A law student who experienced sexual assault speaks up about an under-discussed problem

Thararat Panya. Photos courtesy of Thararat Panya

'In mid-March, I was raped by one of my university seniors," wrote Thararat Panya in an Aug 18 Facebook post. "He was someone that I trusted to a certain degree."

Spelling out the details, the 21-year-old Thammasat law student recalled exactly what had happened on that unfortunate night. She and her friends, including the senior, were hanging out and having drinks outside. Becoming intoxicated, they decided to go to their friend's dormitory to get some rest. Sleeping opposite her female friend, the senior manoeuvred his way between the girls. Thararat felt his hand on her back. She moved away. He moved towards her, grabbed her hand and placed it on his penis. Shocked, Thararat moved away again, almost falling over onto the classmate sleeping on the floor. He wrapped a leg around her, putting her into a lock as he grabbed her breast and reached his hand into her underwear, putting his fingers inside her. She pushed, shoved and tried to get out of the hold. Breaking free, Thararat ran to the toilet, crying from shock.

After two days, the senior confronted Thararat and told her he didn't remember anything. Shame turned to anger, and she vowed to not let this slip by. She called for disciplinary action from the university, and after four months of investigation, the verdict came out. The senior was punished with a semester-long suspension and community service for "inappropriate behaviour". It was a slap on the wrist to the rapist, and an insult to rape victims everywhere.

Rape, as many know, is a huge problem in Thailand. It is difficult to compile overall rape statistics, as each organisation and police station keeps records separate and to themselves. However, in 2013, it was recorded that more than half of the 32,000 women raped in Thailand were students, with alcohol being a large factor. Around 87 rapes occur daily, one every 15 minutes -- and that's only the reported cases. According to the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation, 90% of victims experience rape or sexual assault at the hands of people they knew -- such as friends, significant others, superiors and senior figures at educational institutions.

Thammasat University's verdict on Thararat's case. Photo courtesy of Thararat Panya

"I am sure that I'm not the first case of rape within school grounds," her Facebook post read. "It's a shame that many victims choose to remain silent, to not report, and to let things slip by because they're simply too embarrassed. If I had remained silent and let this pass, it would further promote rape culture. Don't be afraid. There are many people willing to stand beside you."

Thararat's is one of the first cases in Thailand in which a young woman so openly expressed, with no shame or guilt, that she is a victim of rape. Her story and her encouragement for victims to speak out touched the hearts of many and disgusted many others. It quickly became viral. Some praised her for being heroic for speaking out and taking action, while others predictably went down the victim-blaming route.

"I don't feel anger [about people victim-blaming me]," she said in a phone interview. "I just see the problem more -- that there really are people who think like this.

"Thai society still views rights as something still unclear. They see rights as unequal -- they see victim's rights as unequal. And how do I handle the comments? I'm thinking about what I have to do next. Once I know that people have misunderstandings about this, it might be beneficial to campaign about this much more seriously.

"I don't want anyone to see me as a hero. Looking at me as a hero means people think I had to have courage to come out and speak. I want people to see this as a normal thing -- that a victim, or someone who's been abused, speaks out. If I'm a hero, does that mean that in this society, there are very few people who would speak out? And when I speak out, it means that I'm walking in the front lines? I don't want them to think of it that way. Everyone is able to speak out.

"And I don't want people to think, 'Oh, because she studied law, she doesn't back down'. I feel that it shouldn't be that way. I feel that human rights, and the basic concepts of rights, is something everyone should understand -- not only people who study law."

Thararat decided to take action with the university rather than the criminal justice system for a number of reasons. Dealing with judgemental police, in addition to the time-consuming and complex process of humiliating physical check-ups, were some of the reasons why.

"If I wanted to report on a criminal level, I'd have to go to the police myself, proceed with everything myself, get physical check-ups, etc. So at that time I didn't know what to do," she said. "I received the phone number of the vice-president of the faculty, so I called, and informed him that I had faced this incident and needed the faculty to process, investigate and give disciplinary punishment."

With knowledge of Thararat's situation, the vice-president set up an investigative committee, and for a certain period of time, called Thararat and the senior in separately to question what had happened, only knowing the verdict once it came out in mid-August.

So is suspension enough?

"I don't know," she said. "I can't answer that myself. I think I'll just accept the decision of the university. If you ask me if it's fair, I really can't tell you, because of all the things I had to go through, and I still had to be the one to take action.

"Another thing is I felt terrible. To get to this day, I wasn't that strong. I've had to go through horrible feelings and endure the behaviour of people who don't understand. It makes me feel like, 'Will there be justice?'. I don't know. I just accept the decision, but I see it as there being no justice for the victim at all.

"If we are to solve the problem of victim-blaming, we should talk about rights. Talk about it to the extreme. Even if someone is naked, sleeping next to a man, they have no right, if we do not give them consent to touch us. I want to promote that everyone has their own right to their body. If you do not give consent, nobody has the right to surpass that. From holding hands, touching their heads, or even rape. It's not OK.

"If our rights are clear, no matter where we are and no matter what situation -- if everyone in society understands theirs and others' rights, there shouldn't be instances of victim-blaming at all."


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