Catharin Dalpino on the Role of Women in the 2020 Thai Protests

Catharin Dalpino is Professor Emeritus at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where she taught courses in Asian Studies and in US foreign policy. She has also taught at the State University of New York-Albany. Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; George Washington University; Simmons College; and Seton Hall University. For five years she was Director of Georgetown University’s Thai Studies Program. From 1993 to 1997 Professor Dalpino was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. She has also been a Fellow at the Brookings Institution; a Resident Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Associate at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy; a Visiting Scholar in Southeast Asian Studies at SAIS; and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. From 1983 to 1993 Professor Dalpino was a career officer with The Asia Foundation, and was the Foundation’s Representative for Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. In that capacity, she re-opened the Foundation’s programs in Laos and Cambodia after a hiatus of fifteen years. She was the founding director of the Aspen Institute Program on Agent Orange in Vietnam (2007-2009), which urged the US Government to provide assistance for Vietnamese affected by exposure to dioxin during the Vietnam War. Professor Dalpino is the author of two books about US foreign policy and numerous articles and journal chapters. She has testified before Congress, on both the House and Senate sides, more than a dozen times.
Ava Liao CMC '23 interviewed Dr. Catharin Dalpino on October 7, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Catharin Dalpino.

Thailand, like many other Southeast Asian countries, has been resistant to movements for women’s rights and feminism. What do you think explains this strong resistance?

Thailand is a patriarchal society, and so is the United States. Thailand has had a female prime minister, while the United States has not had a female head of government. In Thailand, there are traditionally three areas or entry points for power for women. One is education. In a lot of developing countries, middle and middle-upper class women who were educated were able to acquire some power. In 2004 when there was an incident in southern Thailand where 80 Muslim men were killed from suffocation by government forces. It was a woman, the chief coroner of Thailand, who spearheaded the movement to hold the administration of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to account. There was nothing unusual about this because she was a highly educated Thai woman. A second area for power is inherited power. A woman can have power because she is the wife or daughter of a former head of state, or in the case of Thailand, the sister of someone who is the head of the government. Yingluck Shinawatra was the sister of Thaksin, and that is the only reason why she was prime minister. She could not have reached this position by herself. Virtually every South Asian country has had that: Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, and so on. Aung San Suu Kyi was greatly helped in becoming an icon because her father was Aung San, the founding general of Burma. A third source of power is wealth, which can be seen particularly in Thai-Chinese families. Oftentimes matriarchs of the family can be very wealthy and control the family fortune, and be very powerful as well. Women are not completely suppressed. 

What is new about the current movement is that middle class women from Bangkok who are without any of those three attributes are suddenly speaking out. Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, the spokesperson for the Student Union, comes from Thammasat University. Thammasat University, one of the largest two universities in Bangkok, was traditionally the center for political activity in Thailand. In 1973 there was a student revolution. While most student revolutions do not bring down the government, this one did. That is always in the back of the minds of Thai policymakers and government officials. For these new protests to come out of Thammasat automatically adds some respect. 

The Human Rights report issued by the U.S. State Department says that men and women have roughly equal rights in Thailand, which I agree with. Many of the things about which they are protesting are the same things that we are concerned with in the United States. But there are also cultural issues, like the unbroken line of the monarchy in Thailand. The current king has a wife and an official consort, and they are not the same. That comes back from the Mia Noi, minor wife tradition in Thailand. When there is this monarchy, which is unbroken because Thailand was never colonized, this behavior is accepted and even emulated as well. There is a tradition of a man having many families because that came down from the monarchy. 

That said, 40% of all small businesses in Thailand are run by women, which is higher than in the United States. In empirical terms, particularly for a Southeast Asian country, they are not doing badly. They are a modern, outward-looking country that tends to be influenced by international trends; a lot of that has had a beneficial effect on Thai women.

The second wave of pro-democracy protests in Thailand have been ongoing since July, and are mostly student-led. Why are young women joining these protests? Is there any tradition in Thailand of women’s participation in protests or is this a new phenomenon?

There are two or three reasons. Thai society has been under martial law for six years or more. Beginning with last year’s elections, they have only recently been able to take the lid off of censorship. We are seeing things about Thai society that have been changing all along, but they were hard to grasp because people were not allowed to go into the streets to demonstrate. It is also a kind of catch-up time. Around the world, there are movements with young women speaking up. Look at the role of women in the Belarus and Black Lives Matter protests. Look at Greta Thunberg in terms of the environmental movement, and Malala Yousafzai in terms of women’s education. The global movement is influencing Thailand’s protests. There is a strong cultural tendency toward patriarchy that has suppressed an actual feminist movement, whatever the status of women has been. 

The majority of protest leaders have been male, with gender divisions often affecting the movement. Female students advocating for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights as essential to democracy have been harassed in person and online by fellow protesters. What is the impact of this internal tension on the efficacy of the pro-democracy protests?

This is a political movement revolving around the monarchy and the current prime minister. There have always been female protesters in Thailand; there have not been female leaders. Female Thai protesters were there in 1973 and other instances as well. The problem with large-scale, national, sustained protest movements is that they become huge bowls of everything. This happened with the anti-war movement in the United States. The initial demand was to end the war with Vietnam, and everything else came out too. This did not necessarily dilute it, but it is important to differentiate between political issues, such as the reform of the monarchy, and social issues. Women’s rights and LGBTQ rights are more social issues than political issues, although political action is often necessary in order to improve or enforce rights. It is easier to keep those social issues going after the protests end, even if those protests fail with their political aims. That is the value in servicing them: if the government puts the protests down, the women’s issues and LGBTQ issues will still be out there. It puts the issues on the table. The way to get what they want is to get a parliament that passes the legislation that they want. But first they have to influence the government, and that is a political issue. 

How does the public perceive the protesters, and what have the government and monarchy done so far in response?

There is a difference between this student movement and the last time there was a serious protest movement in Thailand, which was the Red Shirts-Yellow Shirts in the late 1990s. This is a student movement driven by middle-class Bangkok students for the most part. The Red Shirt movement was more of a class movement. The Yellow Shirts were the Bangkok establishment. Thais tend to view these protests very differently, particularly the political classes in Bangkok. When they look at the current student demonstrations, they are looking at their sons and daughters. That is significantly different from how they regard the Red Shirts-Yellow Shirts. In 1992 for example, when the military government returned after the counter-coup, the military under General Suchinda Kraprayoon went into the streets and started mowing students down with machine guns. The professional class, their parents’ generation, then came out to the streets with cellphones in protest, and that shut the whole thing down. That was essentially what caused the king to push that general out. 

The way that they handle these protests is different as a result. Prime Minister Prayut is starting out by trying to kill the messenger. He is not trying to crack down on the protesters; he is trying to shut down the social media that is fueling them. That is a sign to me that he is handling this very carefully. Even though Thailand has relatively few COVID-19 cases and has done well to contain them, Thailand is one of the most hard-hit countries in the world in terms of economic devastation. This year, the Thai economy is projected to contract by 8%-10%. Forty percent of Thailand’s GDP depends on tourism. They are nowhere near getting that tourism back. The last thing that Prayut wants is footage on CNN of the military attacking protesters in Bangkok. The biggest issue to Prayut is getting the economy back on track, which then leads to the second issue of how Thai society is reacting. If the student movement is viewed as ignoring the economic plight of other Thais at this time, it will not get much sympathy from the public. Also, depending on what happens with the monarchy, there will be counter-groups and counter-protests. There is already the Loyal Thai group that established itself in August. There will be a clash among public groups, but it will not be a class war. It will be monarchists against those who want reform of the monarchy, which is similar to what happened in 1932 in Thailand when the system moved from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. The parallels are fascinating.

Another reason that the students feel emboldened enough to take on the monarchy is that King Vajiralongkorn suspended the lèse-majesté laws. I am not entirely sure why he suspended them. One reason could be that the constitution and the emergency powers given to Prayut under COVID-19 are probably sufficient to suppress demonstrations if it comes to that. He has told Prayut that he does not want the students to be prosecuted either. If there were to be reform of the monarchy, it would be the decision of the monarchy itself and the Privy Council, who are the king’s advisers. Prayut is somewhat caught in between the monarchy and the students here. In addition, he has moved from a junta leader to an elected prime minister, which may put him at odds with the military at times. He will try and play it cool unless he feels he has to crack down on the students, and the students know this. Their strategy is to cautiously exploit these openings and see how far they can get. 

Are these pro-democracy protests likely to have any significant cultural or political impact in the long term? 

King Vajiralongkorn’s father, King Bhumibol, was greatly beloved. This generation of students did not come of age when he was in his prime. This generation of students came of age when he was out of the public eye already because of his illness. Young Thais of university age do not have the same experience with the monarchy that their parents and grandparents did, simply because of generational changes. Even so, they are very careful about stating their own limits. They are not asking to abolish the monarchy; they are asking to reform it. 

What the Thai authorities do not want is what they had in 1976, which were Thammasat students with protest signs criticizing Vajiralongkorn, who was then Crown Prince. That would be a trigger point, which would spark not only a reaction from the military, but also a reaction from Thai society.

The fact that these students have dared to have a manifesto that includes reform of the monarchy and they are still walking around in Bangkok is a considerable feat. It is a landmark event that will survive because it has moved the line. It puts the issue of the reform of the monarchy on the table. I doubt very much that the protests are going to overturn the government, but the very fact that they could do that is significant. It is also an inevitable part of the transition out of the reign of King Bhumibol, who was beloved but also in many ways turned into a semi-sacred figure partly as a Cold War tactic. That was the work of the military in the 1950s and the Prime Minister and Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, who strengthened the lèse-majesté laws. Thailand needed the monarchy to counter the Thai Communist Party. Inevitably, there is a transition from one monarch to the next, and this is part of that. It is impossible to maintain the same kind of atmosphere around the monarchy that Bhumibol had. Vajiralongkorn is playing it cool for now. I am impressed that the students are getting away with this, quite frankly.

Thailand’s transition to democracy in the 1988 was unusual because it was evolutionary, not revolutionary. The Thai Prime Minister, Prem Tinsulanonda, who had been an appointed military leader, said that his successor should be an elected civilian prime minister. That contrasted with what happened in 1986 in the Philippines and the overthrow of President Ferdinand Marcos. There was a people-powered revolution, where they brought in Corazon Aquino. Then there were two or three attempts at a people-powered revolution after that because they did not really have any other way to transfer power. Even when there is a dramatic revolution, things do not change as much as people think. There is a much slower process of consolidating those gains and inevitably there will be backsliding. When there was a peaceful transition to democracy in Bangkok in 1988, we were all very impressed. Three years later, there was a coup against the civilian prime minister. Genuine changes in the political system are not instantaneous.

There are three scenarios in which these protests might be put down. Vajiralongkorn might say to Prayut that it is time. Another is that the military moves against Prayut because they might have been planning to do this anyway, or because they genuinely feel that he cannot keep things in line. It is also quite possible that this movement could become too removed from what is happening to the everyday life of people who are not middle-class students in Bangkok. If this COVID-19 pandemic drags on, which it probably will, and Thailand does not make a quick economic recovery, there will be a severe counter-movement coming up and Prayut could shut the demonstrations down. Both the students and the monarchy have some awareness at this point that they do not want to trigger something like that.

Do you think that feminist movements in Thailand will see a strong surge in popularity in the future? Can they capitalize on the success of the 2020 protests?

They will be separate from the protests. This is actually one of the positive things that will come out of the protests. We are almost looking at the birth of a formal feminist movement, and again it is in the Bangkok middle classes. It will certainly be adapted to Thai culture, and this is one of the things that will be sustained. It would be advantageous to separate the feminist movement from something as sensitive as the reform of the monarchy. It is very touchy territory and it is important that movement to maintain itself and be self-sustaining after these protests are over. It is a social versus political issue. No government is going to rise and fall based on removing taxes on menstrual products, which is one of the protesters’ demands. It is better to couch it as a long-term social issues movement.

Ava Liao CMC '23Student Journalist

This Photo was taken by Supanut Arunoprayote (

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