Will she be Thailand’s first female Prime Minister? MP Khunying Supatra Dasdit is already set to become one of the world’s most recognized Thais. She spoke to Natalie Bennett before jetting to Beijing to head the NGO Forum at the 4th World Conference on Women
Khunying Supatra Masdit has just about done it all. At 45 she can boast being one of the youngest members of the Thai parliament, and one of just nine women in the House when elected 16 years ago. She was the first female MP to be appointed a minister and has presided over the establishment of the National Commission on Women’s Affairs, in line with the 1985 United Nations Action Plan for Women suggestion. Now she is playing a central role in an international conference that will map a 10-year plan for women of the world.
As Metro went to press, Khunying Supatra was scheduled to head a gathering of 40,000 people from 187 countries. The two-week Non-Government Organisations (NGO) Forum, held with the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, will bring Khunying Supatra to the centre of world attention. As convenor, she’s been planning that conference-with all of its political wrangles and complications-for the past two years. In the run-up she has had to balance this with the task of keeping her seat during the Thai General Election. She took her place for the 6th time as a representative for Nakhon Si Thammarat.
What about life after Beijing? Khunying Supatra is adamant about not getting involved in UN bureaucracy and hierarchy-the conference and two years solid work will be enough. “I’m happy to work in my country. I still have many things to do in Thailand,” she said during a break in her hectic schedule.
The first female Thai Prime Minister’ is a title which some feel would sit appropriately on her small shoulders, but it’s not a suggestion she cares to embrace – at least not now. “People keep saying that, but I’m not planning for that yet. So far I’m happy doing what I’m doing. 1 just want to be a good politician. I’m already working extremely hard, but you have to work 100 times harder to be the head of a party, then become PM.”
“1 hope that in my lifetime I’ll see it [a female Thai Prime Minister]. In 1979 the people would have laughed at the idea, but now they would accept a woman leader if she was good enough.”
Although she’s determined to concentrate on Thailand, Khunying Supatra will remain in the international arena, and plans to head the Centre for Asia-Pacific Women in Politics. Female politicians, she believes, could find strength through such organisations which aim to alleviate loneliness and encourage women to enter politics at all levels.
She sees individual will as being vital for improving women’s position throughout the world. “We could be talking for 100 more years and nothing will get done unless women get involved in the decision- making process – get involved in politics.”
This lesson was hammered home in her early years as a minister. “I’d been working for seven years with little success, then I became a minister within three months. It happened just like that.
“It was not that the males in power were to blame for deliberately obstructing women’s advancement, she feels. “They just didn’t understand.”
She is determined to stress, however, that her political success was built on a foundation laid by the hard but apparently unrewarded work of other women. “When I was a minister I was the mid-wife, delivering on all their hard work, but instead of nine months the gestation period was ten years.”
“Are you a feminist?” is the inevitable question for any women in a position of power. Khunying Supatra finds it a difficult one to answer, because the term sometimes suggests a woman who wants to exclude men, something that doesn’t fit in with her views. “You can’t change anything without men – it’s a man’s world,” Khunying Supatra says with a laugh.
That was a gradual realisation. “My father didn’t treat me like ‘you are a girl’. In my family everyone could plan their own life. Only sometimes when I was very assertive, my grandma, who was very old, would question my actions, wanting to know why I couldn’t cook.”
But her family, particularly her father, gave her a strong concern for justice. “My father was a journalist before he was an MP, and at that time there was much injustice. People came to see my father – mostly men – to complain about officers who were unfair to them, abusing their power. So I formed the realisation that many people have a difficult life. Sometimes I cry when I see something I cannot help-injustice against men or women.”
Her passion for politics, and pioneering spirit, began in high school when she was the first elected president of the student union. Previously the teachers had simply selected an outstanding student, but “I asked for permission to campaign. 1 wanted to tell the students what I wanted to do.”
Volunteering in the north and north-east during her holidays from Chulalongkorn increased her knowledge, and her passion: “We were not there to help them, but for them to train us, and we saw just how poor they really were.”
A year as a full-time volunteer and continued involvement in rural development after she became a lecturer at Thammasat University continued her education, and inculcated a passionate desire for change. “But as a lecturer I thought that I could work until I died, and nothing was going to change.”
She originally applied to run for the Democrat Party in Bangkok, but they told her to instead accept a scholarship for her masters-good advice as it worked out, for that parliament was short-lived. After completing her masters in 1979, Khunying Supatra took her father’s old seat in Nakhon Si Thammarat in the deep South, becoming part of the then small Democrat Party, which had only 32 seats in that parliament.
She started with big aims – wanting to change the broad sweep of Thai politics. “After a few years I realised not everyone thinks the same things, so you have to come back and work on the details, the small things to improve the life of the voters. At my first interview they asked me ‘how would you promote democracy?’ I replied ‘Don’t worry, if we have elections quite often it will become better.’ Now of course I realize that it’s not true – right now it’s worse.”
“If you spoke about women’s issues people would giggle, laugh at you, tease you,” recalls Khunying Supatra of her early years in Parliament, when she found it easier to promote ‘people’ issues. “That was the first time people under 30 could run. There were four of us, they looked at us as ‘cute’ but after I showed them my work they changed their minds.”
That required exceptional work on the young female representative’s part: “maybe three times as much as the men,” she recalls.
Speaking about ‘people issues’, the Democrat’s won the first big battle for women’s rights-the opportunity to be a village head. “I said why don’t we give villagers the chance, they will know very well who should be their leader. Let them decide – not the parliament. Because of this argument we won by three or four votes.”
So what’s her greatest achievement for Thai women?: “I don’t think there has been anything big yet. Maybe the biggest win has been in terms of attitudes, which are gradually changing, but still have a long way to go.”.
That might equally describe Khunying Supatra’s future – where and how high she goes remain to be seen, but there’s little doubt she’ll be a prominent figure on the political stage for many years to come.
This article first appeared in Bangkok Metro in 1995