Did a Thai MP really tell Thai women it's better to marry a foreigner?

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 29, 2012 Sunai Julphongsathorn, a Pheu Thai Party MP from Chum Saeng in Nakhon Sawan Province and the chairman of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, was at the center of controversy recently over his alleged advice that poor Thai women should marry a farang (a Western foreigner), since their lives would drastically improve since "European governments give everything for free". And that has been the headline an English-language website was running with. But is the MP's recommendation really to ship off the disenfranchised to European welfare states in exchange for a better life or is there more to it?

The English-language article continues:

Sunai tells the audience of around 1,000 red shirts to find a farang husband for an easy life “because European governments give you everything for free.”

Sunai went on: “Get a German husband. Get a Swedish husband. Get a Norwegian husband. People used to love [Thailand] unreservedly. But the more they loved the country, the poorer they got. The more they loved the country, the stupider they got.”

“All you need is a farang husband and their government will pay you to study,” he said.

Even more controversially, he then implied that the best way to study a foreign language was by sleeping with a foreigner.

“Sitting studying is too slow. Lie down to study, then go to the hospital. They will pay you to have the baby… It’s all free, right up to the shitty diapers.”

"MP urges Thai women: Marry a farang for an easier life", Coconuts Bangkok, August 28, 2012

Their only source pointed to a Thai website, which in return is basing the whole story on a single 12-minute YouTube clip, which is an excerpt from a speech by Sunai at a red shirt gathering in front of about 1,000 people in Samut Prakan just outside of Bangkok on August 19. The video has very poor audio so that Sunai's voices comes off very distorted. Listening to a clearer, more complete video feed gives a very different impression and also reveals more context to what he was saying, before he was taken out of it by the aforementioned source.

The generally gist of Sunai's speech (at least the first 20 minutes concerning this story) is about social inequality and the disenfranchisement of the rural population - one of the long-time talking points of the Pheu Thai Party and the red shirt movement.  This time the focus is on women in particular and how many would move from the North or North-East Isaan region down to the Central region around the capital in order to find work and potentially also a husband.

Here are some extended excerpts from Sunai with the time codes to follow along in the said video starting at 13:31 minutes:

13:31 min - 14:28 min: "Some get a good husband, some get a drunken one and some lucky even get a farang husband! And they are getting scolded about why they would get [a farang husband] (...) I used to scold these Thai women too! But ever since I became a red shirt, I know everything about their problems - having traveled all across Europe, I've found the truth that: they are really better off marrying a farang! If you ask why - well, it's because their lives have no future (perspective). The poor people in Isaan, the poor people in the North - they don't have a future at all! And the women have it harder than the men!"

He then talks about the "restrictive culture" and challenges women are facing when coming to Bangkok and the outskirts, as when they have reached some welfare they're being told to go back home and "live sufficiently". We continue at 16:41 minutes:

16:41 min - 16:56 min: "My dear friends, [these] women are still restricted by culture. These women who are coming from upcountry, who are sitting here and can set up their lives here, these are real brave women! Give yourself a round of applause! (Applause)

18:03 min - 18:43 min: ...they may don't match the local taste, but sometimes those of the farangs! And how are these poor, rural people are gonna meet one of them? With partnership agencies, of course! Some good luck, some bad luck, eh? In the end, you get a German husband, [or] a Swedish husband, [or] a Norwegian husband! Before, they loved the country - but the more they loved the country, the poorer they would become. The more they loved the country, the more stupid it gets.

The last sentence is admittedly hard to translate, as it might as well mean that either the people left behind in the fields are getting more stupid or the idea of staying at the farm is getting more and more stupid.

Sunai turns to the scenario of a poorly educated Thai woman, who would marry a foreigner, move over to let's say Sweden or Norway and register there, the fact that she is married a local, the authorities would then in his words "hire" her to learn to local language - except though that language courses is compulsory in many European states in order to stay longer and even to apply for a citizenship later on.

At 20:08 min comes the main talking point and the necessary context in order to fully understand why Sunai was bringing up the point of Thai-Farang marriages in the first place:

20:08 min - 21:06 min: "(Talking in the role of the Thai woman) 'I may not be fully capable of the Thai language, but I can do German! I can do Norwegian! Because their government has hired me to learn it!' Thailand has hardly a penny for education. They're still poor and they can't even afford free education! But Thaksin makes you learn for free, Thaksin has introduced the 30 Baht healthcare scheme. Why the hell have you putsched against him? (Applause) [army chief] Prayuth Chan-ocha, Anupong Paochinda [fmr army chief] - I don't need to talk about Sonthi Boonyaratglin [coup leader against Thaksin in 2006] anymore because his eyes have been opened now (...) - but those in the army (...) have not been enlightened yet. Why have you seized power? They are...Thaksin is currently starting to build welfare in Thailand, in order for the continuation of the monarchy. That is the beginning of the welfare state, my friends!

In essence, Sunai's speech here is highlighting the benefits of European welfare state and how a Pheu Thai-led government will re-introduce that with what has been already done during the Thaksin years: a repeat of the populist policies (such as tax cuts, subsidies, free handouts etc.) to benefit the disenfranchised rural population, which was part of "Thaksinomics" before he was toppled in a military coup in 2006, which was also a target of Sunai's speech.

All these are legitimate, reasonable points that were brought up by the Pheu Thai MP (despite the fact that Thailand has free basic education of 12 years, and past governments have thrown more money at the qualitatively poor education system - whereas Pheu Thai's most public education policy is to introduce tablet PCs in the classrooms) - and even if it's just to tout the past and present policies of Thaksin and the Pheu Thai Party.

However, there was this at the end...

21:38 min - 22:29 min: After some they of learning, they're even better at Norwegian than Thai! Why? (...) Because they learn it in sleep! My friends, with a farang husband it gets much quicker. It's so much slower in sitting. When they're done learning in their sleep, they're getting pregnant. They're brought to the hospital and the state is paying [the costs] for the birth. And then they're paying monthly child benefits!

It's one thing to showcase that learning a foreign language in a family environment is sometimes quicker than in a school. But it is an entirely another thing to (unwittingly) suggest that it is mutual to sleeping with a foreigner - if not borderline unacceptable. It is that lapse in judgement and that poor choice of words that nearly completely diminishes a perfectly valid argument!

So, the MP has not really recommended Thai women to marry a foreigner in order for a better life, but rather why many of these women would go into a marriage with a foreigner in the first place! The solutions offered may be debatable and will certainly be at the center of more discussions about it (and about the man behind it) - but in this case Sunai was taken out of context!

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and on Facebook here.