Top: Democracy Monument photo Brian Jenkins
BANGKOK — While news of recent sexual assaults among the progressive activist community might be shocking on its own, there’s more to the story that involves some of its most prominent members.
Those close to the movement say predatory behavior, assaults and the silencing of victims has been ongoing for at least a decade.
Chumaporn Waddao, who works for a women’s right NGO, recounted examples of known predators with a reputation for misconduct and female activists molested during excursions outside Bangkok. It was an open secret among many activists that it happened, Chumaporn said.
Sexual assault is not unique to the activist community, said Jaded Chaowilai, director of the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation.
“It happens everywhere in this patriarchal society, especially in places where there are close relationships,” Jaded said.
It’s also not limited to women. Two years ago, Chumaporn said, a male LGBT activist groped a panel discussion participant in a hotel restroom where the event was held. The victim asked that neither he nor the perpetrator be named, Chumaporn said.
Back in 2009, an NGO group in Chiang Mai said it was concerned by reports some female activists were sexually harassed by their male counterparts in far-flung regions.
That same year, the community was rocked when more than 30 activists accused famed activist Metha Matkhao of being a serial predator. They accused Metha – at the time a senior human rights official – of assaulting a large number of NGO workers and interns, and demanded action be taken in a public petition published by a local news outlet.
At the time, Metha worked as the secretary-general of the Campaign Committee for Human Rights, which operates as a partner with a state-sanctioned rights agency. Officials in charge of the agency turned a blind eye to Metha’s behavior, the petition said, adding that one of his victims quit her job there because her complaints were ignored.
Rumors of Metha’s behavior preceded the petition. One online discussion put the number of victims at more than 10, including an activist from Myanmar.
“I heard that everyone was a victim. The officials in the office, and many other people in the building who were his type,” one user wrote in Samesky, a webforum popular with progressive activists. “From verbally harassing them and hugging them to kissing their cheeks, touching their legs, breasts and genitals.”
Metha declined to talk about what happened.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “This is something that happened a long time ago.”
After the petition was published, the committee said it suspended Metha for a year without pay. The activist faced no further repercussions. Metha is currently head of a foundation dedicated to those who died in the 1992 Black May massacre.
The most shocking allegations involve Somyot Prueksakasemsuk.
The former labor activist and editor of a pro-Redshirt magazine is six years into a seven year jail term for defaming an official and insulting the monarchy. His name has become synonymous with the excesses of the law known as lese majeste, and he is held up as a reason to reform or strike it from the books altogether.
While campaigning alongside factory workers for better benefits, Somyot molested one of the female workers, said Chumaporn, the women’s rights activist. His fellow activists were shocked but didn’t know what to do, she said.
The victim was reluctant to speak out because she didn’t want to create a confrontation with the very organization working on behalf of her and other workers.
“Since the victim needed his help, do you think she would dare speak out?” Chumaporn said.
Somyot’s son said he has never heard of the allegation.
In a jailhouse interview on Tuesday, Somyot did not deny the charges.
“What does harassment mean? I don’t know what sexual harassment means. At what level and who has been sexually harassed?” he said from behind a glass partition at the Bangkok Remand Prison.
Asked if he believes the alleged victims and witnesses had lied, Somyot, who has been in prison for six years and will be released in April, said: “Who are the victims? If there’s no one [coming out publicly], how can I respond?”
He added, “It’s not possible to say I am above it or I am like a temple abbot. No. And I can’t say I haven’t done it. It’s not clear what constitutes sexual harassment. I am glad it’s being talked about. Let’s hope many discussions will follow so people will understand about sexual harassment. I may have harassed someone or may have not. Talking about it is good, however.”
Former labor activist Jittra Cotchadet, who’s worked with Somyot for years, said there were many rumors about Somyot’s predatory conduct, though she added that she never talked to the alleged victims directly.
“I have heard many stories about Somyot, about women issues, from other people,” Jittra, who now lives overseas, said by online message. “For example, I have heard he went to a seminar and went to see a woman in her room.”
Although the stories were many, no one filed a criminal complaint or brought up the issue publicly as far as Jittra knows.
Chumaporn and Jittra independently referred further confirmation to another former labor activist, Sripai Nonsee, who’s said to be one of Somyot’s close friends. Reached for comment, Sripai asked whether the reporter was questioning her for a news story. She declined to comment further.
A former senior activist said Somyot often approached his victims under the mantle of his fame and reputation as a fighter for justice. The victims included younger activists and members of communities he was supposed to be helping, according to the person.
“He targeted people who were in subordinate positions,” said the former activist, who requested anonymity, fearing conflict with Somyot and his supporters.
The former campaigner also said Somyot continued his behavior when he joined the Redshirt movement in 2009.
Chumaporn said there is a pattern of activists using their celebrity status to their advantage when preying on victims.
“Once you’re an activist, you have fame, you have value, you have power,” Chumaporn said.
Additional reporting Pravit Rojanaphruk
Corrections: The original version of this article described the organization Metha Matkhao worked for as a part of a state-sanctioned rights agency. In fact, they worked as network partners. Also, lese majeste convicts such as Somyot can only receive visits from people on a pre-approved list, not only family members as stated in an earlier version of this story.
Ed note: After this story was published, Jittra Cotchadet wrote to reiterate that her statements about Somyot’s behavior were based on on second-hand accounts.