The land of coups
The Kingdom of Thailand (meaning Land of the Free), formerly known as Siam until 1949, is a country at the center of Southeast Asia and has a multi ethnic population of around 64 million people with over 90 percent of the population being Buddhist.
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and has switched between democracy to military rules for decades. The military has ruled for most of the period since 1947, with a few interludes in which the country had a democratically elected government. The latest military coup occurred in May 2014 and returned the power to the army. Because of several periods of political turbulence, Thailand is considered the most “coup-prone country in the world”.
In December 2016, Maha Vajiralongkorn, the 10th Thai monarch of the Chakri dynasty, was proclaimed king. He succeeded former King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch who died on the 13th of October 2016, after 70 years of reign. Unlike his widely-revered father, the new king is not as popular among the Thai society and has often been criticized for his lifestyle of debauchery.
The Kingdom of Thailand shares borders with Myanmar and Laos in the north, Laos and Cambodia in the east and Malaysia and the southern extremity of Myanmar in the south. Unlike its neighboring countries, Thailand is the only country is Southeast Asia to have escaped colonialism.
A model of social and economic progress, but great disparities remain
Thailand is the second largest economy in Southeast Asia and the country is a model of fast economic growth. Indeed, in less than a generation the country has moved from a low-income country to an upper-middle income country. As a founding member of the ASEAN, Thailand has been a major player in the region of Southeast Asia to strengthen regional and sub-regional cooperation aiming to develop the region’s economy and to address global challenges as one strong body. Thailand is also committed to play an active role on the global stage. Since its admission in 1946, the country has actively worked in cooperation with all UN agencies in Thailand, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. Thailand is party to most international human rights instruments and seeks to play an active and constructive role in promoting human rights.
However, poverty and inequalities remain and continue to represent major challenges for the country. Poverty in Thailand seems to be a rural phenomenon with over 80% of the poor living in rural areas. The country suffers of disparities in accessing resources for poorer households and between rural and urban areas, and especially for girls and women who are still largely misrepresented and discriminated in the government, at home and at work.
Over the course of the past few decades, Thailand has undergone major economical and societal transformations that are affecting women’s status in the society.
Women’s status in the Thai society
Women’s status in the Thai society has been mainly influenced and shaped by religion, traditions and customs, the monarchy and western influences.
Thai society is mainly Buddhist. In this religion, men are viewed as the better gender. Buddhists believe in Karma, good and bad deeds in one’s former lives are thought to bear on the condition of one’s present life. For instance, if a man committed a bad deed, like adultery, he would be sent to death to receive his punishment and would have to be born a woman for 500 living lifetime and a transvestite for another 500 lifetime before being born a man gain. Being born a woman is thus considered as a punishment for bad deeds done in previous lives, whereas being born a man is an honor and a sign of value.
Thai traditions and customs have for centuries shaped the social role for women in the Thai society. Women were expected to have good manners, take care of their families and be obedient to their husbands. In old times, when a baby was born, if it was a baby boy, a slate and a pencil would be placed beside the baby, but if it was a baby girl, a needle and thread would be put there instead. One was expected to become a person of knowledge, whereas the latter was expected to be a good housewife.
Even though until nowadays the burden of the house chores and being in charge of the children remain largely a woman’s duty, the society has changed and so has the social role of women in the Thai society. The different Thai monarchs have helped considerably in raising women’s status in the society. King Rama IV in the 19th century was the first monarch to modernize his country and encourage women to take part in social activities. His successors continued his work and gradually increased the participation of women in the Thai society. The revolution of 1932 that switched the political structure from a monarchy to a constitutional monarchy had positive impact on women’s social role in the society. Women’s rights and women’s participation in the society became a governmental matter as they were seen as quality citizen who could play an important role for their country.
Influence of the outside world on the notion of gender
In spite of not having been colonized, Thailand has still been influenced by Western countries which have had an impact in the role and status of Thai women. First, the successive monarchs have been influenced by the western world, whether because they traveled or studied in one of the European country, and have thus reshaped their society so that the Thai society would be seen “civilized” and appealing to westerner countries. It was a strategy to avoid colonization by showing to colonizing countries that the Thai society didn’t need to be colonized and “civilized”, but could instead be a precious partner in business. Nonetheless, by doing so, the Thai society lost some of its identity. For instance, until the Thai monarchs adapted their society to the western standards, the Thai culture recognized several genders. They’re gender system was not binary and they, unfortunately, lost this notion, to please the other world and be considered as a country of equal value.
Nowadays, the influence of the western world is more about ideas and concepts because of the new technologies and the ease with which people can access to information. Thai people, like everyone now on earth know what’s happening in each corner of the world and are demanding improvements for their own situation, even if it means redesigning traditions and cultures.
Equal before the law, but unequal before opportunities
Even if nowadays Thai women seem to enjoy almost equal rights as men and there is an increasing number of female leaders at different level of the society, women remain second class citizens and face important discrimination and challenges. Due to the political instability that persists for decades, and with the recent military coup that has not yet led to a democratic election, women’s rights seem to not be the priority of the actual government, ruled by the army.
Thai women are still constraint in their traditional roles of good housewives and seem to struggle to climb the social and leadership ladder. This situation is even more accurate in remote or rural areas where education is not accessible by all and where poverty is predominant.
“The truth is women do not suffer de jure restrictions to mobility, education, and labor force participation. What women in Thailand suffer is a lack of de facto access to power: a cultural disempowerment that is in part a result of sexual imperialism, state policies, and gender-specific socialization. Parallel to the story of high educational attainment and economic empowerment is the story of violent objectification. It is the story repackaged by the state into a normal condition of female life.”
Thai women prove to be more successful in education than Thai men. Indeed, 60% of Thai women are enrolled in tertiary education, whereas men only make it up to 45%. Yet, once they start their career only 34% of Thai women access to legislative, senior official and management positions. Thai women occupy only 6% of the parliament seats and only 4% have ministerial positions. Thai women received a right to vote in 1932 and until now only one woman has been head of state. The former head of state, before the coup, was indeed a woman, but the sister of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who remains one of the most influential characters in Thai politics. During her campaign the slogan was “What Thaksin thinks, Phuea Thai (the party she represented) does”, thus her election was not the consequence of a change for women’s status in the Thai society.
In consequence, most of Thai women may be educated and empowered and may seem to enjoy their full rights, but they still suffer from traditionally and culturally rooted discrimination and stereotypes that prevent them from exercising their full potential. Nevertheless, an increasing number of Thai women are taking actions for women’s rights and uniting their voices to make changes in their society. The future holds major changes for Thai women, as it seems that women’s rights activists are like a running train, unstoppable, no matter what obstacles may lay on the tracks.
BBC, “Thailand – country profile”, 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-15581957
Time, David Stout, “Thailand: Coups that helped shape the Land of Coups“, 2014. http://time.com/105781/thailand-history-of-military-coups/
Thaiways Magazine, Sarutta, “Women’s status in Thai society“, vol. 19, n. 11, 2002. http://www.thaiwaysmagazine.com/thai_article/1911_thai_women_status/thai_women_status.html
Harvard International Review, Jasmine Chia, “The privileged lie of gender equality in Thailand”, American University, 2016. http://hir.harvard.edu/article/?a=13011
World Bank, Thailand Overview, 2017. http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/thailand/overview
World Economic Forum, Gender gap report, 2016. http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2016/economies/#economy=THA