180th Meeting – February 1999
“Women and NGOs in
A talk by LeeRay Costa
Your convenor writes: As no summary was written at the time, and LeeRay’s notes for her talk have long since disappeared, this summary for the talk is based on an essay LeeRay wrote in 2008 which covers all of the same material from her 1999 talk and more.
June 2008, Vol. 32, pp. 215 – 238
Gender, Sexuality and Nationalism in a Northern Thai Non-governmental Organisation
LEERAY M. COSTA*
LeeRay: Mae, if you asked yourself the question, ‘‘who am I?’’, how would
. . . for me
. . . I am a
If I answered
I [would say]
I am a
should do something for Thai people.
the late 1990s I conducted
Here I examine nationalist discourses provoked by processes of globalisation, including the Asian economic crisis, and how they found their way into the practices and discourses of PFT members. Speciﬁcally, I consider nationalist rhetoric found in the implementation of PFT’s Routes and Futures Project aimed at eliminating child prostitution2 in the north. Of particular interest is the ‘‘overt gendering’’ (Stivens, 2002) and sexualising of this nationalist rhetoric, its convergence on the bodies of
? 2008 Asian Studies Association of
rural/village female youth, and the implications of this nationalism for Thai women’s citizenship.
My interest in nationalism is largely a result of what I encountered in the ﬁeld, while my particular treatment of it responds to theoretical calls voiced ﬁrst by feminist scholars such as Nira Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias (1989), Deniz Kandiyoti (1991) and Anne McClintock (1993), and more recently in the case of Thailand by historian Craig J. Reynolds. Citing the work of Hobsbawm (1983), Gellner (1964) and Anderson (1991), McClintock notes that while ‘‘the invented nature of nationalism has found wide theoretical currency, explorations of the gendering of the national imaginary have been conspicuously paltry’’ (1993, p. 61). Kandiyoti, Yuval-Davis and Anthias convincingly demonstrate that frequently ‘‘national identity and cultural diﬀerence are articulated as forms of control over women . . . which infringe upon their rights as enfranchised citizens’’ (Kandiyoti, 1991, p. 429). Yuval-Davis and Anthias outline ﬁve major ways in which women tend to participate in national and ethnic processes, three of which are central to my discussion:
as reproducers of the boundaries of ethnic/national groups;
as participating centrally in the ideological reproduction of the collectivity and as
transmitters of its culture;
as signiﬁers of ethnic/national diﬀerences – as a focus and symbol in ideological
discourses used in the construction, reproduction and transformation of ethnic/
national categories (1989, p. 7).3
These calls by feminist scholars
and the gendered and sexualised nature
has been analysed in numerous Asian contexts including
New studies on Siamese and Thai nationalism emerging in the 2000s have begun to rectify this oversight in the literature, and this essay contributes to this vital body of work. Andrea Whittaker’s (2000; 2001; 2004) ongoing research on women’s health has examined how state policies on reproduction and family planning not only focus solely on women’s bodies, but also perpetuate hierarchies between urbanites (Central Thai) and villagers (ethnic Lao) as part of a broader program of national development. Megan Sinnott’s (2004) study of female same-sex relationships demonstrates how ‘‘discourses of ‘homosexuality’’’ have been deployed in state rhetoric to indicate ‘‘social decay’’ of the Thai nation. More pertinent to the topics raised here is the work of Tamara Loos and Leslie Ann Jeﬀrey. Loos’ (2006) historical study privileges an analysis of Siamese family law during the reigns of King Rama V (1868–1910) and Rama VI (1910–25) to illuminate how Siam negotiated its own form of modernity and nationhood. Loos eﬀectively demonstrates how the sexual behaviour of male government oﬃcials came under increasing scrutiny and discipline as the merits and legal status of polygyny were debated, while the category of ‘‘wife’’ became redeﬁned to include only ‘‘honourable’’ women characterised ‘‘in opposition to ‘prostitute,’ ‘harlot,’ and ‘mistress’’’ (2006, p. 149). Legal reform around family law resulted, Loos argues, in establishing men as ‘‘citizens of the nation’’ and women – through their relationship to men – only as ‘‘wife, mother, daughter, and so on’’ (2006, p. 151), a notion of citizenship that reverberates into the present. Jeﬀrey has explored the relationship between Thai nationalism and the evolution of prostitution policy with an emphasis on the latter half of the twentieth century. She argues that over the past one hundred years, the image of the Thai prostitute has been used repeatedly by government oﬃcials, activists, policymakers and others to regulate women’s sexual behaviour, and to signify both the borders and ‘‘decline of the Thai nation’’ (2002, p. 37).
Building on this scholarship, this essay interrogates the gendered and sexualised nature of contemporary Thai nationalism, while simultaneously shifting attention to what might be perceived as an unlikely context, a nongovernmental organisation. This is because NGOs, in their association with ‘‘civil society’’, have often been deﬁned as oppositional to the state and its nationalist projects. Acknowledging NGOs as a key site where nationalist discourse may not simply be rejected but be negotiated and even actively reproduced emphasises that NGOs should be examined more carefully for their conservative tendencies and relations of power (Fisher, 1997), and as a critical location for gendering and sexualising bodies in relation to projects for national development. Furthermore, critical, detailed studies on the inner workings of Thai NGOs – especially those involving gender and youth, and those active during the cultural and political shifts of the late 1990s – remain limited.4 Nerida Cook’s (1998) work is notable for its analysis of NGO work by middle-class Thai women. She focuses on the roles gender, class, education and geographic location play in NGO discourse and practice in two prostitution elimination projects. Though brief, Cook’s article persuasively argues for attentiveness to the cultural and intersectional politics that shape Thai NGO activities. The present study seeks to further address Thai NGOs from an ethnographic and feminist perspective.
a brief discussion
of late 1990s
The period 1997–2000,
I conducted this
a tumultuous time
due to the Asian economic crisis,
the baht and the Thai government’s
take on an IMF loan in the amount of US$17.2 billion. Although
a long history,
in the late 1990s they were often characterised
of such processes and as threats both to
Anxieties around these real and imagined threats were expressed in a heightened nationalist fervour evident in public discourse as it circulated in the national media; for example in product advertising (Jory, 1999), Tourist Authority campaigns (Reynolds, 2001, p. 254) and newspaper articles and cartoons (Figure 1).
Mai and other provincial
in 1998 Thai Rak Thai [Thai Love Thai] further reveals
at the time. This nationalist enthusiasm
Buddhist temples in order to shore up the nation’s foreign exchange reserves (Kasian, 2001; Klima, 2004). According to Klima
Stressing both valued Buddhist sentiments of ‘kindness, compassion, and generosity’ (metta), and nationalist sentiments of ‘love for the nation’ (khuam rak chaad), Luangta and Thai-Help-Thai turned some traditional practices for generating Buddhist-oriented sentiments in merit-making toward new aims, creating a kind of voluntary taxation that was at the same time a religious observance’’ (2004, p. 449).
Klima provides a vivid description of ‘‘merit-making ceremonies to save the nation’’, which included merit-making trees of money (both baht and dollars) and ‘‘the added touches of a Thai national ﬂag and a photo of Luangta with the King on his knees’’ (2004, p. 450). Klima states that Luangta’s Thai-Help-Thai campaign raised over two tons of gold and more than 200 million baht (US$ 5 million). However, he also notes that this sum did ‘‘not even come close to ﬁguring 1 percent of the debt’’ (2004,
and an encroaching Western
for Thai ‘‘culture’’
what was occurring in the Thai context in the late 1990s, much energy was spent debating the moral transgressions of
– in newspapers,
on TV, in government and NGO meetings, for example – expressed
of youth drug addiction,
While living among the
The Project for Tomorrow
a small organisation
Mai in northern
The organisation’s president is Mae Somjit, a woman in her late ﬁfties. Until 1998, the NGO oﬃce was located in Mae Somjit’s living room, but a large grant (discussed below) allowed her to build a separate oﬃce on her family property, fully equipped with a computer and fax machine. Mae Somjit was married to Pho Pattana, a retired civil servant. Although Mae lacked formal education she was an accomplished businesswoman and hers was one of the more wealthy households in her village. Mae’s status as a rural leader was accomplished through years of participation in the Village Housewife Association and her leadership in establishing a community-run day care centre in her area. These experiences led to her role in PFT, and to invitations to participate in other NGOs and organisation networks. Participation by Mae Somjit (and occasionally other PFT members) in a variety of meetings and conferences organised by Thai scholars and women’s groups (such as the Center for the Advancement of Lanna Women, and the Friends of Women), and funded by foreign agencies (such as Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Asia Foundation),7 provided additional circuits for the movement of nationalist and culturalist discourses.
PFT works mainly with lowland Thai and is not involved in ethnic minority issues.
In the past, PFT has focused on village income-generating projects,
in local politics, children’s
but has also been the recipient of grants from foreign funding agencies
and Thai NGOs. These include Redd Barna (
When I began ﬁeldwork, PFT had just received a grant
of 1.3 million baht (approximately US$35,0008)
(POY) to conduct a two-year
was the largest PFT had ever received, and some members voiced concern that the donor’s expectations
might be too high for this small organisation.
POY is an international
The goals of PFT’s Routes and Futures9 project were stated as follows in organisation documents written for POY:
. 1 To prevent children from entering prostitution in the province.
. 2 To create new values for children, family, and community so they can better protect themselves from exploitation.
. 3 To strengthen the children’s network in the province by supporting vocational training, cultural development, and organisational development through the resource centre.
. 4 To raise awareness and mobilise volunteers, local scholars, people’s organisations and other concerned organisations to participate in solving children’s problems (POY Document, p. 1).10
To achieve these objectives, PFT proposed a series of 25 activities spanning two years. Activities were conducted in three separate districts [amphoe] and more than 20 villages and targeted over 1,200 young people between the ages of nine and eighteen. Activities included youth seminars, local career groups, career-oriented ﬁeld trips, northern Thai music classes and English classes.
Although PFT’s project was ostensibly aimed
at all ‘‘youth’’,
that PFT primarily targeted
was in part a result of how the so-called ‘‘prostitution problem’’
The following excerpt from a PFT document details PFT members’ underlying assumptions about the Thai ‘‘prostitution problem’’ and its perceived connection to globalisation. The document reads:
Today, children’s families in the countryside are in economic crisis. This has caused hardship and collision with materialist values. Changes in culture cause the deterioration of ethics and violence from drug addiction. This causes children to have the wrong attitudes and values, and puts them at risk of entering the commercial sex trade and covert forms of prostitution (PFT Document, 31 May 1998).12
The text makes salient connections between economic crisis, materialism, cultural change and perceived immoral behaviour such as prostitution. PFT’s Routes and Futures project reﬂects and engages with larger national fears about the unequal and complex manifestations of capitalist development and the transformation of rural Thai culture, including gender and sexual relations. Here state and NGO discourses merge in their common aim to deﬁne ‘‘Thainess’’ as morally and culturally superior to the foreign ‘‘other’’.
The argument that follows draws upon ﬁeldwork, numerous interviews and questionnaires, as well as the analysis of NGO documents and publications written primarily for funding agencies, government bodies, PFT members, and participants in the Routes and Futures project.
NGOs, Nationalism and the Boundaries of ‘‘Thainess’’
by the donor as aiming to eliminate child
prostitution, I argue
that PFT members had other goals that were intimately shaped
a larger and
in the ‘‘community culture’’
what it means to be Thai [khon Thai] and especially northern Thai [khon meuang]. The emergence of the community culture
part of the twentieth century reveals
and Thai culture, strategic
in an era when boundaries, national
for many ‘‘the primordial
to be identiﬁed with the nation, that is, with what it is to be Thai’’ (1996, p. 289).13
of PFT support this claim as members work the slippage between village
such as northern Thai music, weaving and dress, as symbolic of ‘‘Thainess’’.
is no ‘‘typical’’
Central to PFT’s development
not only appropriate sexual
also how Thailand should
what it means to be ‘‘Thai’’
in the IMF era. In their attempts to manage female bodies, PFT members focus on three intersecting axes
1) Thai youth as national resources;
2) the importance of economic self-reliance;
and 3) normative sexuality
Each of these axes engages broader
This theorisation of bodies and discipline derives from the work of Michel Foucault and his notion of ‘‘bio-power’’, which he deﬁnes as ‘‘the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations’’ for various purposes (1990, pp. 140–41). Here, the body – both individual and social – is understood as a template upon which speciﬁc historical and cultural contingencies, discursive regimes, as well as relationships of power are inscribed as a means of social control (Ong and Peletz, 1995, p. 6). Foucault argues that the body as an ‘‘inscribed surface of events’’ can be traced through attention to discourse (or ‘‘genealogy’’) (1984, p. 83), and the ‘‘micro-physics’’ of practice. In my analysis of the convergence of nationalist rhetoric with NGO discourse and practice, I show how the bodies of young village women become potent sites for a nationalist reinscription of Thai culture and development (including ‘‘traditional’’ gender roles), the reassertion of national boundaries in an era of globalisation and, consequently, the limitation of women’s rights as members of the nation.
Youth as National Resources
Implicit in PFT eﬀorts to discipline female youth are notions of Thai youth as a ‘‘national resource’’ [saphayakon khong chat] that must be properly ‘‘developed’’ [phathana]. This politicised focus on children and youth is one instance of a more pervasive global discourse linking development, youth and NGOs evidenced in the work of international agencies such as UNICEF. PFT members assert that ‘‘the children of today will be the adults of tomorrow’’, and argue that Thai people must pay attention to the dreadful problems currently confronting Thai youth. One PFT document states that ‘‘[t]he problems of children are problems that will go away only slowly. If we do not conduct this project, [these problems] will have eﬀects on society, the family, the community, and the nation in the long run’’ (PFT Document, May 1998, p. 3). Similarly, PFT president Mae Somjit asserts that by raising the awareness of children, they will become an ‘‘important strength of the nation in the future’’.
The identiﬁcation of Thai youth and moral behaviour with the nation was especially apparent in the country’s ‘‘National Children’s Day’’ [wan dek haeng chat], held each year on 9 January. To mark the occasion in 1999, PFT organised an event in the district centre along with housewife groups, children’s centre leaders and government oﬃcials. PFT, the only NGO present, set up an exhibition displaying the organisation’s work, and conducted games for children. Sixteen boards explained PFT’s community development work with youth and described problems such as drug addiction and prostitution. Presentation photos oﬀered an idealised picture of Thai youth in their neatly pressed blue mohom shirts14 seated around their music teacher, Lung Lanna. Such images reinforce national ideals of discipline [winai], cleanliness [khwamsa’at] and order [kanrabiap].
These national themes were explicitly stated on one of PFT’s poster boards, illustrated with nine photos and nine mottoes. Some of the text reads:
. 1 Believe ﬁrmly in the nation. Thai children should believe ﬁrmly in the institution of the nation, i.e. nation, religion and the monarch as the leader of a democratic governing system.
. 2 Conduct yourself as a good child of the nation. Thai children should receive training to conduct themselves as those with goodwill towards helping the public and developing the nation to progress.
. 3 Preserve traditions and culture. Thai children should be supported in preserving national customs, traditions, and culture, e.g. making merit by giving alms, respecting elders.
. 4 Help develop the collectivity. All children should receive training to help each other develop the nation as a whole and help each other care for and preserve the cleanliness and tidiness of the country.
These mottoes indicate not only the expectations of Thai youth, but also how such expectations will serve and sustain the Thai nation through individual and collective forms of national identity.
However, these expectations are also profoundly gendered. ‘‘Conduct[ing] [one]self as a good child of the nation’’ means something diﬀerent for boys and girls, and men and women, who are not only expected to enter into public life in varied ways, but also occupy positions of national subjectivity quite diﬀerently. A cursory look at Thailand’s national leadership reveals that men dominate public positions of inﬂuence and power while women lead in more local contexts (e.g., village and district bodies) and indirect ways (as the wives, mothers and grandmothers of male leaders). Likewise, ‘‘preserv[ing] traditions and culture’’ has largely been assumed to be the province of women rather than men, a practice readily demonstrated by members of the nation-wide network of Village Housewife Association [klum mae ban] groups. Scholars have observed this tendency cross-culturally, and argue that during moments of vast social change – such as postcolonial movements, nationalist projects and globalisation – women’s practices and bodies become potent sites for cultural struggle and the maintenance of national boundaries (Kandiyoti, 1991; Parker et al., 1992; McClintock, 1993; Mayer, 2000; Chatterjee, 1989).
Debates over women’s dress are a case in point. PFT members criticised young women’s fashions because they interpreted them as negating Thai tradition and as indicative of the Western values of materialism and consumption. As Mae Somjit told a visiting Nepalese Minister of Parliament, ‘‘[w]e want to prevent [children] from adopting modern styles of dress. This local dress is appropriate for our area, for our lifestyle. We want to create new social norms and values in our children so they won’t spend so much money’’.15 In fact, several older female PFT members made a concerted eﬀort to wear northern-style clothing made from locally produced fabrics during PFT activities in order to act as ‘‘role models’’ for Thai youth, who typically dressed in neatly pressed t-shirts and jeans.16 Female PFT members’ interest in ‘‘traditional’’ locally produced clothing was no doubt genuine, although it certainly reﬂected broader popular regional discourses on the ‘‘local’’ that celebrated northern Thai culture, food, music, art and textiles. In one meeting with funding agency representatives, male PFT member Chatchai asserted that ‘‘[t]here is this problem of fashion magazines which are dangerous because they advertise expensive handbags which cost 10,000 baht’’. PFT members disapproved of these fashions because they saw them as another impetus for young women to enter into prostitution. According to members’ logic, many young women engage in prostitution not because of poverty, but because it will allow them to earn enough disposable income to purchase the symbols of Western modernity and globalisation that are promoted in the Thai media (Mills, 1999; Jeﬀrey, 2002). More importantly, the adoption of Western dress by young Thais indicates to PFT members not only a corrupting foreign inﬂuence, but also a breach of national cultural diﬀerence.17
Signiﬁcant however is the lack of attention paid by PFT members to male dress or how young men’s consumption practices (e.g. of foreign products such as alcohol, cigarettes and motorcycles) may also contribute towards challenging Thainess and its boundaries. This suggests a gendered double standard, not unlike that found in the realm of sexuality, which I discuss below. It also indicates that young women experience more oppression than young men in terms of personal autonomy and agency, a fact that has serious implications for women’s ability to fully participate as citizens in a democratic society.
One of the centrepieces of PFT’s Routes and Futures Project was the ‘‘local careers’’ or ‘‘income-generating groups’’ for youth to raise chickens and ﬁsh, make organic fertiliser, and spin and weave cotton. These activities had several goals. First, they were intended to prevent migration to the cities for work as the economy shifted from subsistence agriculture towards export-led industrialisation. PFT members told me that Thai youth no longer believed farming was a viable or desirable form of employment, and this had led to a rise in urban migration. PFT members believed that, by providing job alternatives, they might ‘‘change attitudes toward work in the local area and oﬀer alternative approaches to work’’ (Routes and Futures chart, n.d., p. 11). According to PFT members, the goals of the local careers project also included ‘‘to make people have faith in and care for [agricultural] production so that they can depend on themselves’’ (Routes and Futures chart, n.d., p. 11), and to help children ‘‘accept a way of life in line with social values and local culture that they will be proud of’’ (PFT Summary Report, June-August 1998, p. 5). PFT’s local careers project critiqued globalisation and responded to images perpetuated by some state actors and capitalists that portray the Thai agricultural and/or village lifestyle as ‘‘backward’’ or ‘‘behind the times’’ (Mills, 1999).
PFT members promoted sustainable subsistence agriculture and handicraft production as necessary steps towards economic self-reliance [pheung ton eng] and cultural pride. For example, PFT hired several village weavers to teach young girls to spin and weave cotton. Mae Somjit told girls that by learning to weave they could ‘‘help their mothers’’, contribute to the family’s income, and preserve Thai culture. Boys were excluded from PFT’s weaving activity because members assumed they would be uninterested in weaving since it is typically deﬁned as an activity for women. In the north,
One boy who expressed interest in learning weaving was initially ridiculed and accused of being a kathoey before being accepted into the group. A past PFT project for adult village women had demonstrated that by weaving on looms of their own, women could engage in productive work without leaving the home. Handicraft work enabled women to remain in the village while still earning cash for the family and fulﬁlling their reproductive and virtuous roles as housewives and mothers.18 This arrangement supported PFT members’ assumptions about the role of women as good mothers and citizens, and the role of the family in preventing the spread of globalisation summed up in the PFT statement that ‘‘the warm family can prevent child prostitution’’19 (PFT Document, p. 11), ideas also promoted by the Committee for the Promotion of the Welfare of Women and the National Council on Women’s Aﬀairs (Jeﬀrey, 2002, pp. 68–73, p. 135).
PFT’s construction of village women as good citizens, mothers and labourers perpetuates an existing village/national gender ideology while allowing it room to conform to the current economic needs of individuals and the nation at large.
Women are expected to be the transmitters of
and its negative eﬀects
on Thai communities entail
work. By valorising local
In the late 1990s, self-reliance became
force in 1997 in King Bhumipol’s
in which he supported the notion of a self-suﬃcient
denotes a ‘moral
economy’ . . . applied
not just to the individual and family, but to the nation as a whole’’ (2000, p. 285). The irony is that
Sexuality and Morality
The emphasis on Thai village practices extends beyond the economic and into the realms of sexuality and morality. As Jeﬀrey (2002) argues, it is village women who are so often held up as symbols of Thainess and the nation. In the case of PFT, this is represented through the discipline of young rural women’s bodies. PFT members identiﬁed new sexual behaviours among village youth that I mentioned above as evidence of globalisation’s ‘‘threat’’ to Thai culture.20
For clariﬁcation purposes, ‘‘sex’’ and ‘‘sexual’’ are deﬁned here as erotic behaviour between two (or more) people as deﬁned by those engaged in the practice. The meaning of sex is best understood within speciﬁc cultural, historical, moral and economic contexts. Hence, in the contexts of which I speak, sex is understood to be intimate behaviour between individuals of the opposite sex, especially intercourse. However, as PFT members talked about the sexual behaviour of Thai youth during PFT meetings and activities, the meaning of the term often expanded to include even kissing and touching. Therefore, ‘‘sex’’ must be seen as a contested concept within Thai society and especially within the context of NGO development work. It is also important to note that I focus primarily on heterosexual practices in relationship to national identity, since PFT members operated on the assumption of compulsory heterosexuality and any mention of homosexuality made them uncomfortable.21
As Mae Somjit told me on numerous occasions:
with the adoption of Western culture
have sex before they should’’ (PFT Document, May 1998, p. 3). During one PFT seminar for youth leaders, member Udom asked teens to examine Thai newspapers
out that many farang saw
In order to prevent undesirable changes among Thai youth, PFT members aimed to re-form them into moral exemplars. This was done by controlling social and sexual interaction between young men and women and narrating moral tales to youth about the inappropriateness, physical danger and social unacceptability of premarital sex and prostitution. PFT members were scandalised, for example, when they discovered that during an overnight NGO activity for rural youth, a teenage boy and girl had been observed kissing and sneaking oﬀ together. Several people told me that this was exactly what they were working so hard to eliminate.
Another practice used by PFT members included telling village youth stories about prostitutes and the bad things that happen to them. Young people were shown a video entitled Sut Sai Ban (Fulﬁlling Your Potential) with this theme, and PFT members also utilised a storybook (created by an international NGO) called ‘Selling your daughter to the city’ [khai luksao khao meuang]. These stories highlight the dangers inherent in women’s transgression of spatial, moral and sexual boundaries. The ﬁrst page reads (Figure 2) ‘‘Women sell their bodies to many men’’. The question on the back asks ‘‘Young women who sell their bodies must have many husbands of many tribes [phao], many nations. Is this good or not?’’ It is important to note that the images of men represented in this picture actually refer to
Figure 2. ‘‘Women sell their bodies to many men.’’
a range of nationalities and
The answer reads: ‘‘It’s not good because women who sell their bodies [khai tua] are likely to be looked down on. The villagers won’t accept them because it brings deterioration upon themselves, their parents, siblings and the village’’.22
of Thai society. Inevitably,
for her moral and national transgressions.
woman or prostitute is considered promiscuous,
of the family, home and nation – for as the picture graphically illustrates,
in her work, further emphasising the
role of women’s bodies in national boundary maintenance.
wife and daughter (
Similar to the situation described by Loos, there is an elision in PFT members’ discourse between
the one hand, and prostitution on
– all forms
p. 396). Hence, all sexual behaviour
by young women outside marriage gets deﬁned as ‘‘prostitution’’.
has the eﬀect of recasting women
who may be exploring their emergent sexuality – and
sex for money – as immoral ‘‘prostitutes’’
not ﬁt to participate in national belonging. This
I mentioned above
and then home with men for sexual relations.
PFT and other NGO members I met insisted that these young women were engaging in ‘‘covert’’
or ‘‘clandestine prostitution’’
However, I wonder
if these young women may simply be engaging in temporary sexual relations
as a way to explore their independence
in a rapidly
and not participating in
of sex for money. With the increasing globalisation
of mass media, young women are learning that ‘‘being sexual is being modern’’ (Warunee,
2002, p. 164; Mills, 1999), and this creates havoc for ‘‘traditional’’
The topic of agency raises additional questions in my analysis of PFT discourse and practice. How did village youth respond to PFT eﬀorts? Did they acquiesce? Did they rebel? Because my research focused mainly on PFT members and their interactions with agents of development, funding organisations, state oﬃcials and project targets, I paid less attention to young people’s responses to PFT ideologies and practices. However, village youth were not passive in this process. Despite PFT’s focus on ‘‘traditional’’ meuang culture and values, youth actively engaged with PFT projects and members, and derived their own meanings in the process. For example, many young people participated in PFT activities because they wanted to improve their English through the free classes taught by myself and my partner, at Mae Somjit’s request. While these classes were meant to be the proverbial carrot to get students involved in the local career groups, they did operate paradoxically to challenge PFT’s more conservative and nationalist messages, as our topics drew mainly from popular culture and media, and represented young people’s desire to be ‘‘up-to-date’’ and modern. Learning English oﬀered students peer acceptance, inﬂuence, and pleasures associated with Western modernity. That students sought to resist PFT’s traditional messages was proven by their tendency to sneak oﬀ after class without attending the local career group meetings. The Routes and Futures Magazine, which was still in its initial stages when I completed ﬁeldwork, was another venue through which village youth could express their own views on social problems, albeit under the editorial eye of Mae Somjit and other PFT members. Finally, as the example mentioned above demonstrates, young people were actively pursuing intimate relationships with one another, despite the negative messages put forth by the NGO. Like younger generations in many cultures, Thai youth were attracted to the foreign and modern in ways that both validated PFT members’ fears and reinforced their eﬀorts to ‘‘protect’’ Thai culture.
It is not insigniﬁcant, however, that for PFT members moral and sexual self-control was an issue only for young women, and not for young men. Boys and men remain an undeniable absence in PFT discourse and were numerically far less represented in PFT activities, despite the fact that PFT claims to assist all youth, and despite the fact that without men the market for prostitutes would largely disappear. PFT’s long-term practice of providing educational scholarships to young rural girls (since they lack access to free Buddhist education like boys) meant that PFT did have a pre-existing group of female youth readily available. However, I believe that PFT’s emphasis on female youth is more than simply practical. PFT members’ tendency to focus on female behaviour reﬂects a hegemonic approach to prostitution and female sexuality as social problems that places responsibility on girls and women and supports the existing sex/gender system in Thailand, notwithstanding eﬀorts by urban, middle-class feminists to implicate Thai men. Ultimately, boys and young men in PFT projects were allowed continued freedom to pursue their desires – sexual and otherwise – while the moral integrity of young women became a deﬁning feature of both local and national ‘‘tradition’’ and national integrity. This gender-blind approach of PFT members reinforces a historically entrenched double standard for male and female sexual behaviour (Loos, 2006; Barme´ , 2002; Darunee and Pandey, 1987) and male dominance at the expense of female agency evident elsewhere in Thai society (Khin Thitsa, 1983; 1980) and Asia more broadly (Jolly, 2001, p. 15). Women should be modest, sexual only within the bonds of marriage, and keepers of Thai tradition to responsibly protect, represent and develop the nation. The discourses and practices of PFT and the national rhetoric that PFT relies upon and perpetuates reveal quite explicitly the ways in which women’s bodies symbolise national integrity and the boundaries of Thai culture. More importantly, PFT’s approach to the development of rural communities raises critical concerns about women’s claims to citizenship in the modern Thai nation.
Both ‘‘civil society’’ and NGOs have captured the attention of scholars and activist intellectuals,
Connors (2003), for example, has skilfully analysed the changing NGO landscape in Thailand during
the rise of civic politics based on local knowledge and wisdom in the 1980s and 1990s. He explores the complex and contradictory
NGOs and other political
well as the common people. Yet studies of NGOs and civil society in the Thai context are largely plagued by a gender blindness
of these concepts/ social
the ways in which they potentially
as well as ethnic, racial and religious minorities.
of Thai nationalism as it intersects with hegemonic notions of development, and
(and the groups that maintain them) may become vehicles for the circulation
but also that development
work may generate forms of gendered and sexual subjectivities in
Here, a small,
that on the one hand sought to challenge hegemonic forms
of male privilege through
observed a similar
women as passive, docile
in the new international
p. 61). The contradictory
Another irony present in PFT’s work is that while PFT members readily voiced angst over a globalising modernity, they simultaneously embodied that modernity in their roles as developers [nakphathana] and community leaders [phunam chumchon] participating in the thoroughly modern, global social formation of the NGO. Participation in NGO work oﬀered PFT members unique forms of power and prestige in the village context, especially middle-aged village women with relatively low levels of education and little access to political networks that have historically been the domain of men. By participating in NGO work, PFT members could pursue modern identities for themselves, including middle-class aspirations and desires for respect, seniority and prestige.24 PFT members asserted that they sacriﬁced [siasala] for the ‘‘common good’’ [suanruam], the ‘‘community’’ [chumchon] and the ‘‘nation’’ [chat]. However, these assertions rested upon a dichotomised view of NGO workers as ‘‘having knowledge’’ [mi khwarmru] and village youth (read female) as ‘‘lacking knowledge’’ [mai mi khwamru] and needing help and protection [tongkan pongkan, tongkan chuay]. This framework echoes how elite Thai women in the 1960s and 1970s constructed themselves as the ‘‘ultimate arbiters of tradition and cultural identity’’ (Jeﬀrey, 2002, p. 32). Jeﬀrey writes that ‘‘having established the peasantry and peasant women as symbols of national culture, this discourse silenced their political and social agency and their voices; however, it granted agency to the elite women who could guide peasant women into the modern era’’ (ibid). Consequently we must ask exactly who is being empowered in NGO development work and at whose expense? And what unwitting roles may NGOs and NGO workers play in perpetuating not only conservative but oppressive nationalist, cultural and economic ideologies?
what are the implications
to thank Craig Reynolds and Geoﬀ White, as well as Maila Stivens and two anonymous ASR reviewers, for providing critical feedback.
I thank those
. 1 Names of organisations and individuals used in this article are pseudonyms unless otherwise noted.
. 2 In this article I use the terms ‘‘prostitute’’, ‘‘prostitution’’ and ‘‘child prostitution’’ rather than ‘‘sex worker’’ or ‘‘commercial sex work’’ when referring to the work of NGOs such as PFT. ‘‘Prostitute’’ [sopheni] and ‘‘prostitution’’ [kankaitua] were the terms most commonly used by the NGO members that I discuss here, and reveal the problematic discourses of morality and identity that I analyse. See Kempadoo (1998) for an extended critical discussion of these terms.
. 3 The other two include: as biological reproducers of members of ethnic collectivities; as participants in national, economic, political and military struggles. On the former see the edited collection by Jolly and Ram (2001).
. 4 Important contributions include Jaturong and Gawin (1995), Humphreys (1999), Costa (2001), McCargo (2002), Delcore (2003), Shigetomi et al. (2004) and Missingham (2002; 2003; 2004). A broader discussion of the diverse ﬁeld of Thai NGOs and their connection to Thai politics is beyond the scope of this article. See Connors (2003) and Gohlert (1991).
. 5 The Thai word farang refers speciﬁcally to white Western/European ‘‘others’’.
a comparable situation
. 7 These are the actual names of these organisations.
This is based on an exchange rate of 37 baht to one US
dollar. Prior to
. 9 POY and Routes and Futures Project are pseudonyms that seek to capture the meanings in the actual project names.
. 10 This is POY’s English translation with minor grammatical changes.
. 11 Although historically the word kathoey was applied to both men and women who crossed gender boundaries, today the word is typically used to describe a man who dresses and/or lives like a woman, and who prefers to have sex with gender-normative men. See Costa and Matzner (2007).
. 12 Translations from Thai are mine unless otherwise noted.
. 13 Reynolds (1991, p. 18) and Jeﬀrey (2002, Chapter 3) make the same point.
. 14 Indigo blue mohom shirts often signify rural peasant culture, especially in the north. However, many civil servants in the north also wear these shirts to work and so they may doubly signify association with the Thai nation-state.
. 15 Despite Mae Somjit’s village status, she was expert in handling visits from foreigners, as she had been doing so for many years.
. 16 The northern-style clothing worn by female PFT members was more typical of the middle or upper class than the rural area, and reﬂected the trend I observed during local, regional and national women’s meetings where women wore (and compared) their best ‘‘traditional’’ clothing, calling to mind eﬀorts by Queen Sirikit to promote local handicrafts including handmade Thai textiles. Jeﬀrey argues that the National Council of Women in Thailand (NCWT), in addressing the problem of prostitution, drew on the ‘‘powerful symbolism of the queen’’ who in her promotion of local handicrafts ‘‘fused’’ rural and national identity in opposition to ‘‘the foreign and urban’’ (2002, pp. 66–67).
. 17 Jeﬀrey oﬀers numerous examples including reference to a story by Suchit Wongthes in which a woman’s ‘‘looseness’’ and immorality are indicated by the stretch pants she wears (2002, p. 44).
. 18 Humphreys argues that this practice, which she also observed in ThaiCraft, returns women to the patriarchal control of home and village (1999, p. 61).
. 19 To the contrary, anthropologists argue that it is precisely devotion to parents [bun khun] and younger siblings that often compels young women to engage in prostitution in order to remit money home. See Wathinee and Guest (1994, p. 7), Pasuk (1982) and Muecke (1992).
. 20 Many Thai people argue that ‘‘traditionally’’ Thai culture values women’s virginity before marriage but not men’s. Northern Thai spirit practices concerning sexual relations between unmarried individuals provide some evidence for this argument. However, some scholars have argued that the moral loading of women’s virginity is an eﬀect of middle-class ideologies of domesticity and motherhood in the context of twentieth-century capitalism. Whether particular sexual practices are ‘‘cultural’’ or not is in fact dependent upon speciﬁc historical and political contingencies.
. 21 For a discussion of ‘‘homosexual’’ practices in relation to Thai national crisis see Sinnott (2004).
. 22. The image and accompanying text call to mind a 1770s royal proclamation in the Three Seals Laws analysed by Loos that ‘‘prohibited Thai, Mon, and Lao women, but not men, from engaging in sexual relations with men who adhered to other religions’’ (2006, p. 36). In the decree, women should not have sexual relations with ‘‘khaek [could mean Muslims, Middle Easterners, and/or South Asians], French, British, khula [Thai Yai or Shan], or Malays’’ (2006,
. p. 36). Similarly, Jeﬀrey cites a statement by student activists in the 1970s denouncing ‘‘‘hired wives’, prostitutes and half-breed children of all colours’’ (2002, p. 45). In both historical and contemporary periods, the purity and sexual behaviour of women is critical to preserving the status of women, their families and the nation.
. 22 See work cited in footnote 4 as well as Reynolds (2001), Ratana (1999), Thirayut (1993).
. 23 As mentioned above, Nerida Cook (1998) examines the intersections of class and gender in the work of several Thai women’s NGOs focusing on prostitution. Her descriptions of how some educated/middle-class women approached prostitution among rural (and by implication,
relatively uneducated and lower-class) women echo the discourses and practices of PFT members. Cook concludes that ‘‘Thai middle-class women depict themselves as the prostitutes’ saviours; as substitutes for the moral guardians a materialistic and venal world has failed to provide for young peasant women’’ (1998, p. 278).
Anonymous (1998) Will the ‘western god’ hear what Tarrin has to say? The Nation, 25 January.
Imagined communities: Reﬂections on the origin and spread of
Christina and Andrea
Bertone (2002) Addressing the sex trade in
, Scot (1993) Luang
Wichit Wathakan and the creation of Thai identity (
, Scot (2002) Woman, man,
4 December 1997.
for life and new theory (Phrarachadamrat
ti 4 Thanwakhom
pi 2541 lae tritsidi mai (
Colonialism, nationalism, and colonialized women: The contest in
Chatthip Nartsupa (1991) The community culture school of thought, in Manas Chitakasem and Andrew Turton (eds), Thai constructions of knowledge, pp. 118–41 (London: University of London).
Chirot, Daniel and Anthony Reid, eds. (1997) Essential
and Jews in the modern transformation
Asia and Central Europe (
Cook, Nerida (1998) ‘Dutiful daughters’, estranged sisters: Women in Thailand, in Krishna Sen and Maila Stivens (eds), Gender and power in aﬄuent Asia, pp. 250–90 (London: Routledge).
Contested nationalism and the 1932 overthrow of the absolute monarchy
a northern Thai
LeeRay and Andrew
Matzner (2007) Male bodies, women’s souls: Personal narratives of
Darunee Tantiwiramanond and Shashi Ranjan Pandey (1987) The status and role of Thai women in the pre-modern period: A historical and cultural perspective. Sojourn 2(1), pp. 125–49.
Henry D. (2003) Nongovernmental
the work of memory in northern
Kevin (2000) Spectacular
sexuality: Nationalism, development and the politics of family planning
You take the good and leave the rest behind: Northern
Fishel, Thamora F. (1999) Romance of the sixth reign: Gender, sexuality, and Siamese nationalism, in Peter A. Jackson and Nerida M. Cook (eds), Genders and sexualities in modern Thailand, pp. 154–67 (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books).
Fisher, William F. (1997) Doing good? The politics and antipolitics of NGO practices. Annual Review of Anthropology 26, pp. 439–64.
Michel (1990) The
history of sexuality, Volume 1: An introduction, trans. R. Hurley (
Ernest (1983) Nations and nationalisms (
Ernst W. (1991) Power
and culture: The struggle against poverty in
Heng, Geraldine and Janadas Devan (1995) State fatherhood: The politics of nationalism, sexuality, and race in Singapore, in Aihwa Ong and Michael Peletz (eds), Bewitching women, pious men: Gender and body politics in Southeast Asia, pp. 195–215 (Berkeley: UC Press).
and the cultural development
Kevin (2000) Resisting
globalisation: A study of localism in
Eric and Terence
Ranger, eds. (1983) The invention of tradition (
Skilled craftswomen or cheap labour? Craft-based NGO projects as an
to female urban migration in northern
and Gawin Chutima, eds. (1995) Thai NGOs: The continuing struggle for
Leslie Ann (2002) Sex and borders: Gender, national identity and
Jolly, Margaret (2001) Embodied states – Familial and national genealogies in Asia and the Paciﬁc, in Margaret Jolly and Kalpana Ram (eds), Borders of being: Citizenship, fertility, and sexuality in Asia and the Paciﬁc, pp. 1–35 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press).
Margaret and Kalpana
Ram, eds. (2001) Borders of being: Citizenship, fertility, and
Asia and the Paciﬁc (
Jory, Patrick (1999) Thai identity, globalisation and advertising culture. Asian Studies Review 23(4), pp. 461–87.
Kandiyoti, Deniz (1991) Identity and its discontents: Women and the nation. Millennium 20(3), pp. 429–43.
Katrak, Ketu H. (1992) Indian nationalism, Gandhian ‘‘satyagraha’’, and representations of female sexuality, in Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer and Patricia Yaeger (eds), Nationalisms and sexualities, pp. 395–406 (London: Routledge).
and Jo Doezema (eds), Global sex workers: Rights,
Thitsa (1983) Nuns,
mediums and prostitutes in Chiangmai: A study of some marginal
women. Occasional Paper No. 1 (
Alan (2004) Thai love Thai: Financing emotion in post-crash
Tamara (2006) Subject
Siam: Family, law, and colonial modernity in
McClintock, Anne (1993) Family feuds: Gender, nationalism and the family. Feminist Review 44, pp. 61–80.
Mary Beth (1999) Thai
women in the global labor force: Consuming desires, contested selves (
Missingham, Bruce (2002) The village of the poor confronts the state: A geography of protest in the Assembly of the Poor. Urban Studies 39(9), pp. 1647–64.
Forging solidarity and identity in the Assembly of the Poor: From local
struggles to a national social movement in
Bruce (2004) The Assembly of the Poor in
movement (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books). Mulder, Niels (1997) Thai images: The culture of the public world (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books).
Aihwa and Michael Peletz,
eds. (1995) Bewitching women, pious men: Gender and body politics in
Andrew, Mary Russo,
Doris Sommer and Patricia Yaeger, eds. (1992) Nationalisms and
Piriyarangsan and Nualnoi Treerat (1998) Guns, girls, gambling, ganja:
Peletz, Michael G. (1995) Neither reasonable nor responsible: Contrasting representations of masculinity in a Malay society, in Aihwa Ong and Michael Peletz (eds), Bewitching women, pious men: Gender and body politics in Southeast Asia, pp. 76–123 (Berkeley: UC Press).
Craig J. (1991) Introduction:
and its defenders, in Craig J. Reynolds (ed.),
and its defenders:
Craig J. (1994)
Predicaments of modern Thai history.
Craig J. (1998) Globalization
Reynolds, Craig J. (1999) On the gendering of nationalist and postnationalist selves in twentieth-century Thailand, in Peter A. Jackson and Nerida M. Cook (eds), Genders and sexualities in modern Thailand, pp. 261–74 (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books).
Craig J. (2001) Globalisers
Craig J. (2002) Thai identity
in the age of globalization, in Craig J. Reynolds (ed.), National
Craig J. (2006) Seditious
Thai and Southeast Asian
Grass-roots development in rural
Alternative development strategies, NGOs and the environment in
Back to the roots: Village and self-reliance in
a Thai context
NGO way: Perspectives and
Toms and dees: Transgender
Craig J. Reynolds (ed.),
and its defenders:
The hope of the nation: Moral panics and the construction
Streckfuss, David (1993) The mixed colonial legacy in Siam: Origins of Thai racialist thought, 1890–1910, in Laurie Sears (ed.), Autonomous histories, particular truths: Essays in honor of John Smail (Madison: University of Wisconsin, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Monograph No. 11).
of rural development, in
of rural and environmental
Philip Guest (1994) Prostitution in
Empowerment or control? Northeast Thai women and family planning, in
Jolly and Kalpana Ram (eds), Borders of being: Citizenship, fertility,
sexuality in Asia and the Paciﬁc, pp. 203–31 (
Abortion, sin and the state in
David K. (1982)
Nira and Floya Anthias, eds. (1989) Woman-nation-state (