BANGKOK — As women the world over say #MeToo and share stories of sexual harassment on social media to show how widespread the experience is, the campaign has barely made a ripple in Thailand.
While millions of people, largely in the West, have tagged posts #MeToo in the wake of the furor over allegations of sexual harassment against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, activists in Thailand cite different social mores and a lack of leadership on the issue.
Not only are women less inclined to disclose their experiences, there are no examples being set by role models or celebrities.
There were no viral posts being widely shared, but a Facebook user may find one or two of their friends sharing a #metoo, with a privacy setting set to friends only.
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
The tweet that started it all.
Several gender rights advocates spoke about why.
Supensri Puengkhokesoong, a women’s welfare advocate and director of the Social Equality Promotion Foundation, said #MeToo hasn’t gained traction in Thailand because of cultural and social factors – and because the number of big names and celebrities coming forward with their own stories has amounted to zero.
“The cultural structures are different. Thai people see sexual harassment as a very personal issue between two people, so they might not want to come forward with their stories,” she said. “They might get the law or organizations involved, but not people in their social circle.”
The complete lack of Thai celebrities or politicians coming forward with #MeToo stories has also pushed the entire movement away, back overseas. For most Thais, reading about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuses are “faraway issues that don’t impact them personally, and seem to be from a different culture. No one in their own society is talking about it or expressing opinions.”
“They see it and are still,” Supensri said. “Thai society does not give importance to the issue of sexual harassment yet.”
Supensri said it’s not hard to find examples of sexual harassment and violence in Thailand, whether in show business, modeling agencies or the workplace. They tend to enter the news cycles with a focus on the victims rather than the perpetrators, she said, before being “made silent” by “big names.”
#metoo right in Siam Center when it was all crowded
— Sasapin Siriwanij (@sasapins) October 17, 2017
Jaded Chaowilai, director of Women and Men Progressive Movement, said there are reasons the social media campaign is less powerful in Thailand compared to elsewhere. Social systems where men hold the primary power is chief among them.
“The patriarchy in Thailand is more dense and deeper than America,” Jaded said. “Another reason is that men is more are prevalent in workplace authority than women.”
Thailand still grapples with a victim-blaming culture in which victims of rape or sexual harassment are blamed for what they wear or where they go. This mindset remains fixed in society at large.
Jaded, who campaigns extensively on women’s rights, said these beliefs must change.
“The myth that blames victims for calling for attention or dress in overly revealing clothes should be changed,” he said. “We must blame the patriarchy and its related power structures.”
Jaded referred to the experience of Thararat Panya, a law student at Thammasat University, who recently spoke up about being raped by a fellow activist in a story reported by Khaosod English.
“There are many organizations campaigning against sexual violence, but it would be more effective when those who are abused step up and speak for themselves,” Jaded said. “That has the most impact.”
#MeToo when I was in 5th grade at the skating rink. I used to love skating, but the younger boy who kept trying to grab my chest ruined it
— 💀DieKunoichi🔪 (@ThaiKunoichi) October 17, 2017
While entrenched patriarchy may be blamed for holding back society, LGBT activist Sulaiporn Chonwilai said the government and institutions foster ignorance toward the pervasive rape culture.
As victims of sexual violence have to go leap many hurdles and potentially suffer further indignity to get justice, they’re as likely to change their minds and just give up, Sulaiporn said.
“There is no space in our society to discuss women’s rights,” she said.
Asked what could have be done to expand women’s basic rights, Sulaiporn said ideally, the educational system would be dismantled and reconstituted.
“We need schools that teach children about basic rights, sexual rights and gender equality. Not only men have to respect women, but women must respect men equally,” said the board member of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Programme.
Supensri agreed that Thais need early education in basic fundamental human rights, especially regarding personal freedoms.
“They have to be trained in this since kindergarten, or else perpetrators will insist that their sexual harassment was done to show affection,” she said.
“Hopefully, lessons learned overseas can be applied here, but it needs support,” she said.
Have you or someone you know been a victim of sexual violence? Seek help by contacting the government’s One Stop Crisis Center hotline at 1300 (Thai, English, Burmese, Lao, Khmer), or the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation at 02-513-2889 (Thai, English).
Additional reporting Asaree Thaitrakulpanich