Women leaders remain scarce in Thai local politics. What can be done?

Thai women leaders

Women leaders and experts interviewed in this article: Kesirin Tunkeaw (top right), Wongakuea Bunson (bottom right), Srisopha Kotkhamlue (top left), Jutatip Sirikhan (middle), and Professor Dararat Khampeng (bottom left). Photo from Prachatai, a content partner of Global Voices.

This article by Kamonchanok Rueankham was originally published by Prachatai, an independent news site in Thailand. An edited version has been republished by Global Voices under a partner content-sharing agreement.

According to a report by UN Women, as of January 2023, Thai women held only 20.4 percent of elected seats in local government. Out of 89,329 elected positions, there were 18,262 women.

Women leaders remain rare in local politics. Because of the particular limitations that they have to face, Thai women have to work much harder just to be seen as the equals of their male counterparts. Yet many are reaching beyond these limitations and working to inspire new generations to join public service.

Glass ceiling

In the 2020 local elections, women won only 12 out of 76 seats as presidents of Provincial Administrative Organizations (PAOs), according to King Prajadhipok's Institute database.

According to Rocket Media Lab, women candidates for PAO president are outnumbered from the start. Out of 332 candidates, 238 were men (85 percent) and only 49 were women (15 percent).

PAO presidents are the highest elected executive positions in local administration. The PAOs also have legislative Councils, also elected. Below the PAOs are Subdistrict Administrative Organizations (SAOs) and municipalities. There are also Special Administrative Regions such as Bangkok and Pattaya.

King Prajadhipok's Institute reports that among the 5300 SAO presidents who held office from before the 2014 military coup until 2021, 93 percent were men and only 7 percent were women. At the municipal level of the same period, there were 2,233 male mayors and only 208 females.

For some researchers, the lack of women representatives in local government can be attributed to the pervasive idea, rooted in various social institutions, that it is better for women to live in the household as a wife and a mother, that women can’t “have it all,” and that men have better leadership traits.

Even when they get elected, women leaders in local government still have to face the structural problems that any leader has to face. Local elected bodies often have limited power and resources, as well as overlapping responsibilities, putting them in a power struggle with provincial governors and district chiefs appointed from Bangkok.

Despite these limitations, women leaders in local politics have been working relentlessly to combat gender stereotypes, improve people’s standard of living, and become living examples for future generations.


“If men work 100 percent, we must work 500 percent for everything,” said Kesirin Tunkeaw, President of the Mae Win Subdistrict Administrative Organization, Chiang Mai Province. She added:

In the past, they did not have confidence in women. They taught that men are the front legs of the elephant, and women are the back legs. The problem was that they did not have much confidence in women to do the work. They see that women only work behind the scenes such as washing clothes, cooking, and farming.

One of her proudest achievements as SAO President was to tap an available budget to bring electricity to a far-flung community located in a forest reserve area, something that even the MP in her constituency failed to do.

Under Kesirin’s leadership, the Mae Win SAO single-handedly solved land disputes between villagers, who claimed that they had been working the land for generations, and the authorities, who claimed that they had been encroaching into the forest reserve.

By bringing the stakeholders together to cultivate a common understanding, using satellites for demarcation, and tracking historical records, Mae Win SAO passed regulations to give land rights to the villagers which they are only allowed to pass on to their next generation and where selling is prohibited.

Diverse strategies

When women leaders win power in local government, they have few examples to follow. As they come into power, they have strategic decisions to make, including what leadership style they should deploy and what issues they should prioritize.

For Wongakuea Bunson, a former member of the Sakon Nakhon Provincial Administrative Organization Council, entering politics as a woman has its own strength. One of many merits of being a woman politician is the ability to connect.

Women also have sensitivity and sympathy, which lead to empathy in solving a problem in a serious way, and which lead to acknowledgment of the problem in order to coordinate to fight for a solution, follow-up, and solve the problem in a concrete way.

For Wongakuea, being a woman politician means having more opportunities to push forward particular issues for women, children, and vulnerable groups including education, domestic violence, and increasing income for local women.

Srisopha Kotkhamlue, a Pheu Thai party MP for Chiang Mai Constituency 10, has a different approach from Wongakuea. Before becoming an MP, Srisopha was secretary to the Chiang Mai PAO President and is the manager of the Chiang Mai United football team.

In her view, some issues, such as basic infrastructure and the economy, are more urgent in her constituency than women’s rights, even though they are just as important. Although her main duties as a constituency MP is to speak on behalf of her constituency in parliament, she also has a role in local administration.

Most duties of constituency MPs are more like mediating and taking care that the local people have what is suitable for Chiangmai Constituency 10. It is the biggest constituency in Chiang Mai Province, and comes with a lot of responsibilities.

What is to be done?

Women leaders become examples for the younger generation. Jutatip Sirikhan, a political activist and a leader of the pro-democracy protests in 2020–2021, wants to begin her political career in her home province of Amnat Charoenin in the northeast.

However, very few younger women are interested in local politics, she said. Local politics is often associated with influence, money, and business, which are believed to be men’s domain. So younger women have second thoughts about joining local politics.

According to Assistant Professor Dararat Khampeng of the University of Phayao, many women began public service as Village Health Volunteers or Labour Volunteers. At first, they were very well-received by their communities. But when they decide to enter local politics, public support typically declines. In her view, this is a social pattern rather than a set of separate cases.

In many countries, various gender quota measures are applied “to correct historical gender imbalance in local government and fast-track women’s representation,” according to a 2021 UN Women report. These measures can be either voluntary or legislated. According to UN Women, legislated measures are far more effective.

These ideas sound convincing. However, some scholars think that they may not be adequate for Thailand. For one thing, a gender balance in local politics would not matter at all if local politics itself is made irrelevant in the first place.

“For me, the issue of gender and local politics is not so much a problem as the fact that local politics is dominated by the center through the centralization of political power and that the resources stay in the centre and Bangkok”, said Professor Pinyapan Potjanalawan of Lampang Rajabhat University.

Furthermore, even if a gender quota was enforced here, it would still be “just the first step” and “it would not be a way of ensuring power, acceptance, and the creation of public policy more accessible for women,” said Dararat.

“Those things will happen only when society truly acknowledges abilities [of women] and the qualities of capable women, and when a patriarchal structure does not control and direct the thoughts of women who are leaders,” said Dararat.

For Dararat and Pinyapan, the long-term solution is to empower women at all levels, not just at the level of local leaders. This can be done when women come together to form women’s groups and push forward policies for women's rights through all available platforms, especially through their local governments.

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