Calls to end sexual assault and harassment of women are surging in Thailand as more than a dozen women have accused a high-profile politician of sexual abuse, triggering what some are calling the country’s first #MeToo movement.
Prinn Panitchpakdi was until recently touted as a “rising star” of Thai politics. But the 44-year-old resigned as deputy leader of Thailand’s Democrat Party on April 14 after an 18-year-old woman accused him of sexual assault. Two more women subsequently came out with similar accusations, and on Saturday Prinn was detained on three separate charges of sexual harassment. He denied the allegations, and was freed on $20,000 bail on Sunday.
But a dozen more women have since accused Prinn of sexual assault, and by Wednesday Sittra Biabungkerd, a lawyer for pro bono group the People's Lawyer Foundation, said he was representing a total of 15 survivors who have filed either sexual harassment or rape charges.
The latest accusations, which emerged on Wednesday, were levelled by an anonymous 30-year-old socialite who said Prinn assaulted and tried to forcibly kiss her at a condominium in 2008.
Police investigators have found a common thread among the women’s allegations, according to Nimit Noponthong, a colonel from Bangkok’s Lumpini police station. Prinn would allegedly invite the women to his condominium to talk business, and then assault or rape them. Some of the women reported having been drugged, Nimit said.
The victims’ lawyer Biabungkerd said the survivors, of which five say they were raped, were aged between 17 and 30 when the assaults happened. He told VICE World News that Prinn “has threatened victims in the past,” leaving many reluctant to come forward until now.
“Many of the victims of Prinn have previously been too frightened to come forward due to Prinn’s father being a high-profile, powerful politician in Thailand,” Biabungkerd said, adding that more still are too afraid to press charges.
“Since the first accuser, an 18 year old victim, came forward earlier this month, it has prompted other victims to now have the courage to speak out and seek justice for the crimes committed against them.”
“It’s corruption—corruption in [Thailand’s] justice system. Maybe he has someone who can talk to the police.”
Prinn, who was appointed deputy leader of the Thai Democrat Party in 2019 despite having no political experience, is the son of former World Trade Organization chief Supachai Panitchpakdi, who is also a former deputy prime minister of Thailand.
A British-educated former investment banker, Prinn also reportedly faced rape and false imprisonment charges when he was living in London in 2003. It is unclear whether he stood trial, though unverified reports suggest his victims were paid to withdraw their charges.
Activists say the case is typical of many in the country, where wealthy and powerful men get away with their crimes by paying off their victims for their silence. Action over Prinn’s alleged predatory nature, they add, is long-overdue, with stories of his sexual misconduct circulating for decades.
“It’s corruption—corruption in [Thailand’s] justice system. Maybe he has someone who can talk to the police,” Angkhana Neelaphaijit, a human rights expert and the former commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, told VICE World News. “Many people were angry, including me.”
The hashtag #MeToo has grown on Thai social media as people have expressed outrage over the allegations against Prinn, as well as impunity surrounding cases of sexual assault in the country, where a culture of paying off victims prevails among powerful and wealthy men.
Previous iterations of the movement, including a 2019 hashtag #donttellmehowtodress, have gained some traction in Thailand, but never fully taken hold.
“When #Metoo happened in many countries, many colleagues asked me why #MeToo is so silent in Thailand,” Angkhana said. “From the victims’ side, when fighting with the high-profile people, it is very hard for them… Thai women don’t want to complain to the police because of the burden of proof for the victims.”
“But I think that [the accusations against Prinn] might spark the new generation.”
The learning curve may have been long, but activists are attributing the groundswell of support for #MeToo to younger Thais who find it unacceptable to sweep sexual abuse allegations under the rug. “The new generation, they are growing up, and they understand the concept of consent,” Angkhana said. “Thailand is learning about consent and the rise of women’s rights.”
This week, Democrat Party leader Jurin Laksanawisit, Prinn’s close associate, issued a public apology—a rare instance of accountability in Thai politics. “I am deeply sorry and must apologize for everything that has happened that was linked to a Democrat Party member,” Jurin told reporters on April 19.
“As a party leader, I must acknowledge that I was a key part in an effort to bring Prinn into the party.”
Jurin has since stepped down as head of two government committees on gender equality and policies on women. He said the party—the country’s oldest and part of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s ruling coalition—would not shield Prinn from investigation, and would carry out its own probe into the allegations.
Lawyer Biabungkerd says that he is confident of the court being “able to see the pattern of behaviour that has occurred” between Prinn and his victims. He is hopeful Prinn will be brought to justice, particularly due to the strength of evidence in the case of the 18 year old woman.
“The alleged crime was committed on the 11th of April , and the crime was reported the very next day on the 12th of April,” he told VICE World News. “We were able to obtain CCTV footage, as well as a witness statement from a taxi driver who drove the victim home after the crime occurred.”
Whether Prinn will be held accountable remains to be seen. But with him and his party facing unprecedented backlash, maintaining this momentum is key for many activists.
“We do need the #MeToo movement in Thailand,” Angkhana said. “Even today, you can see that many people on social media put posts blaming victims… In Thailand we need to confront the old traditions and attitudes of the people.”
This story has been updated to include comments from lawyer Sittra Biabungkerd.