29 November & 10 December 2021
Interview with Pranom SomwongOn the occasion of International Women Human Rights Defenders Day (29 November) and Human Rights Day (10 December) we asked some of the women human rights defenders working for PI about their experiences, passions and visions for a better future.
Please introduce yourself for our readers.
My name is Pranom Somwong, everyone calls me “Bee”, and I am Protection International’s country representative in Thailand. For several years I have been facilitating trainings and workshops for community-based human rights defenders (HRDs), women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and young HRDs and activists all across Thailand. I have been leading initiatives to design, develop and sustain protection networks. We’ve also been very active in movement building, where we are actively incorporating protection and security into our advocacy asks in order to raise awareness about the right to defend human rights.
What inspired you to become a human rights defender?
In my university days, it was the Indigenous communities in the north of Thailand that peaked my interest in human rights work. They were fighting against the forestry department in order to stand up for their land rights. I also started to wonder about why so many migrants and refugees from Burma were forced to relocate to Thailand. My first job was working with migrant workers and refugee women from Burma, as well as sex workers. Their struggle to defend human rights and democracy always inspired me.
Did you have any mentors or role models growing up?
I owe a great deal of gratitude to the strong and caring women in my life who continue to inspire me. My mother was incredibly resilient and she supported me with so much love. My first bosses, who were women, are such caring human beings who always motivated me and propelled me forward. They helped me to learn from my mistakes and encouraged me to always do better. This attitude has taught me that I need to continue to learn and grow with each passing day. At the moment, I am part of the Global Women’s Strike movement, which is an international, multiracial network campaigning for recognition and just monetary compensation for all those carrying out what is considered to be traditional care work. We are working towards the normalisation of a “Care Income”. This is being coordinated by the International Wages for Housework Campaign. Participating in this strong network of changemakers gives me lots of love, strength and power.
Are there sufficient protections and mechanisms of support for women human rights defenders in Thailand?
In recent years, we have seen an increase in violence against political dissidents, not only in Thailand but also in other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries. This includes an increase in abductions, extra judicial killings, physical attacks, judicial harassment and online attacks especially against WHRDs and young activists. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) Burma, security forces have killed more than 1,290 people and arrested more than 10,404 since the coup in Burma on 1 February 2021. Many people have suffered from torture while in prison now and thousands are fleeing to Thailand and other border countries to survive. Women from Burma/Myanmar have demanded for the international community to bring this case to the International Criminal Court (ICC). They continue to demand that the military junta be held accountable for their crimes, and we must support them. Women of all backgrounds—be they rural or urban, Indigenous, impoverished, etc.—have been trying very hard to be effectively included in public consultation and decision-making process, especially regarding issues of land occupancy and the management of natural resources. Women who are human rights defenders live and work in the same repressive environment as other women; facing the same barriers and carrying the same responsibilities that coincide with the unpaid work of caring for their families and communities. There are no effective protections and mechanisms of support for women human rights defenders in Thailand and Burma on many issues of concern.
What has been your proudest moment thus far while working for PI?
Each time that women and HRDs win, land rights HRDs re-occupy their land, or we win a court case, I am extremely proud. Each victory is precious, as we are in a country plagued with corrupt authorities and cooperate, for-profit influence. We continue to push, however, to change things around and better ensure governments and corporations are caring for people and the planet. For example, PI Thailand is proud to continue supporting the anti-mining struggle of community-based women and HRDs in Dongmafai, who for 27 years have fought against a quarry and stone mill until they successfully closed them down. Now, they are working to replant the forest that had been cut down in order to make way for the quarry, with the aim of turning the area in to an eco-cultural and archaeological tourism destination.
It is difficult to capture the roller coaster of emotions we experience. There are many euphoric moments of progress as well as low moments of setbacks, given the nature of this work. But of all the things that can boost morale and motivation during any given workday, it is helpful to reflect on what we are achieving over time. If we are able to better recognise our progress, the more likely we are to be creatively productive moving forward.
In your opinion, what have been the most important cultural changes concerning gender equality and women’s rights that you’ve seen take place in Thailand during your lifetime?
In Thailand, like many countries in the world, victim-blaming is existent not only in the mindset of the people, but also in the law—especially in case of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence. It is wonderful to see so many young people, of all sexes and gender identities, trying to end the toxic practice of victim-blaming. They are trying to understand how consent plays out in real life, which is crucial for social progress. A popular, young female rapper even came out with the song about it, which has played a role in sensitising the broader community. I am extremely pleased to see more debate and discussion about sex, race and class in Thai society.
How does being a woman manifest itself in your daily human rights protection work?
I am still trying to better theorise and understand new interpretations of sex, race and class and how capitalism, racism, sexism, authoritarianism and politics have muddied the real relationships between these categories.
Women and grassroots communities in Thailand (most of whom are mothers and care givers) continue to fight against the feudal capital system, and they are confronted with their sex and gender expressions constantly. We no longer will allow for the default relationship with the land to be that of domination and extraction. As women, we are fighting against these ideas in many aspects. The grassroots WHRDs that PI is working with are very innovate, and they continue to find new ways of advancing their collective protection strategies and resistances. They have already integrated feminist solidarity and intersectional teachings in their ways of organising.
What advice do you have for young women in Thailand who are witnessing injustices?
Instead of giving advice to young women, I would instead like to give advice to older generations, especially those men and women who are currently in power. I advise them to listen and pay attention to the young people who are speaking up, especially young women. There are many notable, powerful youth movements in the Global South, especially those fighting for democracy and social justice in Burma and Thailand. As adults, we must support youth civic engagement and advocacy. Young people gain new skills when they become engaged politically, and they learn to take on greater responsibility. They also learn more about who they are and what they value in life, as well as their unique capabilities for making change.
Looking forward, what gives you hope?
As part of our work in Thailand relates to movement building, we work hand-in-hand with frontline groups, grassroots women and HRDs to respond to urgent crises, such as the pandemic, and also try to influence societal transformation from the bottom up. There is a wealth of knowledge and best practice on the ground already, and we are continually developing it. We also look forward to working more with the Women Human Rights Defenders Collective in Thailand, which is comprised of community and grassroots women human rights defenders currently representing seventeen different sectors. I am filled with hope when I see and feel that women are supporting other women and sharing the power we have.