Gesturing with the hands used to murder the woman he professed to love, Thanakrit “Wuth” Prakob recalled his breaking point in a videotaped confession.
“She called me and said, ‘Wuth, I’m now back with my ex. We’ve already slept together.’ I asked why, why did you do this to me? She said there were issues with her family. … I couldn’t say another word and hung up the phone immediately,” he told police in June.
Three weeks after the breakup, as Laksana Kamlangkeng was at his place packing her bags, Thanakrit brought a hammer down on her head repeatedly, cut her body into 14 pieces and disposed of them in a forested part of Bangkok.
Equally disturbing is how common these acts are and what little outrage they generate.
One man beat his girlfriend black and blue live on Facebook. Another walked into a hospital to gun down his wife and father-in-law before turning the gun on himself. In Chumphon, a man attempted to hang his wife as their children looked on. Nearly every case was chalked up to a crime of passion.
The month of June was a particularly bad one for women victimized by men. Along with Thanakrit’s grim murder, there were 25 news reports of women killed or assaulted by their husbands or boyfriends.
The graphic accounts were met with little surprise. Domestic violence is woven into the cultural fabric, with the few agencies trying to do something running up against deeply rooted social values that tolerate – or even support – the use of violence against women.
People back then wouldn’t get involved in something like this. They didn’t care.
Acknowledging the recent surge in violence, Angkana Intasa of the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation said it’s a chronic social problem waiting to explode.
“The media is giving more attention to these stories, and there are more women coming out,” she said. “The reason it has persisted is that gender inequality hasn’t been solved. There’s also men’s sense of being entitled to wield authority over [women], and a sense of ownership that they can be as violent as they want to their partners.”
The actual number of women abused by male partners is difficult to pin down precisely due to poor data collection and low reporting by traumatized victims.
The Women’s Affairs and Family Development Department has tried to get a sense of the problem by looking at how many women admitted to hospitals cited domestic violence. In 2016, 18,919 women reported abuse, a marked increase from 12,637 in 2013 and 10,869 in 2012.
In The Abusers’ Own Words
In case after case, “uncontrollable” jealous rage is cited as the main motive for harming and murdering women. The majority of the June cases involved grudges over affairs, failed relationships or romantic rejection.
On June 4, two men separately shot their ex-girlfriends to death in public and killed themselves after the women refused to reconcile. Four days later, two other men murdered their partners and confessed to police they suspected them of having affairs.
But jealousy provides an incomplete explanation. Talk to the abusers themselves, and find a toxic mix of men whose lives are out of control and expectations that women should not challenge them on anything.
Amnat Panpraseat was drunk one night – as he was every night – when he nearly choked his wife to death over a package of noodles more than six years ago.
“She refused to put the noodles into a bowl for me,” he said. “I snapped. I choked her as if I wanted her to die, but in a split second I realized what I was doing and I let go of her. If I hadn’t let go, she would have died for sure.”
It wasn’t the first time he got violent with his wife. As he recounted his story recently in an interview, Amnat, now 37, said his marriage had been troubled from the start, aggravated by drug and alcohol abuse.
“I was drinking a lot and would come home drunk around 3 to 4am, bringing some food and telling her to put it on a plate for me,” he said. “She would lash out, and then I’d beat her, kick her, use anything I could grab to hit her.”
“I had been like that for many years,” he continued. “It was about my pride too, like, you’re my wife, why would you behave like this with me?”
Read Part 2: Women Died When ‘No One Helped’
Now he’s working to spread awareness of domestic violence and women’s rights, regularly speaking out against the kind of male violence he knows too well. He never faced criminal justice for his past, but he’s trying to atone for it.
He’s not the only one seeking redemption. For decades, a few public and private organizations have launched joint efforts to solve or at least ease the problem at its root in communities across country with approaches they say have been effective, if on a relatively small scale.
Pornnarong Panthong, a 52-year-old veteran activist, said he was alcoholic and beat his wife any time she made him feel “dissatisfied.”
“Mostly it was because I wanted to drink, and she refused to give me money,” he said. “I thought that because she lived with me, she had to obey what I said.”
One particular memory stands out to him.
“I was out with friends and I ran out of money, so I went home to get more,” he said. “She tried to stop me because she saw I was already drunk, so I hit her with the back of my hand so hard she flew across the room, hit a wall and fell down. … I never asked how she was.”
Before he got married 26 years ago, Pornnarong said he was already an exploitative womanizer.
“To me, women were like dessert that I could grab and eat whenever I wanted,” he said in a recent interview. “If I got involved with any girl, she would become my possession.”
The reformed abusers frequently bring up their feelings of inadequacy and the insecurities that fed their misogyny.
“If I liked someone, I’d do whatever it took to get her, otherwise it’d be a disgrace. If the sweet talk didn’t work, I’d just force them,” he said. “My friends were also like that. We’d compete and keep scores, like who would get to have sex with her first.”
“When one of us got a girl, she would be passed between us,” he said. Showing some reluctance to elaborate, he only added, “As she was my possession, I could just give her to anyone.”
As to how they could get away with their behavior without consequence, he explained the widespread cultural attitude of staying out of a couple’s business, however alarming.
“People back then wouldn’t get involved in something like this,” he said. “They didn’t care.”
A Woman’s Place
“A man is an elephant’s front legs. A woman is the hind legs,” according to a common Thai expression used to rationalize women’s subordinate place.
Boys are taught to display strength, play aggressively and be loud. When they grow up and that translates into violence, society is conditioned to overlook it. Women seeking help from police claim they are often turned away and told to “work it out.”
Changing those deeply ingrained attitudes isn’t easy. As Angkana has experienced in nearly 20 years promoting gender equality, a long and arduous process of education and rehabilitation is needed for a lasting impact.
Read Part 3: Cult of Misogyny Flourishes Online
“When the foundation tries to bring change into a community, we can’t make them feel like we’re forcing them to alter their way of life,” she said. “We have to try to speak the same language with them, not make them feel like their pride is challenged. This is very important.”
Going in and lecturing the men on their behavior will achieve nothing, she said.
So different approaches have been devised depending on the context of each community. Taking on the underlying causes rooted in economics, identity and gender equality would be impractical. Usually the foundation starts with that most common trigger: alcohol.
“We use alcohol as a tool to work with men … because many of them wouldn’t understand the concept of patriarchy,” Angkana said. “They can’t think right when they’re drunk, but when they stay sober, they will be able to develop their potential, whether in their jobs or attitudes.”
They use financial motivation as persuasion, explaining that stopping drinking would mean more money and comfortable lives. Afterward comes the educational outreach in the form of seminars, support groups or private consultations, all aimed at expanding awareness of women’s rights to both men and women.
Both Pornnarong and Amnat went through such a rehab program. It took years, but they now live happier lives with their families and were even motivated to campaign against the violence.
Amnat, who once beat his wife over late-night snacks, now works full-time for the foundation in his Wat Pho Riang community in the capital’s Bangkok Noi district. He said his life made a complete U-turn after he participated in the campaign five years ago.
“Before the foundation came to my community, we saw husbands beating wives regularly,” he said. “At first I thought, why bother? They fight, but they will soon make up. … But the more I saw how they work, the more I learned how it was wrong. I used to think it was normal and also none of my business.”
Although it hasn’t been easy, he said doing small things he’d never considered before, such as chores or regularly eating with his wife, gradually changed the way he regarded her. He said they haven’t fought in over a year.
Pornnarong, whose community in Amnat Charoen province has become a model for the campaign, said his personal experience as an alcoholic abuser who was able to really change his life helps him relate to other abusers and effectively convince them.
“It took a couple of years before I changed. When people around me saw it, they also changed their behavior, unconsciously,” he said. “For those severely addicted to alcohol, we use a buddy system, or sit in groups and talk, let people who could stop drinking tell them how their lives turned around.”
A job center also helps the men find sustainable incomes, as money is seen as one of the main factors contributing to domestic violence.
“When campaigning against drinking in my community for a while, we realized that it’s not the real cause,” Pornnarong said. “The main problem is the economy, their income, that makes them fight all the time. If they quit drinking but live on without a career, they’ll turn back to violence again.”
Pornnarong was also part of a decade-long effort pushing for legislation to protect victims of domestic violence, which passed in 2007. He’s the reason Angkana thinks redeemed abusers can be made into the most effective activists due to their unique perspective.
“We want someone like this to come work with us, and you’ll see the power of ordinary people,” she said. “Conditions leading to changes in policies and laws come from these ordinary people. We don’t believe that they’ll ever come from elites wanting to change them.”