goodness, such as by wearing revealing clothes, by liking to tease men or by walking alone in dark places, then obviously rape is the punishment that is appropriate. Authority from one’s status and duties, and the concept of being a good woman become the two main factors that show how a person who has been raped will be treated and whether the state will give you justice or not,” Pattarat said.

Try comparing the case of a 14-year-old girl who was raped in Mukdahan Province and the case of Lunlabelle, a ‘pretty’ model who was raped and killed. Social opinions on the two cases are clearly different.

“Even though a hundred years has passed, many cases which occur in Thai society today are similar to the case of Amdaeng-onsa, including the attitude of the state and what those in power do to women. This means that in the past hundred years, we have not been able to solve the problem of rape at all, especially for women who cannot access the justice system from the state. If we’re still stuck with the ‘good woman’ - ‘bad woman’ frame according to social standards, and discrimination which does not lead to justice towards those who have been raped or sexually assaulted, the problem of rape will never disappear from Thai society. That is why people in society should be made to see that rape is an offence which should have no exceptions and that rape is not a punishment reserved for women who do not act according to the frame that society wants,” Pattarat said.

Nevertheless, Pattarat still thinks that the issue of the rape of men (including LGBT), children and the elderly is not often mentioned, although these three groups are also experience sexual harassment. Being a man does not mean there is no risk of rape or sexual assault, especially in a society made up only of men such as monks, soldiers, boys boarding schools or even prison. There are very high risks of such incidents, even though not all cases need to end with rape, and when there is rape or sexual assault, it does not mean that men do not feel like women. This is the same in cases of children and the elderly. We find that news of the rape of these two groups has increased a lot.

“While we have some measures to prevent women being at risk of rape, it can be seen that these other three groups still must face the risks of being violated in various forms. That’s why awareness of the evil of rape should include all groups of people in society. Rape is not and should not be restricted to being a problem of the female sex. Everybody can be at risk of being raped under unequal social power structure and state discrimination,” Pattarat said.

Spark of hope

Pattarat sees that in the present, the definition of rape has been greatly expanded. It does not mean only the use of force, but also includes the use of threats to make the victim submit, paying money to the victim after a rape so that the rapist feels that they have ‘paid’ compensation to the victim after the deed, or even verbal and emotional assault. This is a good thing. In addition, there are quite a number of Facebook pages that are trying to campaign on these issues, such as Thaiconsent, Feminista and Spectrum which focus on understanding and exchanging experience among those who have been violated. Pattarat thinks that this is interesting and may be one hope that will make the new generation more aware of these issues.

Citations

[1] https://vajirayana.org/ประชุมประกาศรัชกาลที่-๔-ภาค-๒/๔๐-ประกาศทรงอนุญาตข้าราชการฝ่ายในลาออก. Accessed 15 May 2020

[2] Saichol Sattayanurak.  Prince Damrong: Creation of the Thai national identity and class in Siam (Bangkok: Matichon, 2003) [in Thai]

[3] Criminal Law, Royal Thai Government Gazette, Vol 25, 1 June 1907, pp 260-261 [in Thai]

[4] Mo. Ro. 6 Ko. 3/7 Ministry of Interior Official Records [in Thai]

[5] Young Women who were Violated on the Morning of 6 October 1976 https://doct6.com/archives/13421. Accessed 15 May 2020

Source: 
https://prachatai.com/journal/2020/05/87759

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