Vice-Consul of the British Embassy Derek Johnstone reached out to me in April 2018 after reading my blog post about my experience of sexual assault. He came across the post while researching the experiences of British rape victims in Thailand, and told me of his plans to improve the embassy’s services to them.
The response to the article was mostly from women in the Muay Thai community, many of which had also been assaulted by their trainers. This gave me a huge sense of purpose, but it left me wondering what I could do to actually create change. The British Embassy presented me with an opportunity to do that.
A Meeting of Minds
Earlier this year, Derek and I met at the embassy’s historical grounds (before they were sadly destroyed to make way for a shopping mall). He asked me more about what happened to me, how often I think it’s happening to others, and what stopped me from contacting the embassy or the police. He told me about the services that would have been available to me if I had, and what the process would have looked like. I had no idea that I could have had access to any kind of support, and explained that if I didn’t know, most other victims wouldn’t know, either. Derek is a former police officer and spent much of his career in the UK working on rape and sexual assault cases.
Here are a few things I learned from my meeting with Derek:
- Until recently, the statute of limitations on rape cases in Thailand was just 90 days.
- Had I reached out to the British Embassy after my sexual assault, their staff could have guided me through the process of getting the required medical checks.
- They also would have guided me through the legal process, had I chosen to make a report.
- They wouldn’t have contacted my family in the UK without my consent.
- None of their services would have been contingent on me filing a report or completing the legal process- I would have had the option to refuse or withdraw at any time.
Derek explained the differences between the way such cases are handled in the UK and Thailand, and the ways in which he’s working to improve the standard of services to victims here. One of those is the publication of a detailed guide for victims of rape and sexual assault in Thailand, which explains exactly what steps to take and how the embassy can provide support. The second is the organisation of Thailand’s first-ever rape and sexual assault survivor handling conference. He invited me to be part of it as a guest speaker, saying that my perspective as a survivor would be invaluable. I jumped at the chance.
This conference invited Thai police officers, Tourist Assistance Centre officers, NGO workers, counselors and hospital staff from all over Thailand to learn how to take a more victim-centred approach to cases. It was run by Isabelle Kerr, manager of the Glasgow Clyde Rape Crisis Centre, who has decades of experience in supporting survivors of rape and sexual assault. She began as a volunteer at the centre in 1981. Now, she heads what has become a model for other rape crisis centres around the world, specializing in working with trauma.
Isabelle explained the effects of trauma on the brain, and how they’re often misunderstood, even by first responders. One of these effects is the ‘freeze response’, and to illustrate this, she invited me to the stage to share my story.
Before I spoke, she played the following video from Glasgow Clyde Rape Crisis Centre’s #IJustFroze campaign to prime the audience for what I was about to tell them. The short animation explains why many people are unable to speak or move, let alone fight back, when they’re attacked.
I detailed the events that lead up to my sexual assault, as well as some of the uncomfortable details of exactly how it happened, and how I didn’t fight back and the way that I thought I would. I explained the reaction of myself and others around me, the factors that stopped me from reporting, attitudes to rape in Thailand, and the work I’ve been doing since then.
The Thai audience listened intently through headsets with live translation. When I was done, several of them approached me to thank me for telling my story. One even said that she would use it to teach her medical students how to treat the victims they work with.
However, the response wasn’t entirely positive. One man, a prosecutor named Wuttichai ‘Kookai’ Poomsanguan, approached me while I was being interviewed by a Coconuts Bangkok reporter. “I just want to tell you one thing”, he began. “Not only in Thailand, but in every criminal justice system around the world, you can’t just make accusations without evidence. You need to have evidence or at least a witness. I just want you to know that”.
I was flabbergasted. While everyone else I’d spoken to that day had given me words of gratitude or support, he thought that his defense of the police was the most important thing I needed to hear.
I hadn’t made an accusation, named anyone, or gone to the police, and I’d explained exactly why. But this had all gone over Mr. Poomsanguan’s head because to him, nothing I’d said was valid if I coudn’t back it up with evidence. The purpose of my presence that day was for people like him to learn something about how sexual assault happens and how it should be dealt with. Before we could have any kind of discussion, he rushed off. I hoped that he’d taken at least something productive from the day.
Another man gave a response that was much more well-intentioned, but still missed the mark. Ben Svasti, Honorary British Consul in Chiang Mai, mentioned that many reported cases take place after people have been drinking in bars. “When these bars close at 1 or 2am, people then go to drink in illegal establishments”, he noted. He then asked, “do you think if we changed the regulations to let all bars stay open until the early hours, that we might see a decrease in rape cases?” Later that day, Thai police were being commended in a conversation about one case in which the victim was very happy with their services. “That’s really good”, one man said. Cindy Bishop, founder of #Don’tTellMeHowtoDress, who was sitting next to me, shook her head. “They’re not doing good, they’re doing their jobs. We shouldn’t be congratulating them for getting it right one time”, she said.
While, like Cindy, I found these responses frustrating, I knew that they were important parts of the conversation. In fact, ideas like these are exactly why this conference was so sorely needed. Besides, the response from other participants was overwhelmingly positive. The embassy staff were very supportive, thanking me several times and frequently checking in with me to make sure that I was comfortable and had everything I needed. The Tourist Assistance Officers were also great to work with. They took part in discussions and activities with enthusiasm, sharing ideas that showed just how receptive they’d been to everything Isabelle had taught throughout the day. It felt good to know that there were people out there who cared, and who were ready and willing to provide the support that survivors need. Had I known that officers like these were out there, I may have reached out for help when I needed it all those years ago.
Topics covered during the conference included:
- The roles of the police, the Tourist Assistance Center, hospitals, and social services in assisting survivors of sexual assault.
- How we should focus not only on justice for the victim, but also their rehabilitation and recovery.
- Barries to disclosure and why victims often don’t report.
- How to reduce the effects of trauma.
- Cultural sensitivities to keep in mind (i.e relationship, boundaries and physical contact).
- Questions to avoid when talking to survivors of rape and sexual assault.
- Protocols to follow.
- How to stop people from withdrawing their reports.
- Why survivors should be believed, respected, and free from judgement.
- How to provide effective and sensitive treatment.
Change Starts Here
I left the conference feeling hopeful. Until recently, this kind of initiative would have been unthinkable. Thai news coverage of rape cases is often peppered with victim-blaming messaging, and it’s promising to see that a number of people in power are dedicated to making much-needed changes. As I mentioned in my interview with Coconuts Bangkok, I can’t get justice in my own case, but I can use it to create a positive impact for others. I’m grateful to the British Embassy for inviting me to do that.
Here’s a short roundup video of the day, made by the British Embassy:
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office published an article on the conference on gov.uk.
Cover photo credit: Coconuts