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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A Wife in the Shadows

Many Thai men have concubines, but they are meant to keep them well-hidden

By Matthew Fletcher and Julian Gearing / Bangkok


THAI INTERIOR MINISTER SANOH Thienthong had a crucial meeting in Government House that day, but he was skipping it. An orange-suited source of embarrassment had turned up: his mistress Jitra Tosaksit. To avoid whispers and knowing chuckles from colleagues, he fled before his visitor could see him. Having raised three children with the minister, Jitra, 48, was in no mood to stay in the shadows. The former beauty queen wanted recognition. For Sanoh, the important thing was to stay out of the front-pages. Cornered by the press, the businessman-turned-politician had one reply: the matter is personal.

Still, such personal dramas occasionally hit the headlines. And they highlight a widespread local practice: keeping a minor wife, or mia noi. This has long been part of Thai tradition -- especially for those who can afford it. Army strongmen, prime ministers, top businessmen, many prominent men have one. While Thailand is not alone in its infidelities, it may be unique in the extent to which people turn a blind eye to the extra-marital affairs. "Concubinage and sex-for-sale have long been accepted in Thai society," says scholar Pasuk Phongpaichit. Losing their virginity with a prostitute is a rite of passage for most Thai men. And though polygamy was outlawed 60 years ago, keeping mia noi remains entrenched, if firmly under wraps.

It is rich grist for the rumour mill -- one doing the rounds in Bangkok last year centered on videos allegedly showing a former general in bed with his mistress. But the care and upkeep of mia noi is not a subject for conversation in polite company. Thailand is a conservative society, after all. Appearances have to be maintained. Still, few people are outraged by the practice, says computer shop manager Pichit Khitaphanna. The overseas-educated professional rules it out for himself, though: "You have to consider the feelings of other people involved."

If anything, having a mia noi is now a growing practice, says Siriporn Scrobanek, a women's counselor. "It affects all layers of society. Even men who are not well-off end up taking a minor wife." One recent example: a young factory worker who earned about $6 a day. Some husbands cite a poor sex life or marriages turned sour. But these are seldom the reasons. Take businessmen Somchai and Preecha. Neither has any complaint about their legal spouses. Nonetheless, both men secretly maintain second households. There is no problem, they say, as long as their wives don't know. "My wife and I are happy together," says Somchai, 37. "But I need more than this. It's only natural. Men are that way." For Preecha, it began as a casual fling with one of his secretaries. "She is very beautiful," he says. "We started having an affair. Then I decided I should support her."

Many men begin with common-law unions. Thai society still frowns on unmarried people living together. So a "marriage," sealed with a traditional ceremony if not by law, offers a neat solution to the lovers' dilemma. It implies a formal relationship, which keeps the woman happy. But commitment is often fleeting and, for some men, the next step is to get a minor wife. Fear of AIDS, ironically, seems to have added to the appeal of a mia noi. Sex with a mistress would be safer than with a prostitute or casual partner -- so the theory goes. "You don't know who they have been sleeping with," said Sak, a respondent in a survey on sexual attitudes.

For many Thais with extra money in their pockets, a minor wife is next on the wish-list after a new car. And the country's decade-long economic boom has made that possible for many. Cheep, a businessman, points out: "Men praise their friends [for having a mia noi]. They are proud they can take care of two wives." You might say the mia noi is a success symbol. Or even proof of male charm -- "Husbands boast that this shows they are more handsome," says Somwong, a married man.

By that measure, Saisupat Teerapabsakulwong, better known as Tek Tor, should have dashing looks that leave women swooning. The meatball factory owner from Nakhon Pathom has seven wives, all of whom live under the same roof with their 20 children. Reality, though, is less romantic. The 52-year-old met every one of his wives while they were employed at his plant. The key to keeping his enormous family together -- making sure he has the means to support them.

Certainly, for a poor woman with little education -- and many who become concubines fall into this category -- being No. 2 wife may not seem such a bad deal. The prospect of a secure life is very seductive. And if the "husband" is reasonably well-off, the arrangement usually includes a nice apartment, a reasonable allowance, a mobile phone or pager, and even a car. In short, escape from poverty.

Noi, vivacious and college-educated, does not fit the stereotype. She was recovering from a failed relationship when she met her man in 1994. He was 35; she was 23. She liked his kindness and sense of humor. "He was fun; he made me laugh." Compared to her earlier boyfriends, he seemed attractively mature. It was only later that he told her he had a wife and children. "Then it all made sense; why he couldn't see me at the weekend, the excuses," she says. Yet Noi has settled for a partner she sees only three nights a week. She knows she will always come second to his official family. "We are so happy together. Why give that up just because he's married?" she asks. Plus there are the benefits: he pays for the groceries, the apartment and other expensive fripperies.

Orathai gets no such support, though her "husband" regularly brings pricey gifts. Love is enough, says the secretary, relaxing at a trendy restaurant on Sukhumvit Road. Attractive, well-groomed, she knows she could easily pick a young bachelor. But Orathai, 28, is sticking by her married man. That he refuses to leave his family seems part of the attraction. "You respect a man who stays with his wife and children. If he left them, would he be the sort of man you want to be with?" she says. "Besides, I think it's me he really loves."

Maybe. But more often that not, such liaisons last just a few short years. Then, it is the mia noi's children who suffer when the man decides to move on. It is notoriously difficult to win support for children of such liaisons, lawyers say. Increasing cases of second households are putting a strain on the family, says Thanawadee Thajeen of the Friends of Women Foundation. The organization, which offers troubled women a friendly ear and legal advice, is seeing more marital and family problems. "A fifth of the women who come to see us do so because their husband has a minor wife," says Thanawadee.

Many wives continue to put up with their husbands' philandering as an unavoidable fact of life, but more often it is because they fear being abandoned. Wani, a housewife, is a typical example. "I know he has found someone more attractive. She is younger than me, and she's smart. What can I do?" she asks. "I only hope he will continue to support me. He does care about our two children." Women who can afford it hire private detectives to probe the seriousness of their husbands' extra-marital flings. Among their key concerns: Has he bought her a house yet? And do they have children?

Suing for divorce is a poor option under Thai law. Unlike for men, a woman can only succeed if she can prove that her cheating spouse has been financially supporting another woman. (Mee choo, the Thai term for infidelity, applies only to women.) "This law reveals the deeply entrenched double-standard at the core of our society's exploitation of women," fumed columnist Sanitsuda Ekachai in the Bangkok Post. Legislators have been reluctant to change the statute books. The reason is simple, says Ladawan Wongsriwong, one of the few women members of parliament. Many politicians have minor wives or extra-marital affairs to conceal, she says.

Not surprisingly, such arguments cut little ice among traditionalists. "In the old days, aristocrats, wealthy merchants, and anybody who was anybody had one or more mia noi," says writer and film critic Ying Kowsurat. "Then, our society and people's outlook was swayed by outside influences, new ideas, particularly from the West," he grumbles. "Suddenly, polygamy became something undesirable, bad even."

But the times, they are a-changin'. And along with it women's attitudes to marriage, says Supatra Suparb, a professor at Chulalongkorn University. "Women feel monogamy is more modern and progressive. They think 'stick to one person'." A number of wives are no longer prepared to suffer quietly. The wife of former armed forces chief, General Sunthorn Kongsompong, is a high-profile example. At a press conference in 1991, Orachorn Kongsompong threatened to sue the general's mistress for flaunting the family name. Such blatant behavior hurt her sons' feelings, she had said. Others take more drastic measures. Enraged wives have been known to attack their erring spouses with knives -- where it hurts most. So much so that one clinic in Bangkok specializes in re-attaching severed organs. In a recent example, one woman cut off her husband's penis after drugging him -- and tied the offending appendage to a helium balloon.

Most, though, make their points in less painful ways. Ladawan, for one, has taken the route of public ridicule. She had been especially angered by how "agents" went to ministers with photos of the winners of a beauty pageant in her home district, touting the young women as possible mia noi. "Some ministers were very angry" when she brought it public attention, she says. The parliamentarian came close to naming philandering colleagues, but settled for listing the ministers' initials.

Gossip being what it is, even Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh has been unable to avoid allegations that he has been keeping a minor wife. He has firmly denied them. But the former army chief admits to being something of a ladies' man. "All women are the same," the premier said. "They are all lovely." Admirable sentiments. And, for many Thai men, reason enough for them to keep more than one wife. Still, they had best hide the kitchen knives.


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