Thai opposition member Pannika Wanich has experienced “all kinds of harassment”, from online attacks to body shaming and hate speech.
But the 32-year-old’s experience is becoming increasingly common, according to a new report from regional group the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), which places the harassment in a broader campaign to shut down critical voices of authoritarian regimes.
In Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, women elected to parliament with opposition parties have been targeted with online sexual harassment, fake news stories and explicit content.
“They effectively devalue and reduce me to a fashion icon more than an MP,” Pannika, whose popular Future Forward Party was dissolved earlier this year in a controversial court decision, told VICE News.
Philippines opposition Senator Leila de Lima, a staunch critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, has been vilified on social media, with the president himself openly discussing her private life. De Lima has been languishing in jail since 2017 for what she called trumped-up drug charges.
APHR said those susceptible to attacks tend to be more vocal on particular issues such as women’s rights, or be part of the opposition, or belong to a minority group. It said the threats are shrinking the space for women’s participation in politics by normalizing sexist behavior and encouraging others to follow suit.
Thirty-year-old Sarah Elago, one of the youngest lawmakers in the Philippines, became a subject of a fake sex video that circulated on several websites in 2019. She has filed a complaint with the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation but has yet to hear back.
“These misogynistic attacks come straight from an authoritarian playbook. Not only does it draw attention away from youth and people’s concerns, it also attempts to discredit dissent and vilify protest, thereby further threatening civil liberties and democracy,” Elago told VICE News.
Elago’s party members and other activists experienced being “red-tagged” or linked to Communist organizations. Several government agencies including the police have posted graphics branding them as enemies of the state.
For Pannika, the best way to fend off harassment, which she says has also affected the emerging cohort of female student protest leaders, is to speak out and share their stories.
“The most powerful action against this harassment is speaking out and not to be silenced. And I ask all female protesters and student leaders to do the same, to not be afraid, to continue speaking out, to not be ashamed. The ones who are doing this should be the ones who are ashamed,” she said.
APHR also noted increasing attacks against opposition lawmakers through a wide-range of tactics which includes politically-motivated cases, stripping parliamentarians of their seats, and surveillance, among many others.
Researchers of the report sent letters to the governments of Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines highlighting their findings but have yet to hear back.