Cover photo by Luke Duggleby

Edited keynote speech of the forum, “Isaan Women in Politics: Environmental Activism and Democratic Practice,” at Rajabhat Sakon Nakhon University on 25 Ocotober 2019.

By Bencharat Sae Chua, Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University

Women and the environment

When considering the role of women in environmental activism in Thailand, apart from their being energetic leaders, two things come to my mind.

In confrontations with the police or military, women in the affected communities often stand at the frontlines. As they are seen as fragile, the hope is that the security officers won’t harm them. This is based on the belief that women are the weaker sex and so they are made to face these situations, not because they are stronger.

In another case, about two weeks ago, when I visited a community in the North that is engaged in land rights activism, all the community members who came to talk to me turned out to be women. At first I thought it was a good thing that this community has an all-female leadership. But in fact, these women became activists because their husbands and male relatives had all been thrown into prison. Only women and their children were left to fight.

When looking at women in activism, we mostly see them in two ways:

First, they are seen as something to be cherished, weak, delicate and in need of special care, or as pawns in activism tactics to confront the all-male police or security force.

Second, there is the image of women as relatives or wives of male activists who suffered attacks or were made to “disappear.”

And so, the womanhood of these female activists tends to occasionally obscure the emergence of a clear image of female activism in the eyes of observers.

Bencharat Sae Chua from the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University gave the keynote speech of the public forum, “Isaan Women in Politics: Environmental Activism and Democratic Practice,” at Rajabhat Sakon Nakhon University on 25 October 2019.

Environmental justice

Why do we even need to talk about female environmental activism? Why does activism for natural resource management need to consider the topic of women’ rights?

Talking about women’s rights without at all considering structural problems of natural resource management, or without considering politics and questions about democracy, can not be enough.

The growing participation of women in environmental movements does not mean that environmental justice is currently being established. But these two issues belong together.

Today’s struggles revolve around environmental justice and equal access to natural resources, not just simply protection of the environment.

Access to resources needs a condition in which there is protection against environmental impacts.

It cannot all be about protection for Bangkokians suffering from micro pollutants in the air. While the problem of air pollution in the capital is still in need of a solution from the state, at least this recent issue has attracted lots of public attention. In contrast, the issue of gold mining and the consequential air pollution and contamination of rivers like in Lampang’s Mae Mo district might not interest many people in Bangkok.

Women and the patriarchy

It is without question that Thailand’s approach to natural resource extraction is dominated by patriarchal concepts. In order to achieve justice in resource distribution and protection from negative environmental impact, there must first be a fair, democratic decision-making process.

Looking at the women’s dimension of this issue, it becomes clear that we need a democracy movement that also considers women. Women cannot always be dismissed as the weaker sex.

In my research, I have found that women in the communities are the ones most affected by environmental destruction because their communities often depend on forests and their livelihoods on activities such as foraging for bamboo shoots.

When communities seek to preserve forest reserves and national parks, they must negotiate permitted foraging methods and quotas.

When forest communities are evicted, women carry a heavy burden because they are usually the ones responsible for taking care of their families.

When communities are hit by environmental destruction caused by development projects, women, who often permanently stay at home while the men seek work outside the community, are they ones affected the most.

Among the audience of roughly 100 were students, interested members of the public, and representatives of communities from across the Northeast of Thailand.

One village in northeastern Thailand that the military evicted from a forest reserve never had electricity or running water to begin with because of its location in a protected area that officially was not permitted to be developed.

The male villagers tried to argue for their right to stay by saying that the community had been established before the area was declared a forest reserve and that the abundant forest guaranteed their livelihoods. The most pressing concerns for the female villagers was where their children would go to school if they were evicted. In the forest, there was only one teacher for all the children. I feel that for the women, the issue of resource management is even more complicated because they need to consider their whole family.

And then there is the question of what are truly the accessible political channels for environmental justice activism and calls for equality for women in regards to resource management. I think that there are rather few formal or informal channels for these women.

Although strong female leadership exists in activism, negotiations with the state is mostly handled by male NGO representatives because they are respected and the state accepts them as mediators. Women hardly play any role in these negotiations and when they do, the burden of familial responsibilities weighs heavily on their shoulders.

Women and formal politics

It is well known that women hardly have any role in formal politics in Thailand. Historically, female members of parliament have made up about three to six percent of all MPs and senators. If there are 300 MPs, only 10 to 20 women are among them. For the make-up of the senate, the numbers do not differ much and women make up about two to four percent.

Under the government of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), it was even worse as the appointed legislative body of the junta, the National Legislative Assembly, only had 12 female members, or 4.8 percent. The ratio of female MPs was higher under the previous democratically-elected government. In the National Reform Steering Assembly, a body established by the NCPO after the coup, only 16 of the 200 members were women.

However, this year’s election can be seen as progress in terms of gender balance in parliament. Out of 498 MPs, 78 are women (17 percent) and the senate with its 250 members has 26 senators (10 percent).

Although there has been progress in regards to the formal political participation of women, Thailand still lags behind internationally. Maybe little-known among Thais, the African country of Rwanda has a very high number of female MPs: women make up 60.3 percent of members in the national parliament, even though some of them are not democratically elected but appointed by local assemblies.

Germany has not only a female chancellor but in parliament, 0ne out of three MPs, or 30.33 percent, are women.

In the US, a country that should probably be leading in terms of rights and equality, the Congress with 535 members has 127 women, or 23 percent.

If we only look at Asia, Thailand does not perform much better than other countries in the neighborhood. Malaysia has 13.9 percent of female MPs, Laos has 27.5 percent, and in the Indonesian parliament, 19.1 percent are women.

What do these numbers tell us?

Historically speaking, universal suffrage was introduced not too long ago. But even then, women holding political offices or management positions does not guarantee the advancement of a feminst agenda or that these women will work for equality and justice.

There are many examples of women coming to power but who still talk, behave, and think in patriarchal patterns. Women who gain power have to face attempts of oppression from men. This is also very much true for Thailand.

Democratic recession

Another main challenge in the struggle for environmental justice is the democratic recession we are currently experiencing because democracy is a crucial precondition for the establishment of environmental justice.

Democratic recession does not only refer to the past five years under dictatorship in Thailand but also the waning trust in democratic governance.

Many leading democratic countries have begun to use authoritarian measures while disregarding human rights under a political development coined as “democratic recession.”

Environmental politics are being framed as ethnic issues, especially in regard to forest issues. In northeastern Thailand, this might yet have to occur, but it is clearly emerging in the northern and western parts of the country. For example, in the conflict over the Kaeng Krajan forest in Phetchaburi province, the question over natural resources was linked to national identity within the concept of Thainess.

While nationalism has become a component in the discourse about the well-being of the nation, its importance has been constantly growing in such areas as in the question of who really benefits from the military government’s forest reclamation policy.

Another challenge that emerges from democratic recession is the deterioration of the human rights situation which is characterized by violence and the increasing weaponization of the law against environmental justice defenders.

All these are not new phenomena that occur only in Thailand. In Indonesia in the past five years, there have been over 1,700 land rights conflict cases that have left 41 people dead, attacks on more than 540 people, and legal cases filed against 940 farmers and activists.

In the Philippines, in the past year, there have been more than 30 killings of environmental and land rights activists. The country has emerged as one of the most dangerous for human rights and environmental justice defenders.

In Thailand, villagers have been intimidated and slapped with court cases. There have been cases of forced disappearance like that of Karen rights activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen and land rights activist Den Khamlae. This clearly points to a democratic recession that we are currently experiencing and that’s affecting the management of natural resources and the environment.

Women might have more opportunities to enter politics than before but the numbers are still low and they still face challenges posed by patriarchal culture.

What can we do about this situation? If the struggle for environmental justice must include all genders, what kind of struggle are we talking about?

I’d like to point out that women in the environmental justice movement might not be interested in gender issues and the question of male and female participation.

If we regard women as a group that has been shut out, we also must consider the issue of rights in a broader sense. We must not only talk about women’s rights to speak up but also include all the other groups that have been excluded from the management of natural resources.

A fair and just society must give voice to the oppressed who have been left without a voice. In order to create equality, we must campaign to build a fair system that is sensitive to all the inequalities that exist in society.

All of us are part of the movement to create equality and forment change of societal structures to lead the way to a real democratic country.

Bencharat Sae Chua is a lecturer at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University. Her research interests include social movements, environmental politics, human rights discourse, and democratization.