SAKON NAKHON – A remarkable feature of civil society in northeastern Thailand is the high engagement of women in activism in defending their communities against environmental risks posed by various development projects.

At a forum on October 25, organized by Rajabhat Sakon Nakhon University in collaboration with The Isaan Record and several other organisations, activists, politicians, and academics, discussed the role of women in activism and politics. Among the audience of roughly 100 were students, interested members of the public, and representatives of communities from across the region.

Traditionally part of a matrilineal culture, Isaan women have always had a high level of social participation. In their communities’ struggles against development projects that threaten to damage the environment and people’s livelihoods, these women have been spurred to assume leadership roles by a desire to protect the well-being of their families.

Yet in parliament, newly elected female MPs have found themselves in deeply chauvinist waters. The political establishment, mostly male and middle-aged, seems reluctant to acknowledge female input in parliamentary debates concerning the military, telling them to save their voices for “womanly issues” such as childcare. The mainstream media, for their part, received criticism for continuing to steer the public focus towards the wardrobe of female MPs rather than their political positions.

Kanokwan Manorom, a sociology lecturer from Ubon Ratchathani University, says that the risk of environmental destruction poses a direct threat to the livelihoods of rural Isaan communities and functions a motivator for many women to become activists.

Don’t mess with their young

Kanokwan Manorom, a sociology lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts who studies the role of women in Isaan, said that it usually requires an extraordinary amount of pressure to persuade Isaan women to turn to activism.

The inequality and injustice inherent in the way that natural resources are currently managed is what forces women out of their homes to the frontline of activism. Since women are often in charge of feeding their families, they intimately understand the threat of ecological destruction, Kanokwan said.

“What turns these women into activists, what gets their backs up and fills them with courage, what makes them ready to burst into the melee–even though as women we’ve been taught to stay mostly at home, cook the food, and do the laundry–is when their natural resources are threatened, which is a direct threat to the livelihood and well-being of their families, their children,” Kanokwan explained.

Not without fears, but not giving up

Sudta Khamnoi, a member of the Wanon Niwat Preservation Group from Sakon Nakhon province, is currently battling the exploration of potash reserves in preparation for a Chinese mining project approved by the military junta.

“At some point you have to just stand up and fight. Why? Because this mining project is for the profit of a Chinese company, approved by people in Bangkok without our participation,” she said. “These people will never have to live with the consequences of this mine.”

Sudta Khamnoi (right), is a core member of the Wanon Niwat Preservation Group from Sakon Nakhon that opposes a potash mining project.

Sudta is concerned that the mine will destroy her community because the mining company still has not presented a plan for disposing of the salt and other byproducts generated by the mining operations. She is also worried about the air pollution and toxic run-offs from the water-intensive mining process.

“The representative of the Chinese mining company even had the gall to ask the community to make a sacrifice, and to put up with air quality that might be 60 percent lower than what we are breathing now. How selfish is that? Why should we be the ones to sacrifice?” Sudta aksed.

The water-intensive nature of potash mining also threatens water sources that locals currently use for farming and in their households. This potential competition for water between a large private corporation with backing from Bangkok and the locals of Wanon Niwat is what troubles Sudta.

Sudta was quick to point out that it is not only women who are concerned, but that local men have also come out in force to try and stop this project. Men and women in the community are now accustomed to rotating between all roles as required, be it protesting, going to court, meeting with the government and mining company representatives, cooking, or childcare.

“I’ve personally got three court cases going on, criminal and civil. Am I scared? It doesn’t matter how tough you think you are, you can’t escape fear,” Sudta told the audience. “I may not be without fear, but there’s no way I’m surrendering. I don’t even know how to spell surrender.”

A long way for gender equality

In the afternoon session, Sirikanya Tansakun, Future Forward Party’s head of policy and party list MP, expressed the view that gender equality still has a long way to go in Thai politics.

Filled mostly with middle-aged and older men, parliament is rife with gossip and intrigue, she said. Some male MPs wondered aloud whose fathers or husbands of the new female MPs were that enabled them to get into parliament, “As if the fact that we were voted in by the people had nothing to do with it,” she said.

There are currently less than 20 female MPs in parliament.

Sirikanya Tansakun (right), head of policy for the Future Forward Party and party list MP says that that gender equality in politics still has a long way to go in Thailand.

“When parliament is in session, you can see many male MPs, and even the PM himself, often teasing our female MPs with words like, ‘Hey beautiful. How are you today?’ Even in parliament we have to deal with this kind of disrespect,” she said. “I must say that I feel so disappointed with the Thai parliament.”

Sirikanya went on to say amidst the prevailing atmosphere, along with the overwhelming number of male MPs, female MPs are often viewed as decorative ornaments who don’t really need to have a function in parliamentary debate.

“The media and society put excessive focus on what we’re wearing, what color our hair is today–rather than paying attention to the content of our debates or petitions,” Sirikanya said, adding that she felt pressured to change her appearance and the way she dresses in parliament.

Nattaporn Artharn (left), a representative of the Commoner Party, has been facing gender stereotypes in her work as an activist and politician in Isaan.

But it’s not only in parliament that female politicians face an uphill battle to be seen as capable as their male counterparts, said Nattaporn Artharn, a former candidate for the Commoner Party in Kalasin’s electoral district 5.

“On the campaign trail, older villagers often asked me how I could be a politician as such a young woman,” she said.

Nattaporn said it reflects that some parts of Isaan society are still unconvinced that women have the potential to do political work or engage in activism because they see it as a male domain.

While she thinks that gender should play no role in these matters, Nattaporn also believes that female and LGBTQI politicians and activists have a long journey ahead until society sees them as equal to men.

“As women who enter politics, we need to work twice as hard as men,” Nattaporn said. “Only then we can prove that we are capable of being politicians and representatives of the people.”

Writing by Christopher Burdett. Reporting by Hathairat Phaholtap and Yodsapon Kerdviboon.