Mightier than the Sword: an interview with post feminist writer and thinker Kham Phaka

 |  November 26, 2009

Lakkana Punwichai, 37, looks like the woman next door. She has the typically lithe and perfectly compact female form, her face, while attractive, would probably not turn heads, and her casual attire is testament to the fact that she really isn’t particularly bothered about impressing anyone. Arriving for the interview, she accepts my wai and, wasting no time, immediately starts talking…as I scramble with my keyboard to catch up. I soon find out that she has a lot to say. And she says it with conviction, verve and a bluntness that takes me a moment to adjust to.

I had first heard of Lakkana a few weeks back when I was looking for a dynamic Thai woman to interview. Her name, or rather, her pen name, Kham Phaka, popped up time and again, from Citylife’s staff, from friends. The one word that was used to describe her was ‘raeng’, loosely translated as provocative or radical. Googling her, I discovered that she has published over a dozen books and is one of Thailand’s most well known young columnists, with regular contributions in both daily newspapers and monthly magazines. But most infamously, she is known for posing nude for GM Plus magazine five years ago, which drew heavy social fire. But, unlike so many Thai women, Lakkana really doesn’t give a crap what anyone thinks of her. She does not sugar-coat what is on her mind.

“I don’t care what people think,” began Lakkana who has repeatedly been accused by the media of being a bad role model for, and disgrace to, Thai women, “I am different, I write and do things differently.” She certainly is, having admitted in interviews that she loves sex, can’t live without men, had had a one night stand once and was in a relationship with a married man for two years.

“In 2004, my friend the editor of GM Plus magazine told me that he was doing an issue on powerful women and asked me if I wanted to pose nude. So, I thought why not? It is no big deal; I am proud of my body and have no issue sharing it. My intention was not to be a sex object; I just wanted to show that taking clothes off is no big deal; it is not alarming. It is such a social construction to think, for instance, that breasts are seductive; we are not born thinking this; we are taught to. Have you noticed that Thai models and movie stars never show off their breasts? Whenever you see a breast or cleavage here it is considered dirty, when it is the most natural thing. Soon after the magazine came out I was due to give a talk at the Chiang Mai University Library, it turns out they had cancelled my talk without even informing me. What followed was a media furore. The Nation did a full page feature on this, writing about how my childhood was deprived, my marriage broken, trying to find an explanation as to why I would be allowing GM Plus to exploit me this way. The irony is that The Nation dedicated a full page to my nude image and didn’t even pay me for it, which I thought exploited me much more than GM Plus did. What they didn’t, and refused to, understand was that I, a woman, made the decision to do it myself. My family is very loving and yes, I am divorced, but I divorced my husband because I was bored with marriage, I didn’t like it. It is that simple.”

Lakkana is from Chiang Mai and after graduating with a degree in history from Chiang Mai University, received the Monbusho grant from Japan’s Ministry of Education to study her masters and PhD in South East Asian studies in Kyoto. She spent seven years in Japan, and in 1995 began to write a regular column for Siam Rath newspaper, ‘Letters from Kyoto’. Her PhD thesis was on femininity construction and nationalism, but with her writing career blossoming, she decided to discontinue her studies. Soon after her return to Thailand she started writing another column for Matichon titled ‘Krathu Dok Thong’, literally, Golden Flower Agenda, but also translates to Slut Agenda _ dok thong means slut in northern slang. Drawing from her thesis material, she deconstructed and analysed hidden meaning behind Thai novels, focusing on the representation of women and sexual relationships. “It hasn’t changed in 80 years,” she explains. “Every heroine has to be thin, prideful, conservative, virtuous and without a jealous bone in her body. There are two types of women only: the good and the bad, white and black. Women who do not conform to this stereotype – divorcees, promiscuous, or fallen women – meet a nasty ending; they are viewed as mad, hysterical or, at best, manly. This portrayal suppresses woman; we are all human, it is normal for us to want to be individual. We are living in a society where we all do bad things, but no one can talk about it. If movie stars are caught kissing their boyfriends, they have to cry at press conferences and apologise to their parents in public, it is pathetic. Why should they apologise for something we all do? They are apologising for being caught, not for the act itself.”

“In Thailand women are not encouraged to be themselves. Even successful business women, when interviewed, go to great pains to express their devotion to their family and their role as a mother. I don’t even want to take care of a pet, let alone have children, but this is not acceptable to say in Thailand, where we are expected to want to be mothers and wives above all else. Women who can’t or don’t want to have children are discriminated against. Feminism is a dirty word in Thailand. It is used as a form of insult, to knock a woman down. Feminists are accused of being sour grapes because they can’t find a man.”

Lakkana, however, doesn’t blame men or women in particular for such conservative gender expectations. She explains that Thai men are also under pressure, they are expected to be strong, earn money, lead the family and protect their masculinity. “It is not just women who are defined, and pressurised, by this social frame. Men have stereotypes that they have to live up to too.”

As she talks, I begin to appreciate the enormity of what she is saying. Erudite and with a bit of attitude, Lakkana doesn’t say anything that would even raise an eyebrow in many cultures, but here in Thailand, her words are fresh, radical, and to some, subversive. She makes us think, rethink, shift and realign our prejudices and opinions – this is what makes her respected and reviled, and this, I believe, is her aim.

“Look at the government’s slogan: peace, forgiveness and unity. It is as if they are telling us not to argue, not to think differently, and to shut up and be quiet. I think that a moderate society is so ugly. Where is our liberty to think and to feel? Forget feminism, there are much bigger issues out there. We are worse than Singapore; we are a nanny state, like North Korea. I never liked Thaksin, but at least Thai Rak Thai taught people that they could effect change. I have no hope that any government can succeed, I put my hopes in the media, in writers and playwrights. It is up to us to make people think, to fight to get our voices heard. Censorship is unacceptable. I am not saying that all media should think the same thing, but we should have dialogue. If you are conservative, write about it, if you are radical, share your views.”

In spite of her frustration, Lakkana sees the silver lining, “censorship makes us creative; we have to search the internet to find out what is going on, we have to use satire, cartoons, creative emoticons – weapons of the weak. This is all a good thing, it helps Thai people to think outside the box, something that Thais need to start doing a lot more.”

Having written on a great number of topics ranging from travel to sex, politics to gender roles, Lakkana, whose quick mind is matched by the ability to speak as though on fast forward, jumps from explosive to contentious subjects.

“Sex. Researchers have an agenda they want to protect: ‘Thainess’. There is no real research into the history of Thai sexual behaviour; the national library doesn’t keep archives of pornography through the ages; no one asks what Thai people fantasise about sexually; no one talks to the young generation about what they want sexually. So-called research is all about statistics, not the study of dimensions and dynamics, there is no attempt to view things from a different angle. All we discuss – and all statistics are aimed at achieving – is how to keep our society sexually conservative. Everything is propaganda, it is not real. Look at television, families all look as if they had stepped out of a 1950s American sit com. It is so ironic because when Thai people act in a non ‘typical’ Thai way, they are accused of being western, where in actual fact our Victorian values are the western ones. Women walked around topless until western values forced us to cover up. What I don’t understand is why there should be only one way to be Thai? You can see the hatred against me on some web forums when I wrote about women being ngian. What? Thai women can’t be ngian? The truth is not accepted.”

As the interview ends, and she rushes off to hair and makeup for her cover and feature shoot, I see Citylife’s staff huddled around discussing how shocked they were at Lakkana’s words – they had been eaves dropping. Because of the abrupt end to the interview, I asked them what ‘ngian’ meant. There was a collective gasp, and someone whispered, “horny”, followed by a group blush. They then proceeded to tell me that we couldn’t discuss such matters. When asked why, one said, “my parents told me so.”

It appears that Lakkana has her work cut out for her.

This year Lakkana is publishing a total of seven books, five this November alone.