Govt gets Fs for protecting women
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Govt gets Fs for protecting women

A report chart shows the government was badly rated for its work regarding women's rights protection. Somchai Poomlard
A report chart shows the government was badly rated for its work regarding women's rights protection. Somchai Poomlard

If you fail but still keep trying to reach your goal, that is noble. But if you keep telling the world you are trying to do good but are the actual perpetrator, then you are not just a hypocrite. When it involves violence and death, you are a criminal.

Yes, I am talking about our government.

To mark International Women's Day, Protection International and a network of grassroots women activists gave the government its Women's Report Card last week and flunked it in all major areas of rights protection.

On ensuring women's peace and security: F

On protecting women's rights defenders: F

On empowering rural women: F

On poverty: F

On access to justice and remedy: F

On the National Human Rights Commission: F

On a constitutional guarantee of gender equality: D-

On women in sex work: D-

Thailand has an obligation under the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) to enhance the rights of women and to follow policy recommendations from the Cedaw committee to right the wrong.

The grading on how the government has fared on Cedaw policy recommendation was done by women human rights activists across the country from their experiences on the ground.

One thing is clear from their assessment: The government's promise to protect the rights of women is not only empty, but the state itself is the perpetrator of violence against grassroots women in Thailand. For once they start to resist state attempts to take over their land and natural resources, they are immediately punished by oppressive laws, violent crackdowns and even death.

"We're facing several forms of violence from the state," says Chusri Olarnkit, 53, a grassroots land rights activist from Khlong Sai community in Surat Thani province.

Her home village is located in an old plantation on forest land. After the licence had expired, the foreign-owned company left and the land was illegally divided and taken over by local influential people. Nothing has happened to them.

But when landless farmers like Chusri moved in to till the land, they were violently harassed, both by local mafias and state authorities. When they resisted the eviction, they were slapped with arrests and lawsuits. Despite their community rules to preserve the forest and stop the use of farm chemicals to restore local ecology, the authorities refused to let them rent the land while rich investors could do so without such restoration schemes. When the local mafias wanted to take over Khlong Sai and shot dead their community leaders -- two of them were women -- local officials turned a blind eye.

The draconian forest law which criminalises the forest poor, the evictions, the lawsuits, the jail terms, the lawlessness, the murders, the corruption, the state collusion: "These are different forms of violence we are facing routinely," said Chusri.

The assaults peaked right after the 2014 military coup. Under the junta's "reclaiming the forest policy" armed soldiers trooped in to dismantle their homes and cut down their crops. Community leaders were summoned to military camps to silence them.

Similar crackdowns happened at forest communities across the country.

With central control over natural resources, the government has a free rein to give long-term forest land leases to plantation investors, mining companies and industrialists despite severe environmental degradation and the locals' loss of livelihood. People who resist are treated as enemies that need to be crushed.

Since the coup, 440 female grassroots activists have faced legal harassment from state authorities. Most of them are mothers who want to protect their home communities for their children.

Due to restrictive rules, only 25 of them could receive financial assistance for their court cases from the Justice Fund.

Any effective intervention by the National Human Rights Commission? Not when it is bombarded with criticisms, and rightly so, that it has become the defender of the government, not human rights.

On the southern violence, Cedaw requires the government to protect women human rights defenders so they can do their peace work. The harassers must also be punished with remedies for the victims.

What if the government commits the crime itself?

No use denying that. During the recent censure debate, MP Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn of the Future Forward Party, now disbanded because of its anti-military policy, exposed the security forces' systematic "information operation (IO)" which uses an army of soldiers as trolls to continuously defame and dehumanise human rights defenders.

The campaign also supports a murky online blog which cooks up fake news to attack women peace activists and to fan up misunderstanding and hatred between Buddhists and Muslims.

"This is shocking, the government using tax money to drive a wedge between people," said Angkhana Neelapaijit. The former National Human Rights Commissioner and recipient of the prestigious Magsaysay Award, Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, has been one of the main targets of the IO attacks.

The Internal Security Operations Command admitted that Mr Wiroj's documents are real but brushed aside the operations as only a public relations scheme for the army.

"This is unacceptable," says Ms Angkhana. She is planning to take the matter to the Administrative Court to rule against the state-sponsored cyber warfare and to provide remedies to the victims.

Two other prominent women human rights defenders Pornpen Khongkachonkiet and Anchana Heemina were not only the targets of trolls and fake news which paint them as separatist sympathisers but were also slapped with a criminal defamation lawsuit for publishing a report alleging the army was conducting systematic torture in the deep South.

Meanwhile, national security and tradition remain the state mantra to undermine gender equality and justice. The junta-sponsored constitution states outright that discrimination is allowed when it involves national security concerns and religious beliefs.

As a result, women in the restive South, hill tribe women, women migrant workers and refugees suffer on-going discrimination.

In Thailand where the sex trade is a big business which has long enriched operators and corrupt officials, sex workers are still treated as criminals. A Cedaw recommendation to decriminalise sex work echoes activists' demands, yet they have no voice in the government's closed process to amend the prostitution law.

"People who are directly affected do not have any say in public policies. This is a core problem in our society," says Pranom Somwong, a Thai representative of Protection International.

In the past three years, more than 50,000 women have been arrested under the draconian prostitution law, she added. "Sex work must be decriminalised. Entrapment must stop. Corrupt officials and pimps must be punished. But sex workers' voices are not heard."

For grassroots activist Chusri, change must start at the highest law of the land. "We must have a say in writing the rules that affect our lives," she asserts.

But the top-down, autocratic bureaucracy with the military at its apex can easily derail the high-minded goals in the constitution. It happened before. The 1997 Constitution supports community rights to manage land and natural resources, yet the centralised bureaucracy could bypass it with impunity.

The people's movement must learn the lessons, she says. Decentralisation is key for electoral democracy, but how to decentralise must be determined by people on the ground, not state authorities. Universal welfare benefits can tackle gross disparity, but how the system is run must also heed people's voices.

Society must also realise that it cannot tackle the climate crisis if it still allows the government to rob the forest dwellers of land rights and their roles in forest conservation.

With society still dominated by feudalism, class consciousness, and patriarchy, with the officialdom's fierce resistance to decentralisation, and with the city people living in their uncaring bubbles, how do the forest poor like Chusri keep on fighting?

"Because the land is our life. Without land rights, we have no security, no food, no nothing. I fight also because I cannot accept injustice. We have no choice but to fight on if we want change."

Chusri has not reached that goal yet. But she insists she will keep on trying against the odds. And that is real noble courage.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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