Although Thailand is known as a gay paradise, LGBT rights are still hardly recognized. Most of Thai people are taught that in this world there are only two gender identities. After the 2014 coup d’état, the military government passed the Gender Equality Act of 2015, which is considered as a step in the right direction for the LGBT community, and other LGBT-related bills are currently in the process of being drafted. However, these laws are not collectively being made by the LGBT community. A popular petition failed to result in policy changes. The political crises in Thailand over the past decade have not only divided the people into two ideological camps — including within the LGBT community itself — but have also caused many people to disengage from political activities, as they view politics as a conflict they do not wish to be a part of. Likewise, this situation has resulted in an absence of a strong social movement for LGBT people.
At the end of 2013, an LGBT political party was informally set up, but because of the coup the following year, which caused every civil political activity to freeze, the project was suspended. With three years under the junta regime gone by, Thailand will finally have an election at the end of 2018, assuming it is not postponed again. But even if it does, the political situation in the country has changed dramatically since the years before the coup. The new constitution, despite being criticized for centralizing power in the hands of the few, was implemented in 2017 without being shared with the public. Along with it came a new election system which does not favor small political parties. Similarly, new laws were passed, which will make it more difficult for political parties to be established in the first place. While there are many LGBT issues that need the attention of mainstream Thai politicians, the organizers of the failed LGBT political party of 2014 now must ask themselves whether they should even attempt to continue engaging in the heavily flawed parliamentary system.
Prior to the election on 2 February 2014, which was the last general election before the coup, the Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression (SOGIE) Rights Party was poised to become Thailand’s first LGBT political party. The idea of Pimsiri Petchnamrob and Chumaporn Taengkliang, the SOGIE Rights Party’s co-founders, was to openly acknowledge the presence of LGBT people in Thai society and offer them an alternative choice in politics. Indeed, there were only two main parties at the time, the Prachathipat Party and the Pheu Thai Party, neither of which offered policies in favor of LGBT rights. Not expecting the SOGIE Rights Party to realistically become a main player, at least in the short term, Pimsiri and Chumaporn hoped that the structure of the parliamentary system would still make it possible them to push forward laws and policies that would benefit the country’s LGBT population, or at the very least, familiarize the public with LGBT issues by prompting discussions in the Assembly and the media. Representatives would be vocal, as LGBT issues would never receive attention otherwise.
This would be the opportunity to demonstrate to Thai society that sexual diversities are normal and as common in Thailand as anywhere else. Pimsiri found that this initiative was attracting the attention and support of LGBT organizations and academics across the country. It looked like the dream could truly turn into a reality, as long as the party got the votes it was counting on. And that would only be the beginning. The party’s long-term objective was to advance a suite of policies and laws for LGBT rights, including gender recognition, sexual non-discrimination, and the right to marry. Though the party carried out several meetings and worked out a strategy on how best to raise LGBT issues in parliament, as well as which other progressive causes to back, the entire project was suspended after the military coup.
The 2014 military coup d’état came at the invitation of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), a pressure group formed with the intention of overthrowing prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government and restoring power to the king. Thai citizens split into two separate camps as tensions rose, aligning with either the pro-PDRC Yellow Shirts (royalists who wore wear yellow, the color of the king, during demonstrations) or the pro-Shinawatra Red Shirts (anti-dictatorship activists composed mostly of rural workers and students). The ensuing shutdown in Bangkok, stretching from late-2013 to mid-2014, created a big enough economic and social disruption that the military eventually felt justified stepping in, removing Yingluck’s administration from power and filling the vacuum itself. Since then, the junta has massively curtailed the rights of civilians to politically organize. Freedom of expression has been limited. Political gatherings have been prohibited. The military government cannot be criticized in the press. Citing the “chaos” of contemporary Thai society, the government imposes its particular brand of law and order with absolute impunity. And while its popular referendum on the 2017 Constitution was mostly carried out for the sake of optics, a majority of Thais came out in favor of the new bill of rights, suggesting the possibility for an end to the country’s ongoing political tensions — at least within the ranks of its citizens.
For Thailand, political power mostly remains in hands of old men who dictate the course of the country on their own, and most definitely believe that gender is binary. This idea is an old relic of Thai culture, where laws are regarded as less important than traditions. While LGBT people can now enjoy legally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression, culturally they still face many obstacles. In Bangkok and other big cities, the visibility of LGBT people have made them more accepted in the public sphere, at least informally. The entertainment industry, for example, has embraced the LGBT community to a certain extent, though the same is hardly true for the government and business sectors. But this pales in comparison to the treatment of LGBT people in rural areas, where LGBT youths are not only bullied verbally and physically in schools by their classmates and teachers, but they receive little to no support from their parents and families. In certain regions, rape is even encouraged as a means of “fixing” nonconforming girls, which is sometimes carried out by their own fathers. It is thus especially difficult for rural LGBT people to come out and fight for their rights, when doing so will, at the very least, alienate them from their families and jeopardize their ability to make a respectable living. Hence, it is necessary to advocate for the normalcy of sexual diversities on a national scale.
To create public awareness and push forward LGBT issues, the community needs to work with the government. Yet the Thai LGBT community is often criticized for not being unified. Owing to identity politics within the LGBT community, as among sexual diversity rights activists, LGBT people usually end up working on issues specific to their particular identity. As is true the world over, not all the people who fall under the LGBT umbrella in Thailand receive equal recognition for their particular struggles. Lesbians in Thailand tend to find that gay men have more privileges than them, as Thai society is still male-dominated, and those who have the most resources will be able to voice their issues louder than the rest. Originally, the gender disparity in LGBT policy funding had to do with the disproportionate effects of the HIV crisis on gay men. This gave men who have sex with men (MSMs) a head start in political organizing, though then as now they also constituted the largest demographic within the LGBT community. But, although MSMs have been present in the political field longer than their lesbian and trans counterparts, they cannot be blamed for it. Donor organizations are also at fault for exacerbating this inequality. As there are many qualifications that must be met in order to receive grant money, smaller advocacy groups tend to miss out on the funding MSM organizations enjoy.
The contemporary LGBT movement, however, suggests another way forward. Activists have forged alliances with other minority groups, like young members of marginal ethnic populations in rural areas. These activists have focused on empowering their young allies by sharing knowledge and providing spaces for them to run their own activities. SK Youth, a youth group in the northeastern province of Surin, works on highlighting the intersections between sexual diversities and the environmental movement; Buku Classroom, a youth group in The Muslim-majority southern province of Pattani, work to promote gender justice and human rights; and Sangsan Anakot Yawachon Development Project, a scholarship program for students from indigenous communities near the Thailand-Myanmar border, provides skills training courses with an approach similar to the SOGIE Rights Party. Though those projects may not have overtly political goals, thanks to social media, they have changed the discussion around LGBT issues.
So will there be a re-emergence of an LGBT political party? For the founders of the SOGIE Rights Party, that answer depends on membership; for LGBT people now have other platforms for effecting change. Or perhaps they will be drawn to a new alternative political party. But given the current state of Thai politics, it remains to be seen whether forming a political party to secure a space for LGBT people in mainstream politics will even be worth the effort.
Credits drawing: Patnarin “Trong” Wongkad & Shin Egkantrong (2017).