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The Globe as you know it is changing.

Since 2007, Southeast Asia Globe has been a space for some of the region’s best writers and photographers to take our readers behind the headlines into the stories that shape people’s lives. Every month, you could expect to pick up our latest print edition and find high-quality journalism, analysis and artwork waiting on every page. And since 2007, we’ve fought to uphold our promise of quality and independence to you, our readers.

But, like we said, the world is changing. Print publications just aren’t reaching the audiences they need to fulfil their promise of informing, educating and entertaining the public. Advertisers continue to invest in digital platforms while printing costs creep ever higher. Print may not be dead, but it’s fighting for its life. And we’re tired of waiting by a sickbed for its condition to improve. We want to be present at the birth of something new.

That’s why Southeast Asia Globe is relaunching as a member-driven platform featuring daily long-form features combining world-class journalism with enthralling art design and data-centered tech. Through our core pillars – Power, Money, Life and Earth – we are focusing in on the central issues that our readers have always engaged with most, with the same in-depth coverage of politics, business, social affairs and the environment that you’ve come to expect since 2007.

But leaving print behind us doesn’t just save our backs from lugging stacks of magazines across Southeast Asia. It opens up a global readership who don’t just want to read the news, but have a say in the stories that we tell and the way that we tell them. We’re not asking you to take out another magazine subscription – our stories are open to all. What we’re offering our members is a space where they can pitch and vote on the stories that they think deserve to be told. We want to inspire an engaged and active community of members who vote for, comment on and contribute to the stories that matter most to them. We want to work with our members to curate the way they engage with the news – not just as readers, but as an active extension of our editorial team.

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Our vision is clear. By 2025, we want to be recognised for building a great space for outstanding journalists from across the region to explore new ways of telling Southeast Asia’s most vital stories. Let’s bring together a community of engaged and loyal members who want to help reshape the media rather than just read it. And we want to reach a point where our readers, not advertisers, are the ones working to support our shared vision of an inclusive media.

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Thailand / Problematic rape scenes persist in soap operas

By: Ana Salvá - Posted on: September 29, 2016 | Featured

In Thai soap operas, rape is routinely depicted as a precursor to romance, with female protagonists shown falling in love with their rapists. But, led by an outraged viewer, the country’s television industry is starting to examine its normalisation of sexual violence

Men watch television on a street in Bangkok.
Entertainment after dark: men watch television on a street in Bangkok. Photo: Walter Astrada

Sara Malakul Lane began acting in Thai soap operas when she was just 15 years old. Although she always dreamed of featuring in a romantic kissing scene à la Hollywood, she ended up in eight rape scenes during her ten-year acting career in Thailand.

“The dialogues were always very similar. In the storyline I was raped by the hero, who was characterised as a good man, and I fell in love with him in a happy ending,” explains the 33-year-old actress, who has since moved to the US.

Thailand’s soap operas – screened at prime time when children are often huddled around television sets – regularly depict sexual harassment and rape as a way to seduce a woman or as punishment for bad behaviour.

Several generations of Thai girls have grown up watching their heroines raped on TV by male characters that viewers are coaxed to admire – and who rarely receive any punishment for their crimes. “Rape scenes are not graphic because there is censorship in Thailand. But, although there’s no nudity, it is implicit in the dialogues,” says Lane.

After seeing one of these confronting rape scenes, Nitipan Wiprawit, a 38-year-old architect who regularly watches soap operas with his mother and sister, decided to take action. He complained to Thailand’s National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), setting up an online petition to end the normalisation of rape on television. The petition garnered more than 59,000 signatures.

“I asked myself how it is possible that the media shows news of rape as something bad during the daytime, and soap operas can show the same situation as something romantic at night? I wanted to change this attitude [of] showing rape as something normal or acceptable,” he says.

As the first viewer to publicly campaign for change, Nitipan has shown how one person’s actions can spark major alterations.

The first ethical guidelines for television programmes

After his request, Chanettee Tinnam, a media lecturer at Bangkok’s Mahidol University, was tasked with writing the first ethical guidelines for television programmes. These stipulate the need to uphold the “dignity of women”, encourage directors to be cautious when depicting violence against women, advise against showing women as victims and recommend that men’s sexual responsibilities be addressed.

The finalised codes were presented by the NBTC at a ‘women in media’ seminar in April attended by industry representatives, actors and directors, as well as the man who started it all, Nitipan.

Many television soap operas are adapted from old, popular Thai novels that contain storylines where the rape of female protagonists is commonplace. Some of these novels are so popular that they have been adapted into movies and television soap operas multiple times since the 1970s. Koo Kam, for example, has been the source material for six melodramas and four films made as recently as 2013.

It was the 1970s when these stories began to find a wide audience, according to Thai media and sexuality expert Jaray Singhakowinta: “I think [in the 1970s] they captured the Thai mentality. People enjoy watching them and they guarantee high ratings. Producers like this kind of marketing recipe,” he says.

In these soap operas, ‘good’ women or female protagonists are portrayed as sexually naïve, and it is expected that the male characters must initiate a liaison, explains Jaray.

In the Thai language there are two different words used to describe a rape. The first, bplum, is also used to mean “wrestling” and can begin as a forced or violent act that ends in consolidating a relationship, as is depicted in soap operas. The other, khom kheun, is used to describe rape as a criminal act.

For Kosum Omphornuwat, a gender and sexuality studies lecturer at Thammasat University, the omnipresence of rape storylines in Thai soap operas is evidence of the sexism that pervades Thai society. “In rape storylines, women are treated as the property of men, and men may do whatever they wish to their property, including inciting the act of sexual violence in the name of love. The fact that this kind of storyline is popular and accepted says something about Thai society,” she says.

The way that women are represented in advertisements, she adds, is also another example of the alarming focus on women’s bodies. “As it seems in advertisements, the sole purpose of women’s existence is her pursuit of beauty – to be ‘white’, slim and youthful. Her beautiful body is portrayed as the only means to achieve success in life, love and career. Forget about education, intelligence, virtue, integrity and any other qualities. The beautiful body becomes the only means of women’s empowerment,” says Kosum.

The commodification of feminine beauty

As in other patriarchal cultures, femininity is often devalued and reduced to superficial qualities, such as beauty and vanity, says Jaray. “A few weeks ago, I was struck by a TV sport commentator who described a female volleyball player not by her performance, but by her beauty. Femininity – to be precise, feminine beauty – is often valorized and commodified by advertising industries.”

Although Nitipan does not believe that a soap opera rape scene would directly incite a person to carry out sexual violence, he feels that its inclusion in entertainment holds up a mirror to Thai society and the attitudes of police toward rape victims.

According to the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ), between 2008 and 2013, an average of 4,000 rape cases per year were reported to the police and 2,400 arrests were made. The organisation estimates that a further 30,000 rapes go unreported each year.

In the past, rape victims were stigmatised by society, or worse, by their own families, explains Siranat Boonthai, a research and campaigns officer at TIJ. “Although the situation has improved over the years – families are more supportive to the victims and tend to encourage them to press charges against the offender – the number of reported rape cases still remains proportionately low when compared to the total rape cases,” he says.

Many fear reporting abuse due to the possible consequences they could face and because police are often unprepared to help female victims due to a lack of women officers and a notoriously insensitive response system. “Victim-blaming questions such as: ‘What were you wearing?’ ‘What were you doing there late at night?’ or ‘Why didn’t you call for help?’ are often asked by the police,” Siranat says.

Following the campaign launched by Nitipan, the public debate about the violence shown in soap operas has grown. As well as providing a reminder of their constructive engagement in shaping Thai society, the new media guidelines come with ramifications for TV stations that fail to comply, including fines, suspension of programme broadcasts or even suspension of the channel’s broadcasting licence.

In July, the NBTC imposed a $1,450 fine on GMM 25 for featuring violent scenes against women in its popular TV series Club Friday To Be Continued. The scene in question showed a woman suffering facial burns after she was forced to put her face to a motorcycle exhaust pipe.

But Jaray says a shift in the cultural mindset, not legislative consequences, is more likely to bring about lasting change. “The most crucial step, and probably long-term solution to this problem, is how the NBTC can educate Thai soap viewers to not accept gendered violence as normal.”