BANGKOK, Thailand — Is it merely a cheap shot at the leader of Thailand's ruling military junta or the opening fusillade of long-suppressed feminist outrage in a country better known for obsequious femininity?
Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong, the supreme commander of Thailand's armed forces, is undoubtedly accustomed to making front-page headlines, but a spate of recent articles has thrust him into a national debate for reasons unconnected with his powerful job.
Gen. Sunthorn's wife, Orachorn, last month filed a lawsuit against his mistress seeking to ban her from using the family name. In the process, the case--and the blaring headlines in the local news media--has served to shine an unfamiliar spotlight on some of the most controversial pillars of Thai culture: male-dominated marital relations and extramarital sex.
Interestingly, the current controversy does not really focus on the revelation that Gen. Sunthorn is keeping a mistress, which seems to have been widely known. The essence of the case is that the mistress dishonored the wife by using the family name of Kongsompong and that the wronged wife decided to fight back.
What makes the Sunthorn case exceptional is that it provides the vehicle for a public debate about the treatment of wives and mistresses in a society where such things are almost never discussed openly.
Sunthorn is not only supreme commander of Thailand's armed forces, but he gained international prominence when the military seized power in February and he emerged as chairman of the ruling National Peacekeeping Council.
Bangkok Gov. Chamlong Srimuang, a renowned prude who recently dismissed his deputy for having an affair with his secretary, said it was proper for the news media to play up the Sunthorn controversy, arguing that it represents "an important moral issue" for Thailand.
Thais have a generally tolerant view of sex. Although prostitution is officially outlawed, for example, there are an estimated 750,000 prostitutes in the country, more than 1% of the population.
Traditional family relationships--in which the woman is supposed to be an obedient housekeeper and child bearer while the husband steps out--are coming under increasing criticism in Thailand as education increases and women take breadwinning jobs in the country's developing industrialized society.
So ingrained is the practice of keeping a mistress that the Thai language has spawned several euphemisms to protect all concerned from losing face. Commonly, a mistress is referred to as mia noi , or minor wife. When the practice reaches the social prominence of Gen. Sunthorn, the wife becomes Baan Yai , or Big House, in the press, and the mistress becomes Baan Lek , or Small House.
In the wake of the Sunthorn controversy, Thai newspapers surveyed various personalities on the pluses and minuses of extramarital affairs.
"If my husband takes a baan lek , for sure there will be a fight because no woman would willingly allow her husband to have a mistress without feeling anything," said Wantana Rochananin, wife of Thailand's air force commander.
But Jeeranand Sawetanand, a former Thai beauty queen, commented: "Men keeping mistresses is very normal in Thai tradition." Nonetheless, Jeeranand, who is married, said that if her husband took a mistress: "I would ask him to choose between us, and if he chooses to leave, I will let him go. I can support myself."
Chintana Yossundara, chairman of the American University Alumni Assn. and a frequent lecturer on women's issues, said she believes modern women have to accept that men take mistresses.
"But there must be some taste and some limits," she said. "The mistress should also have some self-respect."
The current scandal was apparently touched off when the general's mistress, Ampapan, gave an interview to the Thai-language magazine Matichon in early June in which she described the "warm family" life she has established with Sunthorn, who is 59.
"He was the first military man I ever knew, and frankly speaking, when I first met him, I did not think he was all that handsome--kind of thin and dark," Ampapan said. "But his eyes have power, and I knew this was it."
Ampapan, who is 39, said that a year after meeting Sunthorn, he took her to meet his mother, who agreed to adopt her so that she could use the family name.
"Right now, I am his full-time wife, taking care of him from the moment he gets up in the morning until he goes to bed at night," she added.
Sunthorn's outraged wife then filed the lawsuit demanding that the mistress stop using the Kongsompong name, saying she was trying to protect the "dignity of my family."
"What I have done is for the sake of my children," said the 57-year-old Orachorn, who has been married to Sunthorn for 32 years. "My sons are hurt because she is using this family name."
Orachorn, who is formally called khunying , or lady, hardly fits the Western image of a feminist and is still protective of her husband's sensibilities.