26 March 2012

Women and Land Rights in Thailand

In visiting many communities dealing with land issues and fighting for rights of ownership, multiple grassroots movements have sprouted to overcome these issues. Of the organizations established, one in particular stands out known as the Iron Lady. The Iron Lady is an organization comprised of women fighting for land rights through organizing protests in Bangkok, working within their villages to attract media attention, and overall demanding land rights with their fellow villagers. I bring attention to this organization in particular because it is headed and was established by women. And after speaking with the Kok Yao, Huay Gon Tha, and Baw Kaew communities, women play a large role in land issues in Thailand.

In Thailand, land is passed down on the women’s side. While in the villages, I was unable to discern whether women held a higher position or were uninhibited by their gender since property is dependent on them. When it came to organizing in Kok Yao village, it was stated that women have the same amount of respect in the leadership positions they occupy as men do in their positions and more and more women can be seen are on the frontlines movements.

Many of the women of Kok Yao village have participated in demonstrations in Bangkok that have lasted over a month. One yai (grandmother) in particular, named Yai Awn, spent a month demonstrating and protesting outside government buildings, spending her days demanding for a community land title and sleeping on curb side roads at night for she knew no one in the city. This drive for land ownership, a symbol of security that most people take for granted in their daily lives, pushed Yai Awn to stand her ground until she received the land title. Unfortunately, Yai Awn was not successful in receiving a land title. Nonetheless, her persistence and appearance in the demonstration allowed for her voice to be heard and reminded the government this land issue was a serious matter.

In Huay Gon Tha village, mostly populated by women, one particular mae (mother) demonstrated her frustration and anger of land rights when the police first raided the village. Mae Puuk, with long black hair tied back in a ponytail, her stern features left naked for eyes to see, recounts when and where she was on the day the police first came to arrest the villagers on claims that they were trespassing on reserved forest land. She, along with other women, were working in the fields when the police first approached. Carry guns and ordering the women to follow them to the police department, Mae Puuk and the other women refused because they did not know why they were being arrested. When one officer pointed his gun at one woman and threatened to fire, Mae Puuk stepped in-between grabbing the head of the gun and fiercely telling the officer no. Putting her life at risk, Mae Puuk knew that an injustice was happening to her and her fellow women deciding to fight for her rights and not being silenced.

These two roles demonstrate the roles women have taken on and continue to adopt within the land movement. Whether they are demonstrating for days on or putting their lives in danger for what they believe is right, women continue to adopt active roles in the politics of land issues in Thailand. Part of the reason why women are able to take on a greater role is that men play a less active role. This not to say that men are not participating in land issues, because both men and women have been arrested and charged, but more men stay at home tending to the farm and harvesting. This gives women the opportunity to take charge in organizing demonstrations, participating in demonstrations, and traveling to other provinces to collaborate with other organizations on land rights. Overall, women are actively taking charge, demanding their rights, and risking their lives for what they believe in.

Jennifer Lopez

Whitman College


Davika Parris said...

Jennifer, I think this is an interesting topic, one that I was unaware is currently happening in Thailand. It reminds me of the women’s movements that are happening in Latin America where the women are the main agents of the forefront in acquiring land titles for land that has been theirs for ages. But it makes me think, if not the women, then who else? Mothers by nature are fierce care-givers, and determined to provide for their families which is reflected in the stories of bravery and heroism of the mother and grandmother who fought for what they believed to be theirs. I think its incredible that you get to meet and hear stories like that. I hope these amazing women can continue to be heard and eventually granted their land.

Anna Cecilia, CIEE-SL student said...

It happens so often in our world that women are marginalized and not valued for the power that they truly have, a power that can clearly be seen in this particular grassroots movement. Although there are still gender roles and separate leadership positions in this cultural system, it is amazing how these Thai women have been able to play such an active part, and how the difference between who holds more power and/or influence is barely distinguishable. I think it is clear that the women in this community are a force to reckon with; the power and bravely demonstrated by Mae Puuk was incredible, and is an example of a truly empowered woman. It will be interesting to see how this movement develops over time, and how the increasing participation of Thai women will affect not only the outcomes of the movement, but possibly their role within the culture itself.

Isabelle Jaffe, CIEE-SL student said...

Like Davika, I also had no idea that this struggle was currently going on in Thailand, and I am beyond surprised to hear that women are at the heart of it. In so many developing countries, women are just coming into their rights as citizens, and I am really interested in this huge role that Thai women play in this fight for their land. In traditional societies, women are often looked at as lesser, as weaker than men, and their opinions and struggles are not seen as legitimate. They are confined to the home, to the kitchen and to the rearing of children, and have little opportunity to excise power. But the strength and authority of these women is obvious in your blog, and you do a great job of really communicating the power these women feel. Without their strength of conviction, this movement wouldn’t exist, and it requires extremely strong people who refuse to budge under pressure to continue.

Anna Myhr, CIEE-SL student said...

So what happened to Mae Pukk after she stepped in front of the soldier? I also had no idea that these property struggles were happening in Thailand, and the fact that women are playing such a strong role is very inspiring. This is a different role then what I have been experiencing during my time in the Dominican Republic, which by comparison has a very machista culture (which means men have superiority over women). It is very common in the Dominican culture to see the women serve the men in the house before they sit down to eat. There are very traditional gender roles, and while they are changing; the change is slow. Seeing the strong women’s role in a developing country is something I hope many countries can strive to incorporate into their culture of power within the next few years, or at during our generation.

Anonymous said...

Talia Brock, CIEE Service Learning student in the Dominican Republic

It was great to read about women standing up for themselves, especially when the situation is so dire and life-threatening. The strength of these women is so amazing and inspiring, and they continue to fight back despite what life has handed them. Land rights are a tricky situation, as I have learned during my studies here in the Dominican Republic. The government in both countries needs to reform their land ownership laws, and make land more accessible for those of lower economic status. This blog was particularly inspiring because of the deep set gender roles that women have to come up against. I don't know exactly what it's like for women in Thailand, but there are definitely some obstacles for women in the Dominican Republic. It is so strange to come from an American perspective, where we still fight for women's rights and yet have so many more rights that women in other countries do.

Fay Walker said...

This is really interesting JLo, especially since the Iron Ladies are still establishing themselves. They clearly started their initiatives because of the advantages of placing women on the forefront of a protest but have now begun to try to blend their identities with their masuline counterparts and to claim they are on equal footing. I'm incredibly interested in how the group will progress and whether or not they will embrace their maternality or try to blend more with the main organization.

Rachel said...

JLo, you summed up the issue quite well. I've always thought it was interesting that the land titles are passed down to women instead of men and it makes me wonder if there's a deeper reason for that. I've loved hearing the stories and involvement of our Mehs and Yais who've been a part of the land rights fight. One thing Hannah and I wrote for our feature is questioning the intentions behind putting women in the frontlines and men behind. At first glance it seems like an action of female empowering and women are placed there because police are less likely to be violent towards women than men. Yet, upon second glance, is putting women on the frontlines using their stereotype as the 'gentler sex' the best method of approach? Either way, the Iron ladies group is a wonderful thing and I've always loved seeing the faces of women light up when they tell their personal stories of their fight for land rights.

Morgan said...

Great Post JLo! The Iron Ladies is a great movement within the villages. The Iron Ladies are many times at the front lines of the protest. But in many other villages women’s Iron Ladies groups are not as involved with the logistics of the fight as men are. In Na Nong Bong, the Iron Ladies only main role was to get at the frontlines of the protest because police would be less violent towards women but outside of that their main role was cooking and serving the men. This could obviously change as the Iron Ladies grows as a movement. I would personally like to see women get more into planning and organizing.