From buffaloes to flowers of the nation: Status of Thai women during Phibunsongkram’s rule


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“Women are buffaloes; Men are humans.” When Plaak Pibulsongkram became premier in 1938, women were catapulted to an exalted status. They were told that they were men’s equal and at the same time, they were exhorted to be “flowers of the nation” – beautiful and submissive. This paper examines Phibun’s motivations behind his policies on raising the status of women. Was he genuinely interested in the emancipation of women? Or were they just another tool in nation-building?

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From buffaloes to flowers of the nation: Status of Thai women during Phibunsongkram’s rule

  1. 1. From “Buffalo” to “Flower of the Nation”:Status of Thai women during Phibunsongkram’s rule Please contact xingledout[at] if you’d like to use any information from this paper.
  2. 2. CONTENTSINTRODUCTION ................................................................................................................................... 1WINDS OF CHANGE ............................................................................................................................ 2 KING MONGKUT ..................................................................................................................................... 2 KING CHULALONGKORN ......................................................................................................................... 2 KING VAJIRAVUDH .................................................................................................................................. 4 POST-REVOLUTION (1932 – 1937) .......................................................................................................... 5PHIBUN AND LA-IAD – BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE........................................................................... 6CIRCUMSTANCES SURROUNDING PHIBUN’S PREMIERSHIP ............................................... 7PHIBUN’S POLICIES ON WOMEN ................................................................................................... 9 WOMEN AS MOTHER OF THE NATION ...................................................................................................... 11 WOMEN AS SYMBOL OF CIVILISATION ..................................................................................................... 12 WOMEN AS WORKFORCE ....................................................................................................................... 16 WOMEN’S ISSUES AS HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES ........................................................................................... 18LA-IAD’S CONTRIBUTIONS ............................................................................................................ 19LEGACY OF PHIBUN’S POLICIES ON WOMEN ......................................................................... 21CONCLUSION ...................................................................................................................................... 22REFERENCES ...................................................................................................................................... 24 2
  3. 3. Introduction “Women are buffaloes; Men are humans” In the old days, women were considered property of men and it was legal forfathers and husbands to sell them. The status of women started to improve only in thetime of King Mongkut who prohibited men from selling their wives. Fast forward tothe period when Plaak Pibulsongkram became premier in 1938. All of a sudden,women were catapulted to an exalted status. They were told that they were men’sequal and were needed in the development of the nation, and that they can dowhatever men can do. Yet at the same time, they were exhorted to be “flowers of thenation” – beautiful and submissive. Government policies during Phibun’s leadership were focused on raising thestatus of women. Husbands should honour their wives, women were told to dress inprescribed styles, the economic sphere was opened up to women, they were allowedto vote and there was compulsory education for all. This paper examines Phibun’s motivations behind his policies on women. Was hegenuinely interested in the emancipation of women? Or were they just another tool innation-building? This paper will also look at the role that Phibun’s wife, La-iadPhibunsongkram, played in improving the status of women in Thailand. Dubbed a“renowned feminist” by Time magazine, she was her husband’s loyal ally in thewomen’s cause, founding women’s associations all over the country, writingnationalistic songs about women and started the tradition of Mother’s Day. The paper will conclude by assessing the longevity and impacts of Phibun’spolicies on women. 1
  4. 4. Winds of changeKing Mongkut The Three Seals Law in 1805 which stated that husbands and parents wereallowed to sell their daughters or wives like common property represented the heightin women’s subordination. When King Mongkut abolished this practice in 1867, itwas the first time women had a right over their body. Yet it was not known howeffective this prohibition was because common people were illiterate and did not learnabout laws. Education for women at this time was restricted to those in royal or noblefamilies and emphasised literature, cooking, sewing and arranging flowers. They werenot allowed to study much for fear that they would write love letters. It was also during this reign that the Westernisation of Thai society began.Victorian cultural attitudes to women were presented to Thai society as a symbol ofWestern civilisation (Suwadee 1993:2). Westerners held the opinion that Easternwomen were degraded and oppressed because of polygamy practices and the way inwhich Thai women dressed. So the king encouraged the women to don the more“appropriate” Western style of women’s dress instead of the traditional phachongaben and pha sabai. Furthermore, the Western community regarded their ownetiquette as evidence of the superiority of Western civilisation and as a symbol of the“high” status that Western society accorded to women, so Victorian social etiquette,such as public displays of honour towards women, was introduced to the Siamese elite.King Chulalongkorn The Westernisation process that began with King Rama IV was accelerated in thetime of King Rama V. During King Chulalongkorn’s reign, education was opened up 2
  5. 5. to non-royal women in the upper and middle class, and to a limited extent, those in thelower class. This was despite the king’s reluctance to give priority to women’seducation because of the limited budget. He purportedly once warned the Minister ofEducation: “The government’s revenue had better be used for boys’ education. Do notpromote girls’ education too much.” (Suwadee 1991:14) But Queen Saowapha, KingChulalongkorn’s wife, stepped in and provided the funds for various schools –including some for girls from the lower strata of society – of which the most famouswas Rachinee School, opened in 1904. The objective of the girls’ schools was not to educate women to compete withmen in professional careers but to produce efficient housewives. Hence, thecurriculum for boys and girls was different. Girls were taught domestic hygiene,needle skills, childcare, cooking and social etiquette and they had less lesson hours foracademic subjects such as arithmetic, science and languages than the boys. On theother hand, education for boys provided them with occupational skills because theyhad two years of training in some craft or trade that the girls did not have. Continuing from King Rama IV, upper and middle class women were encouragedto wear the Western-style blouse together with the traditional pha chongaben, as wellas white silk stockings and shoes (Suwadee 1993:5). Such a Thai-Western mixedcostume came to be regarded as the symbol of the modernised society which howeverstill valued some of its precious traditions. King Chulalongkorn was very particularabout how the women’s dressing represented the image of the country. He apparentlycomplained to the Minister of Local Administration, whose main duty was to lookafter various affairs in Bangkok, that whenever he hosted foreign royal guests, he wasvery ashamed by the sight of working class women walking around the city with their 3
  6. 6. exposed breasts. Later, the ministry decreed that everyone should cover their bodyappropriately when appearing in public areas (Suwadee 1993:8).King Vajiravudh Having spent 10 years overseas, King Rama VI felt that Thai women fell short ofthe benchmark set by Western women. With the Western image of Thailand being hismain concern, he strongly believed that to publicly reveal the pleasant personalities ofwomen was to indicate a society’s civilisation (King Vajiravudh 1918:518). Lookingat Thai women through Western eyes, the king thought that their appearance withshort hair, black teeth and trouser-like pha chongaben was unsightly. So he convincedthem to wear a skirt-like phasin, have long hair and polish their teeth white instead ofchewing betel nuts to blacken them. On social matters, he encouraged women toattend Western-styled parties with their spouses and associate more often with men byplaying sports and dancing in public. Such conduct was a cultural revolution at a timewhen “good ladies” or kulasatri were to be untouched by men. With nationalism a new policy in King Vajiravudh’s reign, he spelt out how thewomen, with their role as citizen and wife, could play a part. In a 1914 speech, he said,“The principal way in which women could exhibit their nationalism… was by doing agood job at their main work in the home. They should provide their husbands withhappy and comfortable surroundings so that the men could at work apply themselvesto their fullest capacities.” (Vella 1978:152) Education for women was given a boost when in 1921, the Compulsory PrimaryEducation Act was proclaimed with penalty for non-compliance (Onozawa 1999:16).Primary schools were built in every district. In Bangkok, secondary schools and 4
  7. 7. occupational schools were also established. A number of private schools for women,nursing schools and schools for women’s teachers were founded during this period.King Rama VI had wished to see Thai women more literate, educated and up-to-date.Post-revolution (1932 – 1937) After Thailand’s absolute monarchy was replaced by a constitutional one, Thaimen and women were given equal legal rights which allowed them to vote or to standfor election when the first election bill was passed in 1933. This was an advancedmeasure then because women in many other countries had yet to enjoy such aprivilege (Prathoomporn 1976:23). The legal status of women was further improvedwhen the Laws on Family and Succession in the Civil and Commerce Code outlawedthe long-standing polygamy practices in 1935. Under the new marriage registrationlaw, a man can have only one lawful wife. The community property must be sharedequally between the husband and wife upon the termination of their marriage (Unesco1990:5). The government also implemented compulsory primary education throughout thecountry in 1935. Both boys and girls had to have four years of compulsory educationand used the same curriculum, unlike in the days of the absolute monarchy. In thisway, Thai men and women began to receive modern education at about the same time,and the men could not monopolise the jobs among themselves like men in Europe.European men started their higher education long before women and tried to keepwomen out of their professions. That is why European women had to fight harderagainst discrimination before they could enjoy equal status and opportunity to men(Srisurang 1977:16). 5
  8. 8. Although these policies were put in place before Phibun became Prime Minister in1938, it should be noted that he played an active role in the People’s Party thattoppled the absolute monarchy in 1932. And as a Cabinet minister in the newgovernment, Phibun would undoubtedly have played a key role in the drafting andimplementing of these women-friendly policies.Phibun and La-iad – Biographical note It is beyond the scope of this paper to provide exhaustive biographical details ofboth Phibun and La-iad but it is important to highlight certain aspects of theirbackgrounds to help understand some of the policies or cultural mandates that wereintroduced. Phibun came from humble stock. His parents were durian growers and sellers.Born in 1897, he grew up under the reigns of King Rama V and VI, during whichWestern ideas and conduct were regarded as ideal. He managed to get admitted to theprestigious Infantry Cadet School on the coattails of a senior military officer that hisfather knew. In 1924, he left for France on a scholarship to further his studies inartillery for three years (Kobkua 1995:2). This was during a period of Westernsupremacy and it would not be far-fetched to guess that when young Phibun was inFrance, he would have been exposed to what was considered “civilised behaviour”and might have experienced first-hand the way Westerners looked down on Asians fortheir habits. As we would see later, the motivation behind some of his culturalmandates seem driven by the intense desire to match up to the Western powers andnot be despised by them. 6
  9. 9. La-iad, on the other hand, hailed from a upper-middle class family. Born in 1903,she was home-schooled by her father in Nakhon Pathom and was then sent to study inBangkok (Jayanta 1972:190). She had a relative in the palace whom she visited andstayed with regularly as a child. It is probable that she picked up ideas of Westernways and dressing during the visits to the court. After completing her education, shetaught in a missionary school for girls in Phitsanulok. It should be noted thatmissionaries then were the most active agents of Western civilisation due to theirconcern about linking Western civilisation with Christianity. The Victorian style ofwomen’s dress which covered women’s bodies from neck to toe was referred to bythe missionaries as “the robe of Christ’s righteousness” (Suwadee 1993:2). Hence La-iad’s ideas of “proper dressing” would have been further cemented during her time,first as a student then as a teacher, at the missionary school. It was at Phitsanulok that Phibun met and married La-iad. La-iad was only 14years old when she married Phibun in 1917. She wrote in her autobiography: “I didn’tfeel that I was too young. I was plump and was mature in my thinking andbehaviour.” (Jiravas 1997:9) She went on to become her husband’s personal secretary,trusted confidante and loyal ally in his policies.Circumstances surrounding Phibun’s premiership The policies that Phibun put into place were not made in a vacuum and could notbe discussed without considering the political and economic context at that time. One of the first things that he did when he became prime minister was to order thesweeping arrest of his political foes. After the execution of the leading conspiratorsand the passing of harsh sentences on the remaining 52 accomplices, Phibun and the 7
  10. 10. government no longer had political opponents of any standing to contend with. Yet heknew that it was not enough to weed out his political enemies; he needed to uproot thesemi-feudalistic and socio-political values of the Chakri Dynasty in the Thai psyche.Hence he embarked on a series of socio-cultural and, to a certain degree, economicreforms, which represented the most comprehensive effort ever undertaken by a post-1932 Thai leader to transform not only the physical and material aspects but, moresignificantly, the mind of the society as well (Kobkua 1995:103). It had beenexplained repeatedly that the purpose of the nation-building efforts was to turnThailand into a modern, progressive and civilised nation. Despite these altruisticreasons, the reforms were really launched first and foremost to ensure the ideologicaland political survival of one political system against another. The reforms were inessence a political war waged against the old regime for the support of the people andfor the control of their minds, without which the 1932 Promoters could neither hopeto flourish nor have their ideology accepted. Moreover, the Promoters’ right to rule was very much hinged on the success ofthe nation-building programmer. Politically, being newcomers in the ruling elitistcircle, they could not afford to be complacent in domestic or foreign affairs, as lack ofprogress or outright failure would only be used as evidence against their right to rule.Ideologically, success in undertakings both at home and abroad was needed tosubstantiate the Promoters’ claim of the ideological superiority of democracy overabsolute monarchy. Psychologically, Phibun and his government were ever-consciousof their responsibility to uphold and strengthen Thailand’s full sovereignty andindependence (Kobkua 1995:105). It goes without saying that there was a painfulneed for the fledgling government to gain respect and recognition from other nations, 8
  11. 11. especially Western nations which had been accustomed to dealing with the monarchyor the royalists after the revolution. Alongside the socio-cultural reforms, Phibun also pursued economic nationalismand encouraged Thais to buy and use only Thai products. It would be discussed laterhow the working place was opened up to Thai women in Phibun’s attempts to loosenthe Chinese grip on the economy. With the war in Europe breaking out within a year of Phibun becoming premier,he realised that Thailand was in need of well-trained manpower in many areas. Fromthe experience of the shortage of nurses during World War I, Phibun ensured that thepolicies on women emphasised training in medical care, nursing, Red Cross, GirlScouts’ activities, and women’s military training (Onozawa 1999:68).Phibun’s policies on women Phibun’s policies on women were part of the blueprint for his nation-buildingmission. Believing that “the exhibition of high culture by the people is one sure wayof maintaining the sovereignty of the nation”, he set up and became the president ofthe National Cultural Council which was divided into five bureaux: the Bureau ofCulture for the Mind; the Bureau of Culture for Customs and Tradition; the Bureau ofCulture for the Fine Arts; the Bureau of Culture for Literature; and the Bureau ofCulture for Women’s Affairs (Kobkua 1995:112). Women were encouraged to view themselves as important partners of men inbuilding the nation. Phibun once said in a speech, “Women are parts of the nation.Generally during a short visit, in order to see how developed the nation is, it can bejudged by looking at women’s development.” (Onozawa 1999:68) A number of 9
  12. 12. government organisations were established and assigned to be in charge of women’ssocial activities and welfare. Laws and regulations were enacted to support thegovernment’s policies related to women. Mass media owned by the government,particularly radio broadcasting, were used to propagate the new ideology. So women who used to be the “hindlegs of an elephant” according to an old Thaisaying and who used to devote their time to being a housewife was suddenly raised toan exalted level during the era of Phibun, all without the need for women’s lib as isapparent today. The government established a policy of raising the status of woman tothat of man and whatever the man could do, the woman must also be able to do. In thesame vein, a woman corps in the Army, as well as a women’s cadet academy and awomen’s non-commissioned training school were established. La-iad was the realforce behind the establishment of the women’s military corps and was herself giventhe rank of a lieutenant-colonel in the Artillery Regiment (Thamsook 1977:219). The government seemed to have a multi-directional policy about women’s socialand economic roles. Women in the upper socioeconomic class were encouraged toobtain higher education and work in the areas in which they were capable. The full-time housewives such as wives of government officers who attained high social statusby their husbands’ positions were requested to do social work helping the poor or toform associations and socialise with each other. The married women were asked tobear more children and were given education in childcare. The wives were told to takegood care of their husbands so that they could work efficiently. Women in the lowerstrata of society were advised to work in the proper careers for women. Yet at thesame time, all the women were told to beautify themselves in the Western fashion, tomake themselves pretty since women were “flowers of the nation” or dokmai khong 10
  13. 13. chart whose duties were to be beautiful and submissive wives and daughters, whocould give moral support to their husbands and fathers, whose duties were toundertake hard work (Onozawa 1999:68). Phibun’s policies really made the most impact during his first term as primeminister from 1938 to 1946. His leadership styles during the two terms at the top weremarkedly different. When he first took over the helm, he was only 41 years old,brimming with dynamic leadership and equipped with a grand vision which heimposed in a rather heavy-handed manner on the people. In his second term from1948 to 1957, he had mellowed into a cautious and realistic politician whose mainpurpose appeared to be none other than simply to survive. In his own words, he was achanged man, a result of being young no more, and his “blood has cooled down”through years of trials and tribulations (Kobkua 1995:25). Yet it was in his secondtenure that La-iad came to the forefront in her push for the betterment of women’sstatus. Her contributions would be discussed in a separate section.Women as mother of the nation While Phibun was in power, he extolled the virtues of motherhood, believing that achild’s future depended on its mother whose duty was to mould it from infancy into asuccessful adult. He once said: “Woman is the mother of every single Thai person, inevery way. For she is the mould from which every child inherits his characteristics.Whoever becomes a brave warrior is because his mother had so moulded him frominfancy. Whoever succeeds in business it is because the trait had been infused intohim from the cradle. Therefore Mother is undoubtedly the mould from which the 11
  14. 14. greatness of a nation must be built. Without a mould, we can never build Thailandinto anything…” (Thai Foreign Ministry’s Archives, 1943) But these beautiful words belied a national policy of population increase. Thepopulation then was about 15 million and Phibun aimed at a minimum of 40 millionin order to become a powerful nation. Women were encouraged to marry and havemore children. The government arranged group wedding ceremonies for people inBangkok and other big cities. Single men and women were encouraged to marryethnic Thais to thicken Thai blood. Movies were made by the government to admireThai women’s capability in domestic and public works. La-iad composed a number ofpoems and songs for Thai folk dancing, pleng ram wong, all praising Thai women fortheir kindness and beauty. The Department of Public Health was founded in theMinistry of the Interior in 1941 to take care of mothers’ and children’s health. TheMinistry of Public Health was established in 1942. Hospitals and public health clinicswere founded in many areas in Bangkok and other provinces. Midwife trainingcourses were opened. Social workers and midwives were delivered to rural areas bymobile clinics. People were taught modern knowledge of childcare and child-rearing.Women’s status as mothers was highly recognised and a National Mother’s Day wasfounded on March 10, 1943. Celebration of the day was held in central provinces ineach region. Mothers with the highest number of children alive would be awarded(Onozawa 1999:71).Women as symbol of civilisation Phibun’s idea of what Thai women should look like was similar to King RamaVI’s belief – they should dress in Western styles, sport long hair, stop chewing betel 12
  15. 15. nut, as well as wear hats shoes. This was unsurprising, given that Phibun grew upduring King Vajiravudh’s reign. Where they differed was that while the King stronglyencouraged the people to conform to these dress codes, Phibun made it a law thatpeople had to obey. The government also prescribed disciplinary action for those whorefused to cooperate or who violated the regulations on the new style of dressing. Hence the entire issue of dress became a political tool in Phibun’s hand. Hebelieved that if the people were dressed properly, it would prevent Thailand frombeing colonised and losing its sovereignty: “Proper attire is a positive way to maintainthe independence of the country. If we wore only dirty rags or had no proper garments,others would certainly look down on us. It would also offer them excuses to interfere[in our affairs] on the pretext of introducing us to civilisation.” (Kobkua 1995:109)Explaining why Western-style dresses were preferred over the traditional costumes,he reasoned that the pha chongaben should be neglected because of its similarity tothe dress of people in Cambodia, which was a French colony then. Thus, it was notsuitable to be the dress of the Thais who should be proud of their independence(Suwadee 1993:9). The enforcement of the dress codes became even stricter as the conflict withFrench Indo-China drew closer in 1941. Thailand was negotiating with France andBritain in order to reclaim territories ceded to them between 1904 and 1909, whichincluded the provinces of Siem Reap and Battambang in Cambodia, the two regionson the right bank of the Mekong River adjoining Laos, and Kelantan, Trenganu andSaiburi, the northernmost provinces of Malaya (Bangkok World, 1971).Reprimanding his compatriots for their unbecoming habits of appearing in the publicnot properly dressed, Phibun said: “The French could very well say that if this is what 13
  16. 16. we are, how dare we demand for the return of the territory. It’d be more appropriatethat [the territory] remain under their rule. They at least can keep it clean andhygienic.” (Kobkua 1995:115) It was also around this time that the slogan “Hats will lead Thailand to Greatness”was coined (The Royal Gazette, 1943). Despite the strangeness of wearing a hat formost of the population, it took off quite well among the young ladies but backfiredamong the old. The government once approached Queen Sawang Wattana, a consortof King Rama V, to allow herself to be photographed wearing a hat as an example tothe public. She snapped back: “Today I am hardly myself anymore, now you are eveninterfering with my head. No! If you want me to put on a hat then cut my head off andput the hat on by yourselves.” (Sompob 1973:371). Hence, measuring up to western standards of civilisation became the main plankin Thai policy as the country fought to maintain international respect and sovereignty.And it was not just about conforming to the standards of dressing, but also to theWestern standards of social etiquette and family life. Husbands were ordered tohonour and respect their wives. They were required to kiss their wives before going towork and on returning home after work, to show their appreciation (Kobkua1995:127). The National Cultural Council even issued marriage advice for couplescalled “Husband and Wife Culture” or wattanatham pau mia. By using a combinationof Buddhist dharma, psychology and life experience, it was recommended thathusbands should behave towards their wives in the following ways: − Honour her as a wife − Refrain from looking down on her − Refrain from mental cruelty 14
  17. 17. − Allow her rule of the house − Allow her to dress as she wishes. (Thamsook 1977:220) The Office of the Prime Minister also issued a decree reminding the men that thepractice of wife-beating as though their wives were slaves of lowly lackeys was ashameful and immoral act likely to bring dishonour to the country. Besides, it was acrime according to the law and the man may be punished by up to 10 years’ jailwithout exceptions (Thamsook 1977:219). This was certainly a far cry from the pastwhen it was the norm for husbands to mete out corporal punishment on their wives forthe slightest mistake made. The rules were even stricter for husbands in government service. Any civil servantwho had a quarrel with his wife without good reason was subject to disciplinaryaction. They also had to be the role models of monogamy. In order to protect the only-one registered wife policy, the following rules were issued to male governmentofficers: 1) To always honour his wife in the status of wife 2) To take care of his wife and children properly, cannot abandon them 3) To live with his wife, cannot abandon or divorce her without proper reason (Nanthira, 1987)Government officers who broke any of these three rules were to be punished; themaximum punishment was to be fired. Adultery was strictly prohibited under Phibun’s leadership. A law prohibitingadultery was issued among the government officers. Even novels were thoroughlyexamined – the married male characters were not allowed to flirt with other women 15
  18. 18. and not allowed to think of having an affair because it was against morality and couldbreak the family life (Onozawa 1999:72).Women as workforce Traditionally, there had not been many opportunities for women to work outside,other than in the agricultural sector. Their main role was to stay at home and lookafter their husband and children. But with Phibun’s aggressive nation-buildingpolicies, it was announced that “every able-bodied person must work”. It was furtherstated that those “who take up no occupation… neglect their duty in assisting…national progress do not deserve to be held in respect by the general public” (Barmé1993:152). Hence women from every strata of society discovered that the workingplace was now open to them. The shortage of intellectuals and professionals in many fields opened the doors tohigh-level jobs for women graduates, many of whom were appointed to significantpositions in education, medical science and public health. To encourage women towork with the government, the Civilian Official Act was amended in 1939 to hirecapable persons without consideration of gender. The Day of Women GovernmentOfficers was founded on February 1, 1943 (Onozawa 1999:69). However, limitationsfor female officers were specified. They were not allowed to: − Work outside governmental offices − Work at night − Engage in dangerous and tough work − Work in a foreign country(Sathien, 1940) 16
  19. 19. Despite the limitations that hindered promotion, this was an important step in Thaiwomen’s career change. The term “government officer” or kha rajakan means theperson who works for the king. So being a government officer in Thai society was notonly very prestigious in the old days but also powerful and wealthy. Besides, theopportunity was usually limited only to male descendants of the nobles of royal blood.Under the constitutional monarchy of the 1940s, governmental work providedprestige, high salary, security and many fringe benefits that were rare among jobs forwomen. Hence, this could even be termed a career revolution for women (Onozawa1999:69). Public services were the new area cultivated for urban women in the middleeducational level. Tourism in Thailand was officially supported and promoted byPhibun’s government then. As a model of service jobs for women, two governmentalhotels Rattanakosin and Suriyanon were built in 1943, and women were employed foralmost all positions, mostly clerical work (Pramuanwan, 1943). As for women with little education, Phibun was trying to convince them to giveup agricultural work for jobs in the manufacturing or service industries. Showing hisdisapproval with women in labour-intensive work, he said: “Nowadays, there aremany kinds of work that women should not do, such as digging, cracking the rocks,carrying water buckets and so on. These are heavy work for men, not for women.”(Public Relation News 1937:243) To encourage them to try out the new jobs, picturesof women at work in the cotton factories, toy factories, handicrafts factories andinstant food factories were widely advertised by the government. Some occupationaltraining courses such as cooking and dressmaking were offered to women bygovernment organisations. At the same time, skilled female labourers were protected 17
  20. 20. by a law issued by the government in 1942 which reserved 27 occupations for Thainationals. They were: making Buddha images; selling Buddha images; cuttingfirewood; selling firewood; making charcoal; selling charcoal; making water bowls;selling water bowls; making rubber oil; selling rubber oil; making torches; sellingtorches; making and selling bricks; making women’s hats; making women’s dresses;dyeing work; weaving household utensils except for mats; making lacquer ware;making inlay work; carving Thai patterns; alphabet proof; making firecrackers;making toys; making umbrellas; hair dresser; lawyer; and barber (Royal Decree1942:1221). The government wanted to transfer these jobs to non-agricultural Thaiworkers. Half the occupations were considered especially suitable for women. It wasalso known that the not-so-hidden agenda behind getting the urban women to workwas to eliminate the increasing of Chinese participation from business as much aspossible. The Chinese were prohibited from producing and monopolising somemerchandises and businesses such as tobacco, salt, swallows’ nests, and forestry(Ronnachit 1991:49).Women’s issues as human rights issues The mid-1950s marked a rise in interest in human rights issues around the world.Concern about the treatment of women also took centrestage in the United Nationsactivities. In its drive to become a respected member of the international community,the Phibun government enthusiastically involved itself in the UN and Thailand was ahive of UN activity then. UN organisations working in Thailand by that time includedthe Economic and Social Council for Asia and the Far East (Ecafe), the Food andAgriculture Organisation (FAO), the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef), the World Health 18
  21. 21. Organisation (WHO), the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation(UNESCO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) (Jeffrey 2002:18). In 1954, Thailand signed the Convention on the Political Rights of Women ofthe United Nations (Jiravas 1997:84). The year 1949 marked the first time in Thaipolitical history that women directly participated in politics at the national level. Inthis year, Mrs. Orapin Chaiyakorn, a wife of a famous member of parliament, ranagainst her husband for the same office and won, hence the first Thai female MP.Also in the same year, two other women were appointed senators (Orapin 1998:15).La-iad herself served twice in the National Assembly – once as an appointed Senatorand then as an MP for Nakhorn Nayok province.La-iad’s contributions La-iad was, first and foremost, her husband’s most loyal supporter. She wasalways ready to pitch in to help make Phibun’s policies a success. When Phibunelevated the status of mothers in Thai society, La-iad was the one to start Mother’sDay. In fact, it was La-iad who chose the jasmine flower to be used for children toshow their appreciation to their mothers (Jiravas 1997:105). Or when Phibun wastrying to convince the women to wear hats, La-iad became the leading light of the hat-wearing campaign, making it look chic and fashionable. When the Department of Social Welfare was short-staffed in the provincial citiesand towns, La-iad rallied the wives of male officers to volunteer their help in socialwork. Phibun suggested this alternative because he felt that “the work of thedepartment of social welfare is a woman’s work, similar to child-rearing, it has to befinished and domineered.” (Onozawa 1999:72). Hence Phibun left it to his wife, who 19
  22. 22. was the president of the Bureau of Culture for Women’s Affairs, to organise theofficers’ spouses into groups. Apparently, during Phibun’s tenure, the wives of thehigh-ranked officers were very active in voluntary social work under La-iad’sguidance. In Bangkok, many women’s associations were also formed. Since then,voluntary social work has become a traditional activity of wives of high-rankingofficials, especially the military officers. La-iad went on to found a school of socialwork and introduced courses for the training of social workers under the auspices ofthe bureau. It was only in 1954 that the faculty of social welfare science was set up inThammasat University to take over the task of training qualified social workers(Kobkua 1995:139). As the president of the women’s bureau, La-iad helped set up women’sassociations all over the country – one in each province – which were also affiliated tothe General Federation of Women’s Clubs in the United States. The main aims ofthese clubs were to improve the welfare of women, develop their potential and tochampion their rights. La-iad’s many projects delved into every aspect of a woman’slife – education, home-making skills, financial know-how, hygiene, marriage relations,childcare and etc. She taught the women to know what their rights were and wasresponsible for starting women labour unions and getting the women to join them sothat if a member dies, the family can get 500 baht (Jiravas 1997:55). She alsoprovided free vocational training, such as weaving, hair-dressing, tailoring andcooking. More importantly, she was slowly transforming the mind of the women inThai society. She showed them that women did not have to be confined to beingdomestic creatures whose knowledge stopped at the four walls of the house. Instead,she encouraged the housewives to meet together, discuss current affairs, increase their 20
  23. 23. general knowledge and even engage in voluntary social work. That was how La-iadexpanded the horizon of the Thai women, who previously had very narrow mindsets. After founding the various women’s clubs, La-iad was instrumental in formingthen into a federation that is the present-day National Council of Women, which givesthe women more leverage in pushing for greater equality in Thai society. Her work inthis area won her the election to the presidency of the World Federation of UnitedNations Association for two terms, thus putting Thailand on the world stage.Legacy of Phibun’s policies on women Women’s traditional role had always been that of mother and wife. But Phibun’spolicies widened that role by putting women on equal standing with men. Nowwomen are no longer just ignorant housewives – they have the opportunity to meet upwith other women, gain knowledge, engage in social work and work outside. And interms of work, Phibun has opened up the economic sphere for the women, who couldwork only either as slaves or in the agricultural sector in the past. Now, they can gethigh-paid government jobs or even join the army. The most obvious and long-lasting impact that Phibun had on Thai women isprobably in terms of the Western styles for dressing. Except for hat-wearing, the dresscode was a resounding success. The government managed, within a very short period,to transform the ‘exterior’ of Thai society through its modern dress campaign. Sincethe war years, an average Thai citizen would sport a pair of trousers, a shirt, and shoeswhen in public while his female compatriot would don a skirt or pha-nung, a blouse,and shoes. The ‘irregularities’ of Thai dressing of the pre-dress code period becamethe regular wear of the post-war Thai society. Gone forever from public view were the 21
  24. 24. pha chongaben, Chinese trousers, bare torso and undergarments. Phibun wassuccessful in inculcating a sense of pride among his compatriots over their publicappearance. The triumph of the new dress code alone enabled him to achieve acomplete break from the Siam of the absolute monarchy days.Conclusion Phibun’s policies on women, no matter how philanthropic, were never made inisolation or a vacuum. The policies were always made to accommodate the concurrentmain policies, Westernisation, economic nationalism and the preparation for war. Inthe preceding sections, we had seen how he encouraged women to work at the sametime that he was trying to loosen the Chinese grip on the economy. He extolled thevirtues of motherhood at the same time that he wanted to increase the Thai population.He wanted women to wear hats at a time when he was pursuing his irredentistambitions, hence coining the slogan, “Hats will lead Thailand to greatness”. Moreover, Phibun’s attitudes towards women and his ideas on how they shoulddress and behave were not even new. The leaders before him – King Chulalongkornand King Vajiravudh – have long expressed similar sentiments. But where theydiffered was that while the kings cajoled their subjects to adhere to the preferredstyles of dressing and behaviour, the prime minister opted for force. While he did notoriginate new ideas, he used what was already present, took it to the extreme, andimposed the policies on the entire populace so that everyone in Bangkok, and not justthe upper class, was affected by this particular form of Westernization/modernisation. Were Phibun’s motives behind the women’s policies noble or self-serving? Itwould be difficult to deduce an answer. To borrow a quote from famed Chinese leader 22
  25. 25. Deng Xiaoping: “No matter if it is a white cat or a black, as long as it can catch mice,it is a good cat.” Hence, in spite of the excessiveness of the efforts designed to raisetheir status, Thai women do owe their social liberation to the draconian measureslaunched by Phibun. His campaign had made it possible for them to participate in thenational, economic and social affairs of the nation. 23
  26. 26. REFERENCESB. Punyaratabandhu (1971) ‘Attaining civilization by decrees,’ Bangkok World, 21 August 1971.Barmé, Scot (1993) Luang Wichit Wathakan and the Creation of a Thai Identity. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.Department of Public Relations, Thailand (1941) Speeches of General Phibun. Bangkok: Klangwittaya Publisher.Jeffrey, Leslie Ann (2002) Sex and Borders: Gender, national identity and prostitution policy in Thailand. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.Jiravas Panyarachum (ed.) (1997) Thanpuying Pibunsongkram. Bangkok.King Vajiravudh (1918) “Women’s status is the symbol of civilisation”, Witthayachan 18:10 (15 May 1918).Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian (1995) Thailand’s Durable Premier: Phibun through three decades, 1932-1957. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.Nanthira Kamphibal (1987) Policy on Thai Women during the Period of General Pibunsonkram 1938-1944, M.A. Thesis. Bangkok: Thammasat University.Onozawa, Nitaya (1999) Thai Women: Changing status and roles during the course of Thai modernisation. Tokyo: Tokyo Kasei Gakuin Tsukuba Women’s University.Orapin Sopchokchai (1998) ‘Women’s political participation in Thailand’ in: Tony Allison and Ryratana Suwanraks (eds.) TDRI Quarterly Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, December. Bangkok: Thailand Development Research Institute.Prathoomporn Vajrasthira and Thongtip Ratanarat (1976) Thai Women. Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University.Ray, Jayanta K. (1972) Portraits of Thai Politics. New Delhi: Orient Longman.Sathien Lailak (1940) Collections of Annual Legislation, Vol. 53 (Laws of 1940).Sompob Chandaraprapa (1973) Somdej Pra Si Sawarinthira (Queen Si Sawarinthira). Bangkok.Srisurang Poolthupya (1977) The Changing Role of Thai Women. Bangkok: Thammasat University. 24
  27. 27. Suwadee T. Patana (1991) ‘Thai society’s expectations of women 1904-1935: An approach to women’s history’. Paper presented at the 12th IAHA Conference in the University of Hong Kong, 24-28 June.— (1993) ‘The politics of women’s dress in Thai society 1945-1970’. Paper presented at the 5th International Conference on Thai Studies at SOAS, London, 24-28 June.Thamsook Numnonda (1977) ‘When Thailand followed the Leader’ in: A Collection of Articles by Thai Scholars. Bangkok: The Social Science Association of Thailand.The Business and Women Association of Thailand (1985) The Women of Thailand. Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University Press.UNESCO (1990) Status of Women: Thailand, RUSHSAP Series on Monographs and Occasional Papers No. 26. Bangkok: UNESCO Principal Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.Vella, Walter F. (1978) Chaiyo! King Vajiravudh and the Development of Thai Nationalism. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii. 25