The brutal rape and killing of a 13-year-old schoolgirl on the Surat Thani-Bangkok overnight train has shaken Thai society to its core. Nong Kaem (not her real name) was on her first train ride on Sunday, July 6, and was reported missing from a sleeper car by her sisters, who were also on the train.
Nong Kaem’s naked body was found near the train tracks in the morning of Tuesday, July 8th. A suspect was arrested—a 22-year-old state railway employee who confessed to raping and strangling her and throwing her body off the window of the moving train. (See a detailed report by CNN.)
Shocked, horrified and enraged by this heinous crime, many Thais lashed out at the culprit, loudly calling for capital punishment for the rapist-killer. Amid intense public pressure, the governor of State Railway of Thailand (SRT) was fired by the military government.
Society’s strong emotional reaction is natural; anyone with a heart would feel affected by such a tragedy. Once the rage cools, will this unforgivable crime become another case in the growing pile of similarly unforgivable crimes until the next such crime occurs?
Horrific as it was, we should put Nong Kaem’s tragic rape and murder in context. It was only the latest in a long series of acts of sexual violence committed against children and young women in Thailand. Only the most horrific cases such as this one occasionally cause a national outcry.
In the picture above: Men seen on Bangkok’s sky train holding a placard that reads: “We ask our brothers and friends in prison to take care of those infernal animals who raped and murdered for us. Give them the best you’ve got. –Give the bastards death–” (Source: https://twitter.com/nest3d/status/486800816775245824/photo/1)
Thai anger at sexual violence against children has been growing in recent months and boiled over in this case. The rape and murder case of 11-year-old Nong Pleng by her neighbor in early May, 2014, remains fresh in memory. That case occured only 10 days after another 13-year-old was raped and killed by her uncle-in-law.
According to Eaklak Lumchomkhae (@EakMirror) of Mirror Foundation’s Missing Persons Center, the past 18 months has seen at least eight high-profile cases of rape and murder of children aged 13 and younger. Five of those cases involved children aged four to seven — all but one were female.
A change.org campaign calling for mandatory capital punishment for rape and murder of children and women without sentence reduction, parole or pardon collected more than 45,000 signatures by Saturday, July 12. However, many are not making any distinction between rape and rape and murder, and call for death penalty only for all rapists.
This has sparked an intense debate on Thai social media. Demands for an-eye-for-an-eye justice have been fierce and louder, but calm voices also have called for the exercise of emotional restraint and a more careful examination of the multiple dimensions of the problem. A parallel campaign calling for media to stop normalizing and glorifying rape, especially in Thai TV dramas notorious for scenes of rape of the heroine by the hero, is catching up from a slow start, gathering more than 17,000 signatures by last Saturday (by Wednesday, July 16, it went up to over 23,000 signatures, while the campaign calling for mandatory capital punishment for rapists-murderers started to stall at 46,000 signatures).
Those calling for death penalty only for child rapists and rapists/murderers argue that it will deter future rapes, while opponents point to the lack of credible evidence that capital punishment works as a deterrent. There is also the global trend in abolishing capital punishment — Thailand is among the shrinking minority of countries in the world (58 countries) where the death penalty is still legal. Many fear possible adverse effects such as a potential greater danger for rape victims to also be murdered to cover up the crime. The unreliable Thai justice system also increases the possibility that an innocent person will be wrongly accused, forced to confess by police and executed without due process (see Khao Sod English editorial.)
A closer look at the present case will find more causes of rape and murder than weak legal punishment.
1. Punishment for rape in Thai law – Currently penalties for rape of an adult person and for statutory rape of a child under the age of 15 are four-20 years imprisonment, and seven-20 years or life imprisonment if the victim is under the age of 13. For aggravated child rape by more than one person, the penalty is life imprisonment. For child rape resulting in serious injuries, the punishment is 15-20 years or life imprisonment, and if resulting in death, death penalty or life imprisonment.
The last time a child rapist/murderer was executed in Thailand was in 1999. It is true that in many cases of rape, the culprits — if they are arrested and tried — are typically given a lengthy prison sentence, but the sentence is rarely served as sentence reduction by the court, and on auspicious occasions, and the parole system combined often result in the rapists serving only a short term. But this is more a matter of lax law enforcement and the flaws in the Thai-style judicial procedure translated to a weakened system of punishment (see a list of crimes punishable by death in Thailand). The alleged rapist-killer of Nong Kaem, Mr Wanchai Saengkhao, will likely face the death penalty under the current law. The question is whether the court will give him a customary reduced sentence given his confession, and if he will be paroled.
2. Repeat offender – Mr Wanchai has also confessed to having earlier raped two fellow SRT employees. Neither woman filed a complaint. This encouraged him to commit another attack, investigators said. Which brings us to the issue of lack of organizational oversight and safety measures. How could someone like Mr Wanchai have been hired for such a public service position, posing dangers to both the passengers and his fellow co-workers? He just passed an exam to become a permanent SRT member of staff in June, despite two drug records. Either he was not subject to a background check or the background check was inadequate.
In either case, this raises the question of the due diligence procedures used by state enterprises when hiring employees whose job brings them in close contact with the public. Also, before committing the crime he was reported to have confessed to being high on methamphetamine and drinking with fellow SRT employees on the train. One of his co-workers has now been arrested for aiding him in the crime. The SRT responded by banning alcoholic drinks on trains, imposing a background check on SRT contract employees and having a dedicated a passenger car for ladies’ on all sleeper trains. These will help but more is needed.
3. Access to justice, remedies and support for victims – Mr Wanchai was able to continue working and raping partly because his previous victims were “too scared of police” to file a complaint. Understandably many victims choose not to report the rape to authorities because they don’t want to be “raped” again during police interrogations and cross-examination in court. The media are also often insensitive. The three-month statute of limitations on rape is another big barrier to justice for victims (see Bangkok Post editorial).
After Nong Kaem’s case went public, a woman who was raped by an SRT employee in a sleeper car 13 years ago wrote an open letter calling for harsher punishment for rapists and action to improve safety to prevent more SRT rape. She said her life since the rape has been“a living hell.” The man who raped her was fired from his job and given nine years in prison, but she was also fired from her job because the management saw her as a “blemish” to the company although the rape occurred while she was travelling on company business. Justice has been agonizingly slow in her civil case, which has dragged on for 13 years due to SRT petitions for a reduced sentence to the Supreme Court. She has yet to receive any compensation, while the rape stigma forced her to leave Thailand to start a new life. (Her letter was written from Athens, Greece.) There is little incentive for rape victims to report the crime when there is little support for them, and the process of justice is insensitive and arduous.
4. Reality of rape – While the present SRT rape and the one 13 years ago were committed by strangers, more than two-thirds are committed by those close to the victims: family members, friends, neighbors, teachers and even monks. There were 31,866 reported rape cases in 2013 — 87 cases per day, or one case every 15 minutes. The actual figure could be 10 times higher, said a Thai human rights lawyer. Over 60 percent of rape victims in reported cases last year were university students and school pupils with alcohol being a major contributing factor, according to a recent study. This mont eight schoolboys were found sexually assaulting a female classmate inside the classroom, and just last week a man was arrested for having raped his 11-year-old sister-in-law for two months.
5. Patriarchal attitudes towards sexual violence – Mandatory death penalty for rapists/murderers will unlikely stop rape in Thai society as long as social attitudes toward sexual violence don’t change. While Thai society is starting to move away from the blame-the-victim mentality, it still places the burden on the potential victims to protect themselves. In response to Nong Kaem’s case, the Ministry of Education has ordered schools to teach girls self-defense skills. What about teaching boys that rape is wrong? It is also telling that some calling for the death penalty for rapists are the same people making rape jokes, wishing those with different views to be brutally raped as a form of punishment. Even a celebrity supporting the death penalty for rapists has been criticized and told to reform herself first to be a good role model by not wearing provocative outfits.
Above: Women in anti-rape protest in Bangkok, calling for death penalty for rapists.
Among the first things to help address rape and sexual violence in Thai society are better law enforcement and changing the attitude among the police to make a cultural transition and understand that sexual violence is a serious crime. Whatever our position on the legal punishment for rape, everyone agrees that all rapists must answer for their crime, not just the poor and ugly ones. A quick and fair law enforcement regardless of the victim’s or rapist’s status and wealth would be a start and getting rid of the three-month statute of limitations for rape would also allow more victims to obtain justice.
Sexual violence is a deep-rooted and multi-faceted problem that will take sustained collaborative efforts to address. From the endless stream of sexual violence cases in daily news, it is clear that Thai society is not doing enough to protect its vulnerable members from harm. Everyone, all units in society, families, schools, teachers, employers, police, communities, public and private institutions, must do their part in ensuring a safe environment for all, especially children, women, and people of diverse sexuality vulnerable to abuse.
Killing the rapists/murderers won’t necessarily ensure justice and safety. Society must teach boys and girls, men as well as women, that rape is NOT OK, and it is not the victim’s fault if it happens. No one “asks for” rape. As several young Thai men have said on social media, even if a girl walks down the street naked no one has a right to molest or rape her. We are no longer barbaric cavemen, so act like a civilized society. The old patriarchal attitudes towards sexual violence must be replaced by respect for rights, dignity and safety for all.
Often rapists, especially child rapists, have mental illness and hence also need help. In Thailand convicted rapists are often released back into society without any system of follow up and monitoring and become repeat offenders. Appropriate measures are needed to deal with them.
It is good that the Lawyers Council of Thailand has offered assistance to Nong Kaem’s family in a civil case against the SRT promised to be concluded within a month, but justice and remedy must be systematically made available to all victims, not just the ones in highly publicized cases.
The most enduring tribute to Nong Kaem and all rape victims/survivors is the society’s commitment to take a collective responsibility to create a safe environment for the most vulnerable and that channels to justice and remedies are available and readily accessible to all citizens.
Note: The article was first published on SiamVoices, Asian Correspondent on July 14, 2014.