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Thai soaps trigger outcry over romanticising rape

In a famous scene from Thailand’s award-winning soap opera “The Power of Shadows,” the handsome protagonist gets drunk and rapes the leading lady. He later begs her forgiveness, and they live happily ever after.

Boy Meets Girl, Boy Rapes Girl, Boy Marries Girl. The premise is so common in Thailand’s popular primetime melodramas it could be called a national twist on the universal romantic plotline. But calls for change are growing.

The recent real-life rape and murder of a girl on an overnight train in Thailand has focused national outrage on messages in popular culture that trivialise – and some say even encourage – rape. Even the powerful general who took over the country in a coup this year had to apologise after suggesting that women who wear bikinis on the beach are vulnerable to sexual assault.

Many in the soap opera industry continue to defend sexual violence, in part, as a key to high ratings in a fiercely competitive industry that draws more than 18 million viewers a night to network television, nearly a quarter of Thailand’s population.

Award-winning director Sitthiwat Tappan even describes some rape scenes as a sort of public service.

“There might be a scene where a woman is dressed sexy, and she walks past a man who has been drinking, and it shows on his face that he’s aroused and wants her,” Sitthiwat said. “In the end, she succumbs to the physical power of the man.”

“Scenes like this try to teach society that women should not travel alone or wear revealing clothes,” the director said. “And men shouldn’t drink.”

But rapists are seldom punished in TV melodramas, and their victims rarely talk about it. That much, at least, is reflected in real life.

Last year, the Public Health Ministry said its hotlines received 31,866 calls from victims of rape or sexual assault. But police that year filed only 3,300 rape cases, and made just 2,245 arrests. Even the hotline number is believed to be far lower than the actual number of assaults in this Southeast Asian country of 67 million.

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