On Tuesday, 4th February 2020, Protection International, with the support of Canada’s Embassy in Thailand, launched the Exhibition Art for Resistance: Quilts of Women Human Rights Defenders, which included discussions on the situation of Women Human Rights Defenders in a pseudo-democracy. The launch, which took place at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre, allowed members of the press and the public to enjoy the artwork, and hear the stories and struggles of the community-based WHRDs in Thailand.
The event opened with a video screening about Women Human Rights Defenders and the creation of the quilt project, followed by opening remarks by Dr. Sarah Taylor Ambassador of Canada to Thailand, and finally a panel discussion. The panel was composed of Pranom Somwong, Protection International Representative in Thailand, Angkhana Neelapaijit, 2019 Magsaysay Award Winner and former National Human Rights Commissioner, Anticha Sangchai, Co-founder of Buku’s Gender, Sexuality and Human Rights Classroom, Kachakorn Thaveesri, Women with Disabilities Network and Puttanee Kangkun, Senior Thailand Human Rights Specialist of Fortify Rights, discussed quilt making as both an art form and a tool of resistance, as well as the overall situation of Women Human Rights Defenders in Thailand.
Almost six years have passed since Thailand’s coup d’état. While public perception tends to categorize Thailand as an already peaceful and thriving country, an alarming number of judicial harassment cases are casting a dark shadow on the current situation on the ground. Within the three years immediately following the coup, an unsettling number of community-based Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) have been taken to court: 179 have been standing trials for simply defending their rights. The situation has far from improved, and civil society is fighting against the normalization of this worsening trend, particularly considering how it has affected women.
“In all situations involving human rights violations, women are the frontline defenders in the protection of natural resources, community rights, or the right to participate and to express their opinions, mainly since women bear the impacts most directly,” explained Angkhana Neelapaijit.
According to our estimates, the number of WHRDs facing legal prosecution has now risen to 440. Charges, mostly unsubstantiated, range from trespassing, to defamation, obstruction of public passageways due to protesting, and general “mischief”. Highly restrictive and oppressive legislation include the Computer Crimes Act and the Public Assembly Act, which greatly restrict free speech and assembly. Together they allow the government’s nearly unencumbered authority to engage in surveillance and censorship and ultimately broaden governmental power to punish those with dissenting political opinions.
Approximately half of these charges are against women of urban, poor communities. WHRDs from Bangkok and the surrounding metropolitan areas are the prime target of such legal prosecution (53%), followed by those in the Northeast (29%), the North (10%) and the South (8%).
By way of the Civil and Commercial Code, the government has forcedly evicted WHRDs from their homes, punishing them for participating in activities intending to uphold justice, improve access to housing, the right to migration, freedom of expression, and the elimination of systemic obstacles within society for persons with disabilities.
“WHRDs immensely contribute to the protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms of everyone, but whenever they rise to fight, they face intimidation and are slapped with costly and time-consuming legal cases,” explains Pranom Somwong, representative of Protection International in Thailand. Only 25 WHRDs have access to the designated Justice Fund for legal assistance from the Thai Ministry of Justice, and NGOs have claimed that the Fund’s committee members are hostile against human rights activists, further impeding the adequate realization of its mandate.
“Worse, they could become a target for physical attacks and damaging smear campaigns… Yet, few people are aware of the importance of the human protection work done by these women,” adds Pranom Somwong. Thailand ranks 77th on the United Nations Gender Inequality Index, a drop in the rankings by 8 spots since 2011, and has failed to address the concerns of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to WHRD judicial harassment.
“The government has claimed that Thailand is now a ‘democracy’, but people still find it challenging to exercise their freedom of expression and opinions, particularly among the dissenters,” explains Angkhana, “Local officials sometimes hold suspicious viewpoints towards the dissenters, and these cases demonstrate how authorities can impose restrictions on their freedoms.
Furthermore, WHRDs often face steeper challenges. In some instances, gender has been used as a tool to dehumanize women, making them more vulnerable to sexual harassment. We want to see the Prime Minister himself recognize women human rights defenders officially.”
Initiated in 2019 in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, #ArtForResistance is a two-year project that brings together 20 women human rights defenders throughout Thailand to embroider their stories. Protection International, the Canadian Embassy, and the Foundation for a Just Society hosted the Quilt of Women Human Rights Defenders Exhibition #ArtForResistance to visualize and materialize the strife that female human rights defenders in Thailand endure in their perseverance.
WHRD stories are lived and powerful tales of seeking safe spaces, demanding justice, defending their land, advocating for the environment, standing up for marginalized groups, such as the sex workers community, or working against the dominating influence of mining companies and other types of unbalances in power. These brave women might have different stories, but collectively they represent the struggle for human rights that echoes throughout many regions of the globe. “Each of their stories resonates with millions of women around the world, be it hundreds of thousands of Rohingya women who have fled from persecution and forcible eviction or other ethnic women who have become a target of judicial harassment…These women have been made scapegoats by those in power, having been accused of things they have never done to silence them,” says Somwong.
This form of sociological storytelling is inspired by the ‘arpillera’, which is a brightly colored patchwork quilt made predominantly by groups of women in South America. Arpilleristas, as these female quilt-makers were called, used this form of art as a tool for opposition against the totalitarian Pinochet Regime in the 1970s and 1980s in Chile. Though the lives of these women were darkened with poverty and oppression, these vibrant and visually captivating denouncements were a strong form of resistance.
The #ArtForResistance initiative ultimately encourages WRHDs to speak out and for the world to listen. The organizers are calling for Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) lawsuits to be denounced and ceased, and for all current cases against WHRDs in Thailand to be withdrawn. The Thai Ministry of Justice has launched the Action Plan on Business and Human Rights with an emphasis on community rights, land rights, human rights defenders, and the prevention and withdrawal of SLAPP cases; but in reality, the state has neither developed a protection mechanism nor stipulated guidelines that would ensure the stoppage of judicial harassment by the public or private sector against human rights defenders. “Even though the authorities have failed to act to protect the rights of the people, these women have never neglected their duties to protect our rights,” said Somwong.