Polygamy in Thailand
There have been some great posts on the subject of mia nois recently. Stick started the discussion with his Weekly Column of February 10, then Kloth followed with an interesting post incorrectly (in my opinion) equating mia nois with courtesans (which they are decidedly not). Farang Dave followed with an excellent post which stated “The origin of mai nois in Thailand is a bit fuzzy.” The purpose of this post is to follow up with some historical background.
Thai ancient laws about marriage were developed over the course of 400 years during what is called the Ayuthaya Period, and finally codified in 1804 by Rama I. Under these laws (called Kodmai Laksana Pua Mia) polygamy was legal. There were three categories of wives:
1- Major Wife (mia klang muang, commonly called mia luang, the term still used today for a wife). This woman was married with the permission of the parents with the understanding that she would be a major wife. Since nothing in the law prohibited it, it was accepted that a man could have more than one major wife.
2- Minor Wife (mia klang nok, commonly called mia noi) was married under the understanding that she would be a minor wife, that is, secondary in rights and privileges to the major wife. Again, a man could have more than one mia noi.
3- Slave Wife (mia klang thasi or thasa phalay) was a slave that was taken by a man (Note: slavery was legal in Thailand but that’s a matter for another post). If she gave the man a child, her slavery status was lifted; it was also lifted on the death of her husband.
All children borne by an official wife of any of these three classes were recognized by law as children of the man.
The purpose of these three classes was two-fold: first, it determined the distribution of wealth after the death of the husband and, second, it determined payment for adultery. If another man slept with any of these wives and was caught he had to pay a financial penalty to the legal husband depending on the status of the wife.
The subject of the modernization of Thailand is also proper for another post, but as a summary King Mongkut (Rama IV…who had 32 wives and 82 children) began the process which accelerated during the early years of the 20th century with the traveling and education of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) to Europe. Modernization essentially meant Westernization. There were calls from within Thailand to replace polygamy with monogamy and the debates lasted for decades. King Vajiravudh wrote a long memo on the subject in 1913. Curiously, the key issue being debated was the status of men’s children from different wives as there were those who proposed that the children of any of the three categories of wives all be required to acknowledge the first wife as their mother. King Vajiravudh noted in his memo that it was common in Europe for men to have minor wives but, as a rule, they did not have children by them so the situation was very different than in Thailand.
The issue of appeasing the West was critical as European powers were encroaching on Thai sovereignty and it was felt that the closer Thai laws matched European ones, the more likely it would be that Europeans would accept the judgments of Thai courts in matters relating to them. The issue of extraterritoriality (whether or not Thai laws could be used to prosecute foreigners living in Thailand vs their own home country laws) was critical here.
The debate finally concluded with the passage of the Civil and Commercial Code of 1935, which is still in effect today.
Monogamy, under the new law, was substituted for Polygamy. Prior, a couple living together or having participated in a Buddhist ceremony could be recognized as husband or wife. Starting in 1935, only legally registered unions were recognized. (Even today, many Thais refer to getting married as “signing papers”.) Under the new code, still in effect today, the religious ceremony had no legal significance.
As usual when laws are written that do not necessarily conform with accepted practice, polygamy continued after 1935 and exists to this day. It has been estimated that up to 20% of Thai women may be mia nois today (although I personally find that figure rather high).
The original three classes of wives have evolved to:
1- Official wife. This woman has registered the marriage, receives the husband’s estate and has children who are legally recognized.
2- Mia Noi. A mia noi today is in a long-term emotional relationship with the married man. She is usually given a car, house/land, a credit card and bank account. If she has children, the children can be recognized in the will. If they are not, trouble often follows. Last year, a Thai friend of mine was at his uncle’s funeral when the uncle’s mia noi showed up with her three children and demanded to be recognized. The case for inheritance is now in the courts.
But, to be clear, a Thai man does not usually take a mia noi just for sex. Sex can easily be obtained without the cost and commitment of a mia noi. Mia nois are not prostitutes or concubines: they have a clear role and status in society. They are not a casual affair but represent a long-term commitment.
3- Gik or girlfriend or FxxK buddy. This is a sexual relationship only.
A 2010 survey from Ramathibodi Hospital reported that 60% of Thai men and 40% of Thai women said that having a minor wife was a man’s personal business. Less than 30% of men and 50% of women said it as an immoral act.
The fact is, relationships in Thailand are economic as well as romantic/emotional. This is accepted throughout all strata of Thai society. As a general rule, women still believe that it is a man’s role to take care of them financially and the man believes the same. While there are many professional Thai women in the work force, they still very often expect their husband to pay all the bills. Another Thai friend of mine complains to me that he pays all the household bills even though his wife makes as much as he does. When I ask him why he doesn’t do anything about it, he shrugs.
As would be expected, mia nois are usually younger than the man, and of a lower social class (though usually not from Isaan). They want a long-term relationship, accept that they cannot be married, and are ready to give up the piece of paper for financial security.
I asked a Thai friend about his mia noi. This man is quite well off, the CEO of a listed company. He explained:
“When my wife hit menopause she told me she was no longer interested in sex, and that I should find another solution. She was busy with her own job and the kids, and had little time for me. I had always frequented massage parlors but one night stands were getting boring. I wanted something more. Finally I met a woman around 20 years old who was working at my friend’s company. We started having coffee, and then one thing led to another. After about six months she said she wanted to go to university but couldn’t afford to do so and didn’t have the time if she was also working.
“I agreed to pay her a monthly salary and also pay for her university tuition, and a small apartment. The apartment was great because I didn’t have to sneak around hotel lobbies worrying if I would bump into someone I knew. After she graduated she got a job. Along the way I bought her a Toyota, nothing fancy, some land and eventually a house. Of course I buy her gold every year for her birthday, and I also gave her a credit card with a monthly limit.
“I see her once a week, sometimes twice. If I have to travel for business I take her with me. Of course, now she wants a kid, which I have to give her because if I don’t she’ll leave me and I’ve grown quite fond of her. I need to speak to a lawyer to arrange things so that she’s taken care of and won’t make a claim on my wife or my other children’s inheritance.”
Why do you stay with her, I asked.
“Well, at first, she was exciting. We would go dancing and clubbing and she was far and away the best looking thing on the floor. I was so proud of her. She had a great body. Over the years, look, she’s gotten older, as have I, but she’s got a great wit and she’s still fun to be with. I get something from her I don’t get from my wife.”
Why don’t you get divorced?
“Why would I do that? Things are fine as they are.”
And does your wife know?
“She probably suspects. Why wouldn’t she? She’s not stupid. But she probably thinks, why rock the boat. She’s taken care of, she’s got the kids and the house and she’ll get all my company stock.”
…I hope you have enjoyed the historical background as well as the comments from my Thai friend. I’d be happy to answer any questions on the subject.
The author can be contacted at : Thethaiprofessor@yahoo.com