Authoritarianism is on the rise globally. Historically, women have been at the forefront of movements advocating for democracy and basic human rights. That hasn’t changed. Dictators have responded to these pro-democracy movements with harassment, violence, and arbitrary detention. Nevertheless, women continue to stand up against authoritarian regimes.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, the Human Rights Foundation is highlighting the contributions of women activists and human rights defenders to pro-democracy movements. Throughout this series, we explore the incredible stories of women who took the lead to challenge repression.
Women at the Forefront of Democracy: Tackling the Military Regime in Thailand
In May 2014, a Thai military coup effectively put an end to democracy. Coup leader General Prayuth Chan-o-cha announced in a television broadcast at the time that “in order to run the country smoothly, [the military has] suspended the constitution of 2007, except for the chapter on the monarchy.” The country has continued toward authoritarianism.
“When I heard about the coup, I was hopeless. I was a young person growing up and was a part of this society. I felt that my vote was not counted. I questioned why my vote could not be a part of the change. I was mad. I wanted to protect my vote,” Chonticha Jangrew, co-founder of the Democracy Restoration Group (DRG) and former environmental activist, told the Human Rights Foundation. The day after the latest coup — there have been at least 12 since 1932 — she co-organized a symbolic protest called “Finding Pigeons (freedom)” with other pro-democracy students at Bangkok’s Sanam Luang public square to protest against military rule. “When people looked back, they would see that not everyone agreed with the coup. People like us stood up to dictators,” she added.
The military regime severely violated freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, resulting in arbitrary arrest, persecution, and harassment. In 2015, Chonticha and other protesters were charged with Article 116 of the Criminal Code for causing “disturbance in the country,” taken to Thailand’s military courts, and subsequently detained for 12 days. “The first thing I experienced was injustice. It was the first time in my life that I was sexually harassed. I was told to undress and touched in intimate parts. The prison conditions were horrible,” Chonticha said.
Being a woman activist in a country ruled by an authoritarian regime — especially one led by a male dictator — isn’t easy. Women activists have consistently been perceived as a challenge to traditional gender norms.
“It’s not easy for women to stand up and be involved in politics. In our patriarchal society, women have been perceived as ‘elephant’s hind legs’ or followers. It implies that women should not engage in politics, be leaders, or have their voice,” Chonticha said. “I was not only attacked because of what I believe, but they also attacked me for who I am as a woman human rights defender. They attacked me because of my gender.”
Like other women human rights defenders in Thailand, Chonticha has been harassed, stalked, and threatened by security forces and pro-regime groups. Undercover officers have visited her house to take pictures of family members or threaten them. Chonticha received death threats, threats of sexual violence, and verbal abuse. She has also been subjected to online hatred and called a “prostitute who betrays the country,” a “traitor,” and a “drug addict.” Online trolls spread fake chats between her and a United States diplomat, planting rumors she was planning a foreign intervention in Thai politics. Some people were even made to believe she had an affair with the diplomat.
Despite constant repression and persecution, Chonticha continues her struggle for democracy, justice, and equal rights. She organizes capacity-building training and workshops for young people and pro-democracy activists, focusing on basic human rights, security, and safety. Chonticha also contributed to several pro-democracy movements organized by Free Youth, Ratsadorn, and other groups calling for the resignation of Prayuth and his government, the creation of a democratic constitution, and a reform of the monarchy.
Since the coup, Chonticha has faced multiple charges. On March 6, 2021, she joined the protest with the Free Youth group and was charged with violating the Emergency Decree on April 27, 2021. Last year, Chonticha was charged with lèse-majesté law for participating in a September 2021 protest and for criticizing the monarchy budget.
“I just want to live in a safe and secure homeland. When there is a problem in a house, I want to find a solution to solve the problem,”Chonticha said. “I want to live in a home where freedom and human dignity are guaranteed. A home where I am not being discriminated against because I am a woman. I do believe that I can make a change. Democracy is a tool that helps everyone voice out their thoughts, enjoy human rights, and shape the future of the society we want to live in.”
Chonticha currently faces 28 sedition charges.
Around the world, women have long been at the forefront of movements calling for democracy, freedom, and human rights. From Thailand to Madagascar, Nicaragua to Belarus, and Saudi Arabia to Cuba, women have shown that they are capable of leading the change despite threats and challenges. Undeniably, democracy without women is impossible. We stand in solidarity with the women who are leading these movements globally.
Photo Credit: Kan Sangtong