February 1, 2008
ILGA-Asia conference elects first regional board
by Sylvia Tan
Alongside 14 panel presentations and workshops held Jan 24 to 27 in Chiangmai, 26 Asia-based member organisations of the International Lesbian and Gay Association elects its first regional board. Fridae editor Sylvia Tan reports from Chiangmai.
A 10-member regional board has been elected for the first time by 26 Asia-based member organisations of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) on Sunday, 27 Jan 2008, at the third ILGA-Asia conference held in Chiangmai. Members of ILGA met separately after each day’s conference proceedings to discuss the proposals related to self-organising within the organisation. About 160 lesbian, gay and human rights activists from 12 Asian and non-Asian countries attended the conference which was held in the northern Thai city from Jan 24 to 27. The conference was hosted by the Committee on Lesbigay Rights in Burma (CLRB) and M-Plus, a local gay group which runs a drop-in centre.
The ILGA-Asia board is the fourth regional board to be set up within the framework of the 29-year-old organisation after Europe (1996), Latin-America (2000) and Africa (2007). Founded in 1978, the Brussels-based network has links with some 600 member organisations in over 90 countries including 75 gay groups across Asia. Asia is currently represented on ILGA’s world board by Mira Alexis P. Ofreneo of Manila-based lesbian activist group CLIC (Can’t Live In the Closet) and Aung Myo Min of Committee for Lesbigay Rights in Burma which is based in Chiangmai. They were elected at ILGA’s last regional conference held in 2005 in Cebu, the Philippines. Following the appointment of the new ILGA-Asia board on Sunday, Poedjiati Tan of Gaya Nusantara, Indonesia’s oldest gay rights advocacy group; and Sahran Abeysundara (Equal Ground, Sri Lanka) – best known to many as being a contestant on The Amazing Race Asia – will be the new female and male representatives to represent Asia on ILGA’s world board.
The other eight members of the Asia board are Eva Lee (Common Language, China) and Ashley Wu (Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association) representing East Asia; Toen-King Oey (Arus Pelangi, Indonesia) and Tan, South East Asia; Abeysundara and Hasna Hena (Bangladesh), South Asia; Anna Kirey (Labrys, Kyrgyzstan) and Suki (MSM Mongolia), Central Asia; Kamilia (Institut Pelangi Perempuan, Indonesia) and Frank Zhao (Trans China) were elected to fill the vacant seats in the West Asia region (Middle East) as it did not have any representation in the conference. The 10 board members will serve a 2-year term until a new board gets elected at the next ILGA-Asia conference to be hosted by Nepal’s Blue Diamond Society in 2010. The other contender Bali, which was proposed by potential host organisation Gaya Nusantara, lost by a hair’s breath when a vote was taken on Sunday. Only member organisations have voting rights, while individual members are excluded from voting.
According to the ILGA website, the aim of a regional conference is to provide an "opportunity for Asian activists to reflect on ways to consolidate their movement and further progress in self-organising on a regional level."
Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, ILGA Female Co-Secretary-General, says that one of the main aims of establishing a regional board is to create opportunities for activists in Asia to network, pool their resources and benefit from the experiences of others who face the same challenges in their own countries. "One of the short term objectives is to have a working constitution and eventually establish a secretariat in Asia – a registered NGO working for LGBTIQ rights. My vision is for Asia to form a cohesive and strong network to fight for our rights in this region which has long been neglected," the Sri Lanka-based activist told Fridae. "Many of the countries in Asia also criminalise homosexuality so I think a concerted effort to decriminalise in many of the countries would be a primary objective of quite a few regions." She added that the key to gaining LGBT rights is having a big voice, and making it "so much bigger so that people have to take notice" and recognise equal rights for gay, lesbian and transgendered people.
Prominent speakers at the 4-day conference include Dr Naiyana Supapueng from the National Human Rights Commission in Thailand and Vitit Muntarbhorn, Professor of Law at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University who also co-chaired the experts’ meeting which drafted The Yogyakarta Principles, a set of principles on the application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity. Prof Vitit is also a UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Attendees of the conference also heard from Aya Kamikawa, a Setagaya Ward Assembly Member in Tokyo who is the first transsexual person to seek elected office in Japan; and Kanako Otsuji, Japan’s first openly lesbian politician who ran in a national election last year about mainstreaming LGBT issues at a national political level in Japan A street parade was held in the city for the first time as over 200 conference attendees, observers and members of the local LGBT community marched from the Buddhist Centre (Puttastan) to Pantip Plaza on Saturday night. More photos and reports to follow
February 1, 2008
(For full text and photos: http://www.fridae.com/newsfeatures/article.php?articleid=2160&viewarticle=1 )
ChiangMai, Thailand witnessed its first gay march on Saturday, Jan 27 as some 160 gay activists and NGO workers descended on the northern Thai city for the third ILGA-Asia conference. Conference attendees as well as members of the local LGBT community marched from the Buddhist Centre (Puttastan) through the busy Chang Klan Road’s Night Market to Pantip Plaza as thousands of tourists and locals looked on.
The march, which was organised in conjunction with the 4-day conference, was covered by the local media including The Nation newspaper, The Irrawaddy News Magazine and the BBC World Service. Among those present were Sunil Pant, the founder and director of Nepal’s Blue Diamond Society – an organisation that advocates the rights of sexual minorities. According to a press release issued by Pant in December last year, the Nepal Supreme Court had “issued directive orders to (the) Nepal government to ensure rights to life according to their own identities and introduce laws providing equal rights to LGBTIs and amend all the discriminatory laws against LGBTIs.” It also declared that persons of the third gender should be recognised as such. Locally termed metis, they could be pre op male to female transgenders, or persons with a gender expression that is not typical of his/her biological sex.
While some members of the LGBT community have expressed discomfort about massage parlours (and gogo bars especially in the case of Bangkok Pride) prominently advertising their services during pride parades, a veteran pride parade organiser argued that any promotion of commercial services should be viewed the same way as long as the participants are supportive of the gay cause. He highlighted that while many have no reservations about the presence of blue-chip brands, the same people may balk at the presence of massage parlours, gogo bars and other businesses that cater to the gay community as their participation casts gays in a bad light.
Related web sites
International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission
Blue Diamond Society
International Lesbian and Gay Association
Institut Pelangi Perempuan
Thailand’s Gay Past
Mention homosexuality and many Thais will blame it on recent Western influences. Ask Varaporn Vichayarath what she thinks, however, and she would simply smile before providing a list of old temples with murals depicting same-sex courtship. Yes, homosexual courtship between both men and women. And yes, at temples. "Contrary to conservative beliefs, homosexuality has long existed in our society, as evidenced by these mural paintings," said Varaporn, a book editor who has researched the topic. Varaporn recently presented her findings at Thailand’s first ever national conference on sexuality and sexual diversity, where she displayed photographs of murals painted on old temples in various parts of Thailand. Varaporn started with images of the 18th century Buddhaisawan Chapel in the National Museum, where the sacred Buddha Sihing image is housed for public reverence. There, she found some murals with images of lesbianism. One, located on the middle of the left wall after the main entrance, depicts two mermaids frolicking with each other above the ocean waves. On the opposite wall is the scene on the Buddha’s Great Renunciation, the night Prince Siddhartha decided to leave palace life to ordain. In the portion of the mural that shows a group of court ladies sleeping in front of the royal chamber some of the women are embracing one another.
Lesbian love is often seen in murals depicting the Great Renunciation, Varaporn explained. "While it reflects what must have been a common phenomenon among court women in those days since they were barred from direct contact with men, it may also symbolise worldly lust, which the prince was leaving behind," she said. A few other paintings of palace ladies cuddling each other can be found on the scripture cabinets behind the Buddha Sihing image. Suwannaram Temple in Bangkok Noi is another place Varaporn discovered murals showing homosexuality. Lesbian cuddling is again included in the scene of the Buddha’s Great Renunciation, found on the front wall of the ordination hall or ubosot, opposite the main Buddha image. Yet Varaporn pointed out that representations of homosexuality in the sacred space of temples does not equate to social acceptance. "These scenes appear in the context of mainstream values of heterosexuality, so what they convey ranges from a humorous peek at homosexuality to outright ridicule and condemnation."
An example of this is a depiction at Suwannaram Temple of sodomy used as punishment. Found on the ubosot wall to the left of the main Buddha image, it reflects social contempt of homosexuality and how some men used rape as a means to punish and humiliate other men. Murals showing same-sex relationships also appear at the Kongkaram Temple in Ratchaburi, Pratusarn Temple in Suphan Buri and the Phra Sing and Buak Krok Luang temples in Chiang Mai. The ordination hall of Kongkaram Temple houses two of Thailand’s most well-known mural depictions of lesbian love. One, found on the right wall of the ordination hall after the main entrance, shows one court lady teasingly touch the breast of another. Another mural found to the left of the entrance features two court ladies in a close embrace, unperturbed by surrounding commotion. The paintings of lesbian love at Pratusarn Temple, though not as refined as those in city temples, reflect the folk artists’ sense of humour rather than social condemnation. One painting seen immediately after entering that depicts the Buddha’s Great Renunciation shows a group of court ladies in a romantic embrace. Another mural, showing an elderly woman playfully chasing another woman, is found on the far end of the left wall near the main Buddha image.
The ordination hall of Phra Sing Temple in Chiang Mai, meanwhile, houses murals inspired by the popular folk tale Sang Thong, not the life of the Buddha as in most other temples. Interestingly, these murals show homosexuality to be part of local life, be it in the court or the village. One of these beautiful paintings depicts a group of nymphs (nang fah) caressing one another. Two other murals detail gay courtship; one in which two princes have romantically locked eyes while on a journey to marry their princesses, another in which two young village men hold each other in a loving embrace. All the murals are on the right wall after the entrance. Varaporn said that murals showing lesbian courtship are more common and easier to identify than ones showing gay courtship, which, as they are not overtly sexual, some may argue reflect only male friendship. Varaporn compared the gestures in murals at Phra Sing Temple showing gay courtship with those showing heterosexual relationships. She believes that in the representations of heterosexuality, these gestures, which include eye contact, close embraces, placing hands on another’s hips and offering someone a cigarette, indicate romantic advances between men and women. But she remains cautious of claiming they mean the same when seen between two men given the culture of male camaraderie in the North. "We should note, however, that other studies on the North show that gay relationships were not a strange thing in the past," Varaporn pointed out.
But why do these paintings on same-sex love appear in temples, supposedly sacred spiritual spaces? And why and when did they cease to be produced? According to Varaporn, the agricultural society of ancient Thailand had long employed sex-related rituals or items associated with fertility in worship. "Consequently, the people saw sexuality as a normal part of life." When, starting in early Ayutthaya period, temples became more widespread and more accessible to commoners, it was natural for the painters of murals to depict what they saw in daily life – including sexuality – in their work, she explained. The temples that house paintings of same-sex relations mainly belong to the early Rattanakosin period during the reign of King Rama I to King Rama III. This was the time society was opening up and allowing more diverse groups to interact with one another on an equal level, at least in religious spheres, said Varaporn. The depictions of contemporary life, however, are just a tiny part in the ubosot murals and do not in any way interfere with their main stories, which are the Buddha’s life and other folk tales. Instead, the everyday scenes were used as space-fillers by the early Rattanakosin mural painters, who liked to make their characters and decorative scenes small and compact in order to cover every minute detail of a story. "This left a lot of white space given the size of the wall," explained Varaporn. "The mural painters solved this problem by filling the space with scenery such as trees and mountains as well as depictions of commoners’ daily lives."
Since these portions of the paintings were not as stylised as those showing the main story, the artists were allowed more freedom and creativity to paint contemporary life and to express themselves, she added. Murals showing same-sex relations started to phase out after the reign of Rama III and disappeared altogether after the reign of Rama V. Contrary to the mainstream belief that homosexuality arrived with Western influences in modern Thailand, the relative social openness toward homosexuality – as indicated by same-sex courtship seen in the murals – started to disappear when the ruling elite began to accept 19th century Victorian morality and sexually repressive beliefs, said Varaporn.
Consequently, the artists’ playful murals showing same-sex courtship were frowned upon and eventually disappeared. During the reign of King Rama V, the country adopted Western laws making sodomy illegal. Those laws were repealed in 1956. The silence on same-sex relationships, which has contributed to various forms of discrimination against homosexuals, is actually a recent social phenomena, said Varaporn. "We can see this by going back to our temples and our mural paintings," she said.
6th March 2008
Call for action against bogus AIDS cures
by PinkNews.co.uk staff writer
A leading human rights group has called on the United Nations to act against the proliferation of unproven treatments for AIDS. An article published in the peer-reviewed journal Globalisation and Health, Human Rights Watch cited examples of the promotion of these remedies in countries as diverse as Zambia, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, India, and Zimbabwe.
Human Rights Watch says the UN and its member states are failing to address serious threats to life and health posed by the promotion of unproven AIDS ‘cures’ and by counterfeit antiretroviral drugs. "Fake cures have been promoted since AIDS was first identified," said Joseph Amon, HIV/AIDS programme director at Human Rights Watch and author of the article. "In the era of expanded antiretroviral treatment programmes, the failure of governments to monitor these false claims and ensure accurate information about life-saving antiretroviral drugs undermines global efforts to fight AIDS."
In Gambia in February 2007 President Yahya Jammeh claimed to have developed a herbal cure for AIDS that was effective in three days if people taking the treatment discontinued taking antiretroviral drugs and refrained from alcohol, caffeine, and sex. Following the announcement, Gambian journalists who criticised the so-called cure were fired, and the UN resident coordinator in Gambia, Fadzai Gwaradzimba, was permanently expelled for asking for scientific proof of the treatment’s effectiveness. Last week the Gambian government announced with much fanfare that Jammeh had been awarded an honorary degree in Herbal and Homeopathic medicine by the Brussels-based Jean Monnet European University. In accepting the degree, Jammeh announced that he had discovered cures for obesity and impotence, adding to his previously declared ‘cures’ for infertility, diabetes, and asthma.
Also in 2007, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced the discovery of IMOD (an abbreviation for immuno-modulator drug), a herbal AIDS treatment made from seven local Iranian herbs. The government has promoted the drug as a "therapeutic vaccine" and as the "first choice" for treatment in resource-constrained developing countries. The President’s Office for Technology Cooperation has also promoted the remedy and sought partners for joint marketing, clinical trials, and manufacturing.
According to news reports in November 2007, the Iranian Minister of Health and Medical Education stated that all patients with
advanced HIV disease – more than 1,500 overall – would be treated with IMOD. "Countries are gambling with the lives of people living with HIV by promoting unproven AIDS remedies,” said Mr Amon. "The UN should condemn this practice and work with governments and civil society groups to ensure that effective AIDS treatment and information about it are provided.
March 5, 2008
New men’s lifestyle TV programme to launch March 9 in Thailand
by News Editor
Passport for Men – a new weekly men’s lifestyle TV programme will premier on a Thai cable network on Sunday. While Thai television has long been broadcasting lifestyle programmes for women, Passport for Men is set to make history as the first Thai lifestyle TV program to target men.
Featuring three twenty-something male hosts Tong, Chan, and Beige, the programme will feature three segments “Living and Dining,”“Travel and Lifestyle” and “Fashion and Fun.” The first episode of the 30-minute weekly variety show opens with the three hosts awakening from their sleep – in the same bed – who will later present their own segments. Focusing on general living and lifestyle trends, producers say the programme is suited to men regardless of their sexual orientation.
Explaining what inspired the programme, Vitaya Saeng-Aroon, director of Cyberfish Media, and one of the show’s four producers told Fridae: “Up till now Thai TV has lacked any content that shows men how to live and be their best. Most of the airtime is occupied by programs for women from dawn ’til dusk. It’s time for us to speak out and make our demands heard. What should a guy who cares about his looks do? How does he find a great condo? Or prepare a quick and healthy meal? Men need advice on these topics too.”
Cyberfish Media and the show’s production firm, PFM Production, acknowledge that their programme would be of interest to companies looking to reach their male clientele and are looking for the “right communication channel to effectively capture their target groups.” “We are the bridge to take their products to their consumers. The market of ‘for-men products’ is growing tremendously in Asia, as it is elsewhere in the world. Why not have a TV program that rides the wave of this growth?” he said.
Vitaya also highlighted a commonly articulated concern that Thailand and other Asian countries are “overwhelmed with Western-looking guys from the Western media” and hopes for the show to further promote Asian bodies and Asian faces in the media.“Consumers will love to see models and TV hosts who look like them,” he said. He added that Passport for Men has been conceptualised to appeal to a wider audience beyond its domestic viewers and plans to feature English subtitles in its next stage of development.
Passport for Men broadcasts every Sunday at 8.30 pm starting Mar 9 on MVNews (Channel 26) through MVTV Cable Network, with simultaneous streaming on www.mvnews.net. From Mar 10, the show will be available for download or streaming on its website: www.ppformen.com, which will also offer archives of earlier shows. Sneak previews are shown below.
2nd April 2008
Thailand joins gay blood ban
by Adam Lake
The Thai Red Cross Society has decided to reject blood donations from homosexual men in a move which has met with strong opposition from human rights organisations. It said it had large amounts of unused blood that had tested HIV-positive. Most of the infected blood was reportedly from men who were having unprotected sex with other men, according the director of the National Blood Centre, Soisaang Pikulsod. Thailand is not the first country to ban gay men from donating blood.
In 1985 the American Red Cross and Food and Drug Administration stopped accepting blood donations from "any male who has had sex with another male since 1977, even once." Intravenous drug users or recent immigrants from certain nations with high rates of HIV infection are also barred from donating blood. The continued inclusion of men who have sex with men on the prohibited list has created some degree of controversy. The United Kingdom Blood and Tissue Transplantation Service states on its website:
"We ask gay men not to give blood because gay men, as a group, are known to be at an increased risk of acquiring HIV and a number of other sexually transmitted infections,many of which are carried in the blood. Changing the rule to allow gay men to donate one year after they last had sex with another man would increase the risk by 60%"
Currently in the UK, a man who has ever had oral or anal sex with another man, even with a condom, is barred from donating blood for life because they are deemed to be more at risk of passing on sexually transmitted diseases. A National Blood Service spokesperson said the ban on gay and bisexual men giving blood is "justified" despite the fact that lifting the order would dramatically increase depleted stocks. Campaign group BloodBan.co.uk has branded current guidelines "outdated and discriminatory" and called for an overhaul of the policy.
Despite the fact that the National Aids Trust [NAT] state that black Africans are an equally high risk group for blood-borne STDs, they are not subject to a blanket lifetime ban in the way that men who have had gay sex are. The only other people who are permanently banned from donating blood are individuals who have ever received money or drugs for sex and individuals who have ever injected, or been injected, with drugs. Guidelines from the UK Blood Safety Leaflet specify that any individual donating: "must wait twelve months after sex with a partner who has, or you think may have been sexually active in parts of the world where HIV/AIDS is very common, including most countries in Africa."
The twelve-month wait is not an option for gay or bisexual men, even one who has been celibate for most of his life.
Australia formerly had a similar ban, but now only prohibits donating blood within one year after male-male sex (longer than the typical window period for HIV blood screening tests performed on donated blood).
In Finland the parliamentary ombudsman launched an investigation on the possible unconstitutionality of the life-time ban in January 2006. France, Russia and South Africa have also recently lifted the blanket ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men. They have concluded that their blood donor policy should be based on differentiating between risky and non-risky behaviour, regardless of sexual orientation.
April 2nd, 2008
Temporary ban on castration in Thailand
Thailand’s Health Ministry ordered hospitals and medical clinics to temporarily stop performing castrations for non-medical reasons, saying Wednesday that the procedure performed on transsexuals needs stricter monitoring. A letter will be sent to medical facilities around the country telling them to halt so-called commercial castrations until further notice, he said. Violators could face closure of their practices.
"As of today, doctors can perform the surgery if there is a medical reason to do so – not for any other reason," ministry spokesman Suphan Srithamma said. The move came after a leading gay activist, Natee Teerarojjanapongs, called on the Medical Council to take action against clinics that perform castrations on underage boys. Natee, head of the Gay Political Group of Thailand, said he received several complaints from parents of underage boys seeking castrations in part because of Internet advertisements that promise cheap operations resulting in feminine qualities such as softer skin.
Suphan said he did not have official statistics on the numbers of castrations performed in Thailand, but said many underage patients were unaware of the risks it posed, including hormonal imbalances and stunted physical development. The ministry and the Medical Council of Thailand will draft new guidelines that doctors must follow before carrying out the procedure, Suphan said. Existing rules require boys under age 18 to have parental consent before undergoing castration but it is suspected that many doctors overlook the rule, Suphan said.
"It’s a totally wrong perception that castration will make boys more feminine," Natee told The Bangkok Post last week. "These youngsters should wait until they are mature enough to thoroughly consider the pros and cons of such an operation."
Dr. Thep Vechavisit, owner of the Pratunam Polyclinic in Bangkok, which specializes in sex change surgery, said the surgery was a better option than taking excessive female hormones, which can cause liver damage. Many many young male transsexuals take hormones, he said. His clinic charges $125 for non-medical castrations and has performed 205, mostly for Thais, since first offering the service in 2004, he said. "There’s nothing wrong with this procedure," Thep said.
11 April 2008
Transsexuals and Thai Law
by Jason Armbrecht
Walk down almost any busy street in Thailand, especially in a tourist hotspot such as Bangkok, Pattaya or Phuket, and chances are good that you will see at least one Thai transsexual. Thailand’s first sex change surgery was performed in 1972 and the country now hosts more of these procedures per year than any other country in the world. Estimates on the current number of Thai transsexuals range from 10,000 to 100,000, including a number of pop singers and television and movie stars. A transsexual beauty pageant, the Miss Tiffany’s Universe, is televised nationally each year. On the surface, Thailand appears to live up to its worldwide reputation as a place where transsexuals can experience greater freedom and acceptance than other nations. It would seem curious then that Thai laws are in actuality quite conservative regarding transsexuals and their rights. A closer look at Thai society and culture, however, reveals a society with a decidedly mixed view of transsexuals – a view reflected in a legal system that does not afford transsexuals many of the rights and protections enjoyed by the rest of the population.
Thailand is roughly 95% Buddhist and as such, the issue of transsexuals in Thai society may be examined at through this lens. Unlike Christians, Buddhists cannot point to specific religious laws or teachings forbidding homosexuality, transsexuals or gay marriage. One of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism is tolerance of those who act differently or hold different views. At first blush, this tolerance (if not acceptance) would seem to extend to transsexuals in Thailand. Transsexuals are integrated into everyday life and physical or verbal assault on transsexuals in public is extremely rare.
This patina of tolerance is also borne out in a survey of male to female transsexuals conducted by Dr. Sam Winter, Associate Professor, Division of Learning, Development and Diversity, Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong. According to his findings, the transsexuals polled indicated that 40% of their fathers and 66% of their mothers either accepted or were encouraging when told of their decision to change genders, numbers he believes would be impossible to duplicate in the West. Unfortunately for transsexuals, this familial tolerance does not mirror the opinion of certain sections of Thai society in relation to what legal protections should be afforded transsexuals. Nearly 70% of respondents in a Ramkhamhaeng University Public Opinion Center poll disapproved of legalizing gay marriage or allowing transsexuals to legally adopt their new gender on ID cards and passports.
The obvious question arises: If transsexuals are such a visible part of everyday Thai life, and are clearly tolerated by society, then why do some polls indicate that a majority of Thais oppose granting transsexuals the broad spectrum of legal protection that other nations (Netherlands and Belgium for example) have afforded transsexuals? These rights include legally changing their gender on public identity cards, the right to civil unions and employment protection rights. Again, Buddhism may play a role. While the Buddhist focus on tolerance does in part shape Thai society’s tolerant view of transsexuals, the Buddhist principle of karma may provide an alternative explanation. Karmicly speaking, we are all paying off debts accrued through actions in past lives. Many Thais view transsexuals’ lives as generally unhappy and unfulfilling. Some also deem that this unhappiness is the result of a karmic punishment forced on them by sexual misdeeds in past lives. The standard karmic tale is that transsexuals were formerly "playboys" in their former life and, as a result of breaking so many lovelorn hearts of women, were imposed the ultimate punishment: making them a woman trapped in a man’s body, forever doomed to unrequited love. Therefore, they are a group to be pitied, not protected.
April 13, 2008
Fading Smiles: One Third of Thailand’s Gays Threatened by HIV
Newly released figures by Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health show that the Kingdom’s HIV infection rate among gay and bisexual men has risen to 30.7% in 2007.
The Thai Ministry of Public Health has released figures detailing the dramatic rise of HIV infection among MSM (men who have sex with men). Estimated at 28% in 2005, that number has increased to just under 31% in 2007. This continuing spike in infection rates, mentioned only briefly in the Thai Press, has seemingly gone unnoticed; just as Thailand’s sexual minority including gay and MSM communities has languished from seriously low levels of official funding and only limited research into AIDS prevention among them. With a vibrant GLBT sub-culture, "The Land of Smiles" has annual pride parade celebrations in four major cities; with Phuket Island’s tourist-pleasing festival marking its first decade. Achieved with minimal official support, these self-produced public events are often focused on AIDS/HIV awareness (Pattaya’s annual parade coincides with World AIDS Day). Without support from the government, Thai gays have been left to sink or swim on their own; and they’re sinking.
Despite Thailand’s famous reputation for tolerance, its homosexuals and "third genders" are never-the-less subject to public bias and official discrimination: in 2004 a Culture Ministry Deputy declared war on open gays for being abnormal influences in the media; in 2007 a member of the assembly drafting Thailand’s new constitution objected to including protections for GLBT because such people would "make Thai society weak." More damaging, a long term Moral Order campaign, begun under the former Taksin administration, saw officials raiding legal businesses and threatening arrests and closures when condoms were discovered on premises. Condoms, the most effective weapon that gay venues had in a public health crisis, vanished as they were deemed instant proof of wrongdoing.
Two decades ago, when homosexuals made up only 1% of Thailand’s run-away HIV infections, gays began grass roots education to prevent the kind of scourge that had wracked communities in Europe and the US. Groups like The White Line Dance Troupe toured straight brothels and schools, in addition to gay bars and dance clubs, to spread the safer sex message to the larger society. Despite being pioneers in AIDS/HIV prevention and continuing to highlight prevention messages in its public events, the gay community received little meaningful assistance or attention in Thailand’s recent prevention efforts. Since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Collaboration (TUC) showed HIV prevalence of 17.3% among MSM in Bangkok in 2003, that figure has nearly doubled in just four years. Last month the Commission on AIDS in Asia reported that MSM infection rates in Asia as a whole are estimated to more than double in the next decade.
To their credit, the Ministry of Public Health has significantly added its support to developing national strategies, with the community, for dealing with HIV among MSM. What is missing, at least since the 1997 economic crisis, is the political will at the highest levels of government. Unless prevention efforts change dramatically — and UNAIDS suggests that 80% of a sub-population at high risk must be reached directly with HIV prevention efforts including condom and lubricant distribution, to achieve at least a 60% change in risk behaviours — HIV disease seems set to consume more smiles in Thailand’s future. Citation for the 30.7% 2007 figure comes from: Pliplat T, Kladsawas K, van Griensven, Wimonsate W. 2008. Results of the HIV surveillance among men who have sex with men (MSM) in Bangkok, Chiangmai and Phuket. Proceeding for the Department of Disease Control Annual Conference, Ministry of Public Health, 11-13 February 2008, Bi-Tech Convention Centre.
MSM infection rates are averaged from locations where MSM socialize (as opposed to commercial sex venues), specifically: saunas, bars and dance clubs, and parks. In 2005, the infection rate for Bangkok male sex workers was 15.4% for venue-based and 22.6% for street-based male sex workers. Both lower than the 28% for gay and bisexual men at non-commercial venues.
May 08, 2008
Being gay is okay: Parents should realise that having homosexual children is not a shameful thing
by Anjira Assavanonda
At the age of 21, a boy called Frank and a girl called Muk have defined themselves as homosexuals. Unlike many others, the two do not hide their status. Thanks to the love and understanding of their parents, they can be open and proud of being what they are.
A gay boy’s story
Frank discovered he was different from other boys when he was about four or five years old. "I didn’t like playing with boys. I didn’t like sports which males are normally good at, such as football. I felt they are too violent. At home, I liked to wear a hairband, and often put on my mum’s high-heel shoes," recounted Frank. When he grew up, Frank realised he was gay, but did not dare tell his family for fear that his parents would not be able to accept the truth. "My family seemed to notice my behaviour, but they never talked to me openly and I didn’t dare bring it up," said Frank. His solution was to be reserved at home, and bring out his true nature in school. It was tough pretending to be a man, when deep down inside he knew that he really was gay.
When he entered his teens, Frank found it harder to resist his own nature. "I felt really bad that I couldn’t be my parents’ good son," Frank lamented. "I suffered hiding myself until my mother could not see me control myself any longer. She told me to be whatever I wanted to be, as long as I’m a good person and didn’t get involved with bad things," said Frank. His mother’s words have freed him from the invisible cage that captured him since childhood. Now, Frank never hides the fact that he is gay. He introduced his boyfriend to his mum, and they both have been getting along well. He is now happy with his way of life.
Muk has been a tomboy since she was young. She always refused to wear skirts even though her mother wanted her to. When she was in Grade 5, she started to have strange feeling everytime she saw pretty girls. However, it was not until Grade 9 that Muk discovered her passion for the same sex and started dating a girl. "My mother never asks what I am or why I become a tomboy. She seems to accept the way I am. Then I brought my girlfriend home, my mum never questioned our relationship. Instead, she taught me about love and told me to choose the one who loves me truly," she said.
Muk’s mother said she used to discuss Muk’s sexuality preference with the husband, when she realised that Muk was a tomboy. "We agree there’s nothing wrong with our daughter being a tomboy. Think carefully, having a girlfriend may be safer than dating a boy. At least we can be sure she won’t flirt with men and get pregnant. Besides, Muk is a good child and never causes us trouble," said the understanding mother.
As the world becomes ever more open and is willing to accept the various lifestyles of people, it should come as no surprise to parents and friends when their children or their friends decide to come out of the closet to tell the world who they really are. Homosexuality is not a crime despite it being outlawed in many countries where the outdated laws continue to punish people for the "crime". Thailand has come a long way in accepting homosexuals and it is a society that is one of the most tolerant. But, there are sections of society who are still reluctant it. Parents and the society should not look down upon those who wish to adopt a different lifestyle as what matters most is not what their sexual preferences are, but what kind of people they are.
Homosexuals across the globe have been undertaking an uphill battle to be recognised as legit citizens of society, but their voices are still far from being heard. Despite all the efforts to give this group equal rights, they continue to make headlines as they are constantly being denied basic rights, such as insurance coverage or blood donations. There are good and bad people in every society, be it heterosexual or homosexual, but stereotyping a particular group due to their sexual preference is unacceptable. Parents and the society have to remember that being homosexual is not the end of the world – it is a positive step in the right direction.
Being homosexual does not mean they will not achieve their goals in life as there are many cases where such people have made it big and have served society in ways that has spurred an era of prosperity.
Questions or comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 08, 2008
When your child is a homosexual
If you discovered one day that your son or daughter love people of the same sex. How you do feel? What should you do? The main thing to note here is that being a homosexual or bisexual is not a psychological abnormality, or is it signs of any mental disorder. Dr Sukamon Wipaweeponkul, chief of psychiatry at Phaya Thai 2 Hospital said homosexuals are just a minority group, like left-handed people. "It’s not abnormal and has nothing to do with how they were raised.
Accept your children the way they are
When parents bring their gay sons to him for therapy, Dr Sukamon said he would heal the parents instead. "It’s not the children, but parents who have problems," he noted. He explained that sexual orientation is an individual taste, a personal right, which parents should not interfere with. Parents should not expect the children to be what they want, but love them the way they are. Look at the good in them instead of concentrating on their sexuality.
"One mother had sought counselling from three to four psychiatrists before they came to me, hoping her son could be ‘changed’. When she was told by the psychiatrist that it’s not a disease and doesn’t need to be healed, she was disappointed," Dr Sukamon said. Parents should not force the children to change. "The more you reject what they are, the more you hurt them. Some may choose to hide their feelings, and keep lying to themselves even after they grow up."
What are the causes?
Biological factors have been indicated as a major cause. "And don’t ask the homosexuals why they love the same sex, it’s as unexplainable as to why we do love the opposite sex," said the doctor.
Groups of sexual diversity
Sexual diversity can be divided into five groups as follows;
1.Heterosexuals: People who love the opposite sex.
2. Bisexuals: Those who like both males and females.
3. Homosexuals (gay, lesbian): People who are attracted to people of the same sex.
4. Transvestite, tomboy: Men or women who practice of cross-dressing, wearing the clothing of the opposite sex.
5. Transsexual or transgender: A person who dresses as, desires to be, or has undergone surgery to become or identifies as a person of the opposite sex.
Note that chance is slim to change these people
According to Dr Sukamon, it’s impossible for a homosexual to become a heterosexual or vice-versa, but a one-step change such as from homosexual to be bisexual or a transvestite to be a gay is possible in some cases. The possibility to change depends on the following factors;
– He or she adopts homosexualism or transvestism at teenage.
– He or she never had sex with people of the same sex.
– He or she still has a little passion with the opposite sex.
– It’s his or her own intention to change.
The following characters signal your child is likely to be a transgender.
– Your little son prefers wearing skirts to shorts or pants.
– He has a girlish gesture when speaking.
– He likes to dress up.
– He looks neat and gentle like a girl.
– He doesn’t like playing with boys.
If these characters appear since they are very young, taking them to paediatrists or child psychiatrists may help in some cases. If it is because the boy has been brought up among women, one solution is to find a man to be his role model.
Note: This advice is only for transvestites, not gays. A gay would show no girlish characters even when young and is hard to change.
For more information, visit sexual diversity web sites: http://www.fasiroong.org/, http://www.bangkokrain bow.org/, http://www.mplusthailand.com/, http://www.les la.com/, http://www.anjaree.net/, http://www.sapaan.org/, http://www.queerfilm.wordpress.com/.
May 08, 2008
Raising angel boys
by Supawadee Inthawong
When the parents get a boy child, they always hope that their son will be a good leader for the next generation, become famous and bring fame to the family. But what if one day the son realises he is gay. There are so many questions inside his head. One of the most important question is "Can my parents accept the truth?" "One son", the author of the Thai-language Raising Angel Boys, also a gay son, said he never ever told his father that he was gay. He only confided in his mother, who was understanding and said, "It’s not important what you are, as long as you are a good person."
The writer also collected experiences of the other gay people, parents with gay children, famous psychiatrists, columnists and information from both Thai and non-Thai books and web sites. "One son" has simplified all the information into Raising Angel Boys, which makes the book not too academic or boring but easier to read and understand. Reading this book can help both children and parents understand each other’s feelings of being gay and being parents of a gay child.
The book also talks about homosexuality in general, how to cope it in a family and in the world outside. It further talks about what will happen after a man "comes out" and the importance of making one’s sexual preferences known. Everyone should read this book, even if you’re not gay or a parent who has gay children because it can help the understanding about "being gay", and accept those who are gay.
May 08, 2008
Trapped by television: Parents need to monitor how much TV their child watches
by Sumati Sivasiamphai
Annie’s five-year-old daughter, Jane’s best friend is from the US and is called TV. Jane loves telling her mother what a great friend TV is: "Mummy, TV is always there for me when I need her, and I love that she is so fun and can show me so many things!" Annie loves TV because it keeps Jane entertained for hours on end, and TV can teach Jane a great many things. However, when Jane is away from TV, Annie notices that she does not talk very much and is often distracted. Only in the presence of TV does Jane become enraptured and interested.
Let us meet this friend, "TV", that has captured the minds and attention of so many children, and parents alike: Television. Like a good friend, TV is always reliable and always entertaining. However, even a friend with the best intentions can turn sour. TV can start peer pressuring you to abandon your other priorities and turn away from school. TV can turn into the jealous friend, who does not want you to talk to or spend time with anybody else. In the same way that all healthy relationships survive via balance and understanding, the amount of time children spend watching TV is one that needs to be fine-tuned to avoid unfavourable results.
Dr Pikul Arsirawech a paediatrician at Samitivej Hospital, has observed that parents often rely on TV watching to guide and teach children below the age of two. She says, "Most parents encourage kids to watch TV because they see it as a tool for learning language." Parents notice remarkably calm behaviour in children while watching TV, which Dr Arsirawech says is why "attention to television makes parents understand that their children are learning". She advocates that parents should play the role of moderators and supervisors to ensure that their children obtain beneficial results from watching TV. The advantages of watching TV as seen by Dr Arsirawech is that it is "fun and a good education tool when used appropriately at the right age." However, Dr Arsirawech believes in order to guarantee that TV watching is appropriate involves choosing "good programmes, and it is real useful if parents are watching with them and guiding them through".
On the other hand, when TV becomes the dependent friend that needs attention on a daily basis, it can have detrimental effects on a child’s development. Dr Arsirawech has observed that "too much TV causes children to have less communication and socialisation skills because TV is just one-way communication." As a result, children have a lack of interaction with their peers in the outside world. In an academic environment, a dependency on watching TV is also disadvantageous. According to Dr Arsirawech, TV "shortens the attention span in children because watching TV consumes a chemical in the brain that heavily impacts attentions. There is a vicious cycle when children stop watching TV, because they will have no attention left for other activities."
Dr Arsirawech recounts that there are numerous incidents where extreme TV watching results in children not being able to speak when they reach the age of two. In these cases, Dr Arsirawech says that "children develop their own language [neologism], which is often found in autistic children." One of the factors for this condition is parents associating TV watching with all aspects of a child’s daily routine. Dr Arsirawech says that this problem begins if parents start letting their children watch TV from a very young age of around five or six months old, where parents "raise kids with TV when bathing, feeding or any activities to understand that their child is learning."
She has also observed that parents have a tendency to replay TV programmes frequently in small children below two years old, which she absolutely does not recommend because it hinders the development of the child. In addition to hindering cognitive development, excessive TV watching also leads to noticeable physical concerns. Dr Arsirawech has observed that the main problems include slow and reluctant speech, negative effects on eye health including an absence of eye contact, and problems as a result of lack of exercise. Dr Arsirawech also remarks, "children who watch too much TV are prone to repetitive behaviours such as toe tapping, flapping hands, and spinning around as if they live in their own world." Even in the unhealthiest relationship, there are many measures that can be taken to rectify and improve the situation. Dr Arsirawech suggests that if parents notice their child is codependent upon TV watching, they should consult a paediatrician and try to reduce the amount of TV watching.
"Special therapy to start interactions with kids and parents tends to make the problem better, but it really needs commitment from parents," warns Dr Arsirawech.
In order to avoid the problem of excessive TV watching, Dr Arsirawech also offers a few tips for parents:
– No TV for children below two years old.
– Maximum 30 minutes of TV time for children in kindergarten.
– Maximum one hour of TV time for children in elementary school.
– Parents should watch TV with children.
– Encourage kids to interact with their peers and do other activities.
– Find a balance between TV watching and children’s normal routine.
– Watch TV programmes that are appropriate for a child’s age.
If your child is able to maintain a balance when it comes to watching TV, it can help him or her become well-rounded in other aspects of life. Finding a balance will ensure that your child can find a friend as good as TV, but in the form of a living being, and not a flashing rectangular box.
June 4, 2008
Passport for Men seeks new host
by News Editor
Despite the “passport” in its name, TV program Passport for Men has so far been a local operation focused only on Thailand but that’s about to change with the addition of English subtitles. Thailand’s first lifestyle TV program targeted at men will add English-language subtitles starting in July as its producers hope to widen the programme’s audience to includenon-Thai speaking foreigners in Thailand and viewers outside the country. It is also looking to add more talent to the mix. "We’ve spent several months fine-tuning our product, and now we’re ready to bring it to a wider stage," said Vitaya Saeng-Aroon, a Fridae columnist, director of Cyberfish Media and one of the show’s four producers in partnership with PFM Production.
The programme was first profiled by Fridae in early March and numerous readers wrote to suggest adding English subtitles. "Reaction from viewers has been great from both Thais and non-Thais. The most requests we get are for English subtitles, and we’re happy to oblige," Saeng-Aroon told Fridae. He added that every episode, current and past, would be subtitled, so viewers will be able to follow the series from its beginning. Featuring three twenty-something male hosts Tong, Chan and Beige, the programme offers three segments "Living and Dining," "Travel and Lifestyle" and "Fashion and Fun." Focusing on general living and lifestyle trends, producers say the programme is suited to men regardless of their sexual orientation.
"What should a guy who cares about his looks do? How does he find a great condo? Or prepare a quick and healthy meal? All men need advice on these topics," Vitaya said. To further expand the audience, the producers are in talks to broadcast the show on a major Bangkok cable TV channel and expand distribution via the Internet. While clips of episodes have appeared on video-sharing Web sites such as YouTube, Cyberfish and PFM Production are planning to stream Passport for Men on a dedicated server and are looking for a network partner to broadcast via the Internet for overseas market.
"While Thailand’s domestic Internet is fast, international bandwidth is slow and limited," Vitaya said. "We’re looking for a partner to host the show on a server outside Thailand with reliable, high-speed connections for our international audience."
Distribution via Bangkok’s subscriber-based cable TV network is awaiting final contract talks, Vitaya added. Once an agreement is reached, the switch from its current satellite carrier could be made as early as July – just as English subtitles are added.
June 09, 2008
Asian gay, transgender groups fight for their rights
by Irawaty Wardany, Denpasar
(Bali) Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups in Asia have agreed to develop an international network to advocate protection of their rights in their respective countries and at the regional level. Bali hosted a conference of the groups from June 2 to 6 in the tourism enclave Nusa Dua. The conference was attended by 21 participants from eight countries — Indonesia, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China and Thailand. "We agreed to make some kind of international network to advocate protection of LGBT rights in our countries," Rido Triawan, head of Arus Pelangi, an Indonesian non-governmental organization that fights for LGBT rights, told The Jakarta Post on Saturday. He said it would be like an open communication channel connecting LGBY communities in different countries, so that when there was a problem in one country the communities could work in unison to apply political pressure on the government in question.
Generally, Rido said, LGBT communities in Asia faced similar problems. "We are all at this time suffering from stigmatization, discrimination, persecution from religious groups and discriminative government regulations," he said. "For example, the 2004 regional regulation in Palembang, South Sumatra, categorizes LGBT as a form of prostitution," Rido said.
He said religious-based persecution was the most difficult problem LGBT groups faced in Indonesia. "Those religious doctrines are then being integrated into the formal education curriculum. Naturally, the curriculum educates the students that the only ‘normal’ and accepted sexual orientation is heterosexuality," he said. Consequently, other sexual orientations are considered as not "normal" and unacceptable. This has resulted in students and communities discriminating against members of the homosexual and transgender community. "There are many cases of discrimination experienced by members of the LGBT community. One example involved a man who openly acknowledged his sexual orientation of being gay. Suddenly, his company fired him for no apparent reason," Rido said.
He said other gay workers faced varying levels of hostility from co-workers. "They suddenly keep a distance or, even worse, socially isolate him just because he is gay," he said. He said upholding the rights of the LGBT community was a significant issue since sexual orientation was also part of human rights. Rido said the LGBT community in Indonesia just wanted to be acknowledged and treated the same as the other Indonesian citizens, who enjoyed the right to education, health, work and all the other basic human rights. "It is still very hard for people to accept the fact that LGBT are also human beings, who should be treated humanely," said Arus Pelangi secretary general, Yuli Rustinawati.
A Sri Lankan LGBT activist, Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, said the situation in Sri Lanka was worse than in Indonesia. "Being part of LGBT communities in Sri Lanka is similar to committing a criminal offense. That’s the reason why people with LGBT sexual orientation prefer to be invisible," she said. She said members of the LGBT community in her country who fell victim to criminal acts often didn’t report their cases to the police, because the treatment they would receive could be worse than the perpetrators of the criminal acts. She said she participated in LGBT conferences and seminars around the world to learn about human rights instruments that could be used to advance the struggle in her country.
June 18, 2008
Thai school introduces special bathrooms for trans students
by Jane Rochstad Lim
A secondary school in north eastern Thailand has designed a new bathroom for its growing community of transvestites. The "transvestite toilet", designated by a human figure split into half man in blue and half female in red, has since been used since class started last month. "I am so happy about this," student Vichai Sangsakul told Thailand’s PBS news channel on Tuesday. "It looks bad going to female restrooms. What would other people think?" "The Kampang School came up with the idea of the unisex toilet after a survey conducted last term showed that more than 200 of the school’s 2,600 students considered themselves transvestites," said school director Sitiak Sumontha.
He added that the introduction of the new toilets would help transvestite students to go to the restroom in peace, as going to the female facilities made some other students uncomfortable and using the men’s room often resulted in harassment. "They don’t have problems with transvestites but going to the same private area, like a toilet, makes them uneasy," he told Associated Press. "The transvestite kids may behave even more effeminately than the girls, do but their anatomy is still like that of a boy."
Kampang is not Thailand’s first educational institution to set up transvestite washrooms. A technical college in the northern province of Chiang Mai set up a "Pink Lotus Bathroom" for its 15 transvestite students in 2003. It is not known how many transvestite students there are in Thailand, but Deputy Education Minister Boonlue Prasertsopar recently said the ministry plans to count the number of transvestite university students. He added that if there was a lot of them in universities and going to the bathroom causes problems, then the ministry would consider building toilets and dormitories for them.
Most rural Thais are conservative in many ways, but the toilet initiative at the school reflects the Thai’s amazing ability of tolerant and support the country’s visible transsexual and transvestite community. The Buddhist country has always been seen as a liberal country when it comes to LGBT issues. Though the country does not support same-sex unions, the LGBT community is still considered one of the world’s most free and open. Transvestite actors play key roles in Thai movies and soap operas, and can be seen in department cosmetics counters, popular restaurants, cabaret shows and in the famous red-light district. Thailand also has transgender beauty pageants.
September 13, 2008
Tom-spotting in Bangkok, They’re out and about in Thai capital, where nobody uses the L-word
Julia Steinecke, Special to The Star
Bangkok – "There’s one," says Cee quietly as we stroll through Siam Paragon mall. She’s referring to a young Thai woman with a boyish look. Her hair is short and teased up, and she’s wearing a loose shirt, loose jeans and running shoes. Caitlyn "Cee" Webster is the webmaster for bangkoklesbian.com and she’s educating me in the customs of our local sisters. "There’s another one." Cee glances to her left at a teenager with a shaggy punk haircut, walking close beside an ultra-feminine girl with tight jeans and bejewelled sandals. "And that’s her Dee."
Bangkok’s young lesbians are out in record numbers in this teenage-trendy downtown mall, but they don’t use the "L" word. They call themselves Tom and Dee. It’s an Asian tradition, with some similarities to Hong Kong’s TB and TBG (Tomboy’s Girlfriend). Younger Toms have a boyish demeanor, and follow a fashion code that makes them easy to recognize on the streets. "They’ll wear running shoes, even with their school uniform," says Cee. "They bring their pants and as soon as school is done, they change into them." Toms never have a purse of their own, but they might be seen carrying their girlfriend’s purse, awkwardly.
"Dees" (short for lady) are often indistinguishable from other Thai women. Some identify as bisexual or even straight. I met a Dee who explained why she preferred to be with a woman. "Men are so selfish now. If I go shopping with a man, he will stand way over there and won’t look at anything. If I find something nice and I say, `Come, see this,’ he won’t come over because he doesn’t want to pay for it. When I go shopping with my Tom, I just have to look at something and she buys it for me."
Toms work hard to please their Dees and maintain their masculinity. Some will bind their breasts and may never undress in front of their girlfriends or seek their own pleasure in sex. The Western concept of coming out is foreign here, says Cee. The family knows but doesn’t talk about it – but that doesn’t mean rejection. She feels accepted by her girlfriend’s family and if she doesn’t show up for a family dinner they want to know where she is.
Some parents of teenagers are almost relieved when they find out their daughter is a Dee, because that means she won’t be getting in trouble with boys or coming home pregnant. A lesbian scene, with bars and meeting places, was deemed irrelevant in Thailand until recently. Due to the mainstream ultra-femme fashion norm, Toms are highly visible, and Dees can find them in any public place and approach them, which they do enthusiastically. "I had an American friend visiting me here," says Cee.
"She was really butch and wherever we went, there was this lineup of Dees wanting her phone number. They were very aggressive and wouldn’t take no for an answer. When she told them she already has a girlfriend, they’d say, `So what? She doesn’t have to know!’" A bar scene has developed in recent years and I drop by Shela, which is packed with a 20-something crowd. The Dees in the crowd are dressed to dazzle and the Toms are handsome – only one has long hair, in a tidy ponytail.
There aren’t a lot of older women there, and I’m told they don’t do the bar scene. "The older Toms are very butch," says Cee. "They’re not out and about as much, but you’ll see them doing traditional male jobs like bus driving and construction." While touring the city, I meet an older couple who’ve been together three years. They’ve never been to the lesbian bars; they think young Toms who tease up their hair and bind their breasts are going a little too far. But not, apparently, as far as they used to go.
In the edges of a historic mural at the National Museum’s Buddhaisawan Chapel, captioned "Prince Siddhartha Encounters Four Divine Messengers," I find 10 women servants in an amorous pile below their sleeping mistress in the inner palace. On a large cupboard in the back of the chapel, I find six women lying together: Two of them are in a very intimate embrace, one sporting a big smile as she grabs the other’s butt. Bangkok’s Toms and Dees, it seems, have some lusty ancestors.
Julia Steinecke’s visit was subsidized by Cathy Pacific and the Tourism Authority of Thailand. She is a Toronto-based freelancer and can be reached at www.JuliaSt.net
September 17, 2008
Gays warned HIV rise may hit Bangkok levels, HIV rates among homosexuals in Hong Kong may reach Thai levels by 2020, a government doctor has warned.
by Timothy Chui
HIV rates among homosexuals in Hong Kong may reach Thai levels by 2020, a government doctor has warned. "In Bangkok, one in three gay men are HIV positive at present," Centre for Health Protection senior medical officer Raymond Ho Lei-ming said yesterday. "In addition a number of western European cities are seeing double-digit prevalence of HIV infection among men who have sex with men."
Ho also said prevention and condom usage needs to be stepped up and that people at risk should seek testing. Long the epicenter of sexually transmitted diseases in Southeast Asia, vigorous condom, education and anti-viral campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s saw the Thai infection rate drop from 2 percent to just under 1.5. According to the 2008 United Nations acquired immune deficiency report, the current Thai infection rate is 1.4 percent with about 610,000 of its 65 million population living with HIV. AIDS deaths in 2007 were estimated at 31,000.
The center said it had received 121 reports of HIV infection during this year’s second quarter, bringing the territory’s cumulative number of reported HIV infection to 3,822 since record keeping started in 1984. According to Ho, 98 of the new cases were male and 23 female, while 33 were infected through heterosexual contact, 33 through homosexual or bisexual contact, nine from shared needles and two from blood transfusions. The vector of infection for 44 was undetermined due to insufficient data.
Fifteen AIDS cases were reported during the same quarter, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 966. Ho said 65 of the new cases were already seeking treatment, adding half the remaining HIV-infected people could progress to AIDS within a decade if they went without treatment. The chest infection pneumocystis pneumonia and mycobacterium tuberculosis were the most common AIDS-defining illnesses in the second quarter, Ho said. AIDS Concern chief executive Loretta Wong Wai-kwan said the number of clinics providing care for people living with HIV and AIDS has remained unchanged in a decade.
October 14, 2008
Unsafe sex major risk factor for deaths among Thai people
Records of the Public Health Ministry show that unsafe sexual behaviour remains the number one risk factor and potential cause of death among Thai people, followed by smoking and drinking alcohol. Speaking at a " Gender, Sexual Health and Healthy Well-being " conference yesterday, Dr Wichai Chokeviwat of the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, said in 2000, housewives were seen as the community members most at risk from sexual disease. Next year he expected it would be male sex workers topping the danger list, mostly from HIV/Aids infection. "This trend has stemmed from changes in behaviour and society," Wichai said. "There are many things luring people to have unsafe sex -while the attitude about sex among Thai people is not to promote good sexual health."
Researcher Yannatorn Jianrattanakul studied questions about sex in the media, to find topics most hit on in question and answer columns in two newspapers, two magazines, and two websites. In the four years between 2003 – 2007 she collected 4,4406 questions. She found women have more queries about sex than men- 25 per cent were about sexual affairs, 18 per cent about reproductive health, 18 per cent about sexual organs, 16 percent about beauty, 5 per cent about sexually transmitted disease.
She said the top five questions most asked by women were about the vagina, reproductive health, beauty, sexual intercourse, and society and culture. Men wanted information about sexual intercourse, the penis’s size, sexual transmitted disease, and masturbation. Yannatorn added that a sexual questionnaire appearing in the printed media showed many people do not understand how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancy. "Society has to find out the appropriate way to disseminate this information to build understanding and knowledge on this issue. This would help prevent and resolve the problems," she said
Unsafe sex major risk factor for deaths among Thai people
Records of the Public Health Ministry show that unsafe sexual behaviour remains the number one risk factor and potential cause of death among Thai people, followed by smoking and drinking alcohol. Speaking at a " Gender, Sexual Health and Healthy Well-being " conference yesterday, Dr Wichai Chokeviwat of the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, said in 2000, housewives were seen as the community members most at risk from sexual disease. Next year he expected it would be male sex workers topping the danger list, mostly from HIV/Aids infection.
"This trend has stemmed from changes in behaviour and society," Wichai said. "There are many things luring people to have unsafe sex -while the attitude about sex among Thai people is not to promote good sexual health." Researcher Yannatorn Jianrattanakul studied questions about sex in the media, to find topics most hit on in question and answer columns in two newspapers, two magazines, and two websites. In the four years between 2003 – 2007 she collected 4,4406 questions. She found women have more queries about sex than men- 25 per cent were about sexual affairs, 18 per cent about reproductive health, 18 per cent about sexual organs, 16 percent about beauty, 5 per cent about sexually transmitted disease.
She said the top five questions most asked by women were about the vagina, reproductive health, beauty, sexual intercourse, and society and culture. Men wanted information about sexual intercourse, the penis’s size, sexual transmitted disease, and masturbation. Yannatorn added that a sexual questionnaire appearing in the printed media showed many people do not understand how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancy. "Society has to find out the appropriate way to disseminate this information to build understanding and knowledge on this issue. This would help prevent and resolve the problems," she said
21 October 2008
Thailand’s lady-boys are in a class of their own, at last
by David McNeill in Bangkok
Lithe, peach-skinned and demure, Arttasit is the kind of woman who would turn heads on any college campus, except that he is not a woman; not yet. The 21-year-old catering student attends class in Thailand’s Suan Dusit University wearing makeup and a body-hugging female uniform. After four years of hormone treatment, he is preparing for a full sex change. "My goal in life is to become accepted as a woman," he explains.
There are about 100 transgender undergraduates at this college in central Bangkok, which offers the so-called "lady-boys" a unique educational refuge from homophobia and discrimination. Students are allowed to flaunt the campus dress code, which demands men wear trousers. Every year, dozens of the students enter a university beauty contest that has become famous for supplying entrants to Thailand’s Miss Tiffany Universe, an annual pageant for transsexuals broadcast live across the country. Lady-boys work as teachers in some university departments and are even sent out on school recruitment drives.
"I’m happy here," says Wittaya Jannoi, a 21-year-old marketing student who hopes to change his gender after he leaves. "We can be ourselves because we don’t have to hide. My mother said, ‘Graduate first, then you can do what you want’." Like many transgender students, he learnt about the university through the beauty pageant. "I couldn’t wait to come here." Bureaucrats in Thailand’s Ministry of Culture say the Suan Dusit experiment encourages confused youngsters to recklessly experiment. But Pacharee Suankaew, vice-president for student affairs, says: "Our view is that everybody is equal: boy, girl or lady-boy. We try to accept them and not look down on them."
Also known as "the third sex", Thailand’s lady-boys have campaigned for years for equal rights and seek, among other things, separate bathrooms and passports that record their unique gender. Despite the discrimination, the country is famed for its acceptance of transsexuals, with a booming sex-change industry that attracts people from across the world.
Transgender students started coming to Suan Dusit about a decade ago, attracted to courses in catering and marketing. The numbers climbed after the start of the beauty contest. Ms Suankaew says they can study everything on offer, except education. "We can’t have them teaching kindergarten children and they accept that." In return, she says, the students must be ladylike. "We tell them, ‘If you want to be a woman, act like one’." Some staff are resisting. "Some professors tell us we are not human beings and we should grow up," says Arttasit. "They’re usually older women with thick glasses."
October 27, 2008
Unbreakable Ties–Exercising the option to come out and make a statement
by Arusa PisuthipanI and Yingyong Un-Anongrak
He is widely recognised as a prominent gay rights activist and an HIV/Aids advocate as well as an environmental devotee. But to himself, Natee Teerarojjanapongs just wants to be identified as "Gay Natee". "I usually refer to myself by using the word ‘gay’ in front of my name to show others that there is nothing wrong with being gay. To me, it’s one way to deal with social prejudice. And I think it works, at least psychologically," said Natee, founder and head of the Gay Political Group of Thailand. Established in 2005, the group aims to provide an arena for people with sexual diversity to take part in political activities.
Among male homosexuals, as well as straight men, Natee is known as the first gay man to start using the word "gay" instead of Nai (Mr) in front of his name to label his gender identity, but he is not the only one to do so. His intention, he explains, was, and is, to challenge social scepticism and negative attitudes toward homosexuality. Natee is also the first openly Thai gay man to be rejected by an insurance company when he wanted to purchase a life insurance policy simply because he is gay and was thus categorised in the "high risk" group. After his story made newspaper headlines last year, the insurance company issued a memorandum to its 80,000 insurance sales agents that they could accept insurance coverage applications from people with sexual diversity, thanks to his war against injustice.
In addition, Natee is the first openly gay man to be honoured as a Fellow by Ashoka, a global association that lauds people whose works are aimed at creating a better society. In Thailand’s political domain, Natee was the first openly gay man to decide to run for senator. He did that in 2006. Although he was unsuccessful in this attempt to win a seat in parliament, he says his political participation will at least help to change the poor image the general public has of gay people.
"My point was not to win the election," Natee recalls of his political campaign. "I just wished that people in general would stop believing that gays, or katoeys [transvestites], were only good at dancing or looking pretty. We have brains, too." For more than two decades, Natee has been devoting his time and energy working as a gay rights activist trying to create a better perception of homosexuals. To resolve the public’s misunderstanding over gays, Natee initiated the concept of gullagay ("a good gay"). This revolutionary idea, he says, parallels the Thai traditional value of gulla bhudr, gulla thida, literally "a good son, a good daughter".
Still a full-time gay rights activist, Natee Teerarojjanapongs lives with his partner in Chiang Mai. Conveyed through all his moves is his core message that one’s behaviours are not necessarily a fruit of one’s sexual orientation. The word "homosexuality" does not spell sexual promiscuity. Same-sex lovers can be decent members of the society, too, he maintains.
"Admittedly, the image of homosexuals in Thai society is very sex-oriented. People usually have a grasp of gay men in the context of the ‘ooh-la-la’ world. In terms of sex, they think gay men and katoeys are fast and promiscuous. In terms of work and employment, they think we are not articulate or adaptive, that we can be only dancers or hairdressers. As for behaviour, the popular view is that we are naughty and verbally aggressive. But if they look at us more carefully, they will know that many of us are, and can do, better than that."
A native of Suphan Buri province, Natee is the only son of a Chinese couple. To all Chinese families, a son who cannot produce an heir for his parents is like a useless tree. And Natee was treated no different. So, the production of an heir for his old father then was his greatest responsibility, and it seemed like the only way to meet his parents’ desire was to get married. "My dad was so eager to see me the father of an heir for our family," recalls Natee, now 52. "Although I had realised ever since I was young that I was gay, I still needed to live up to my dad’s expectations. So, I tried flirting with a girl in the fervent hope that intimacy with a female could change me. But I was totally wrong."
The young Natee at that time could not figure out any better solution than trying to find a place where he belonged. The United States – the Land of Freedom – popped up as his ideal haven. It was where people could live freely regardless of their sexual orientation, he thought. Natee decided to relocate to the destination he defines a "gay-friendly society". Fortunately, his lifestyle fitted well with those of many other people in the US, where, he says, gay men are not compelled to be cross-dressers or pressured into behaving like women. Most importantly, homosexuals over there can live their lives without a high degree of pervasive social disdain.
After two years in the US studying jazz dance, Natee returned to his home country. It was about time for him to work toward a nicer and more tolerant society back here. In 1986, Natee launched an HIV/Aids prevention campaign called Gloom Sen See Kao (The White Line Dance Troupe). The campaign, he notes, incorporated contemporary dance and performing arts with only one message to deliver, and that was the importance of HIV/Aids prevention. "The White Line Dance Troupe began its HIV/Aids-awareness presentation in gay bars and saunas, and soon our work spread outward to Thai society at large on a bigger scale, like giving performances in schools and shopping malls. Our focus was on disseminating knowledge about the disease and the preventive measures recommended for high-risk groups, especially men who have sex with men," Natee recounts.
That was perhaps his first step into the forefront of Thailand’s social work as a full-time activist. Natee made up his mind to admit in his interview with Neon Magazine, a gay magazine, that he was gay. And, of course, his dear mother was extremely angry and disappointed. "She drove me out and told me to go away. I didn’t know what to do, so I left home. When I went back at night, however, I saw that she was still waiting for me. And she told me that no matter what I was, it was more important to be a good person. Then we cried and hugged each other. To me, that was the greatest turning point in my life."
These days, Natee lives in Chiang Mai. After having spent more than 15 years working for the HIV/Aids prevention cause, he has chosen to pursue a slower pace of life. "I am burned out, and I have had enough of HIV/Aids," he said. His decision was also partly due to the fact that he was beginning to develop permanent laryngitis from hard work. He made up up his mind to relocate north and live far away from the hustle and bustle of the capital city. However, for an active man who used to spend most of his time working with and for people, living in absolute serenity was something he was not quite familiar with.
"My life in Chiang Mai at that time was perfect, but it seemed like something was missing. In the daytime, I didn’t do much. I just drove around town and went home in the evening." In 2000, Natee received the Utopia Award, which is presented annually to leading gay human rights advocates. It inspired him to resume his work as a social activist. The award, he says, made him realise that society had not forgotten him but still recognised his dedication to the community even though he had stepped out of active service.
As a result, though based in Chiang Mai, Natee made a comeback as a gay rights activist, raising public awareness of the rights of people with sexual diversity. His masterpiece, he says proudly, was in 2006 when the government stopped labelling katoeys as persons afflicted with "a permanent mental disorder" in their SorDor 43 conscription certificate. His fight against social prejudice, the activist says, has been like a struggle for justice and equality for all.
"I don’t want any privileges for gays; I just want them to be treated first accept their own sexual identity and be bold enough to "come out of the closet". He says that it will help to raise the gay community’s negotiation power, which will eventually lead to acceptance by other people in society. "For those gay men who are considering coming out, I would encourage them to say ‘yes’ quickly because, after all is said and done, there is nothing wrong with being gay. Some people may think of me as a dictator who keeps telling others to do this and that … but revealing one’s own sexual identity is simply just telling the truth and does not make him a liar. In my opinion, when we gay men come out and show society that we have a firm standpoint, it is like giving ourselves and society an option. To me, to have an option means to have a way to survive."
When he was young, Natee used to believe that being born a gay man was the most tormenting experience in life, and that if he could choose freely, he would never want to be reborn with such a sexual orientation. He has since completely changed his mind. "If I could choose what to become in the next life or any lives after, I would choose to be born a gay again."
October 31, 2008
Alarm over rising HIV infection among gay men
by Pongphon Sarnsamak
While the overall figure of people living with HIV/Aids is declining, new infections among men who have sex with men have been increasing drastically during the past few years, causing grave concern at the Public Health Ministry. Dr Somchai Chakrabhand, directorgeneral of the Disease Control Department, said yesterday that a recent survey looking at the situation across the country of HIV/Aids among this group had found that the risk areas were concentrated in tourism centres such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket. He was speaking at the conclusion of a oneday conference on lessons learned from the project to develop a network of men who have sex with men. About 200 health activists and gayrights advocates attended the meeting.
In Bangkok, a survey of homosexual men found that the incidence of HIV infection had increased from 17 per cent in 2003 to 30 per cent last year. The rate of infection in Chiang Mai rose to 16.9 per cent last year from 15.3 per cent in 2005, while Phuket jumped from 5.5 per cent in 2005 to 20 per cent last year. The survey also found that half of men in this group do not use condoms with their lovers or temporary partners. Male sex workers formed a highrisk group for infections due to their unsafe sex behaviour and lack of knowledge on protecting themselves from getting the virus, Somchai said.
"Most of them have anal sex with their partners without using a condom and lubricant. This could cause deep damage to anal tissue and easy transmission of HIV," he said. He admitted that one factor was that over the past few years the campaign for HIV infection prevention among men who have sex with men, especially raising awareness to use condoms during sex, was discontinued. Manoon Jaikueankaew of the Disease Control Department’s Unit 10 in Chiang Mai, said men who have sex with men could not gain access to public healthcare services and receive medication for HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Most of them are suffering from gonococcal urethritis, gonorrhoea, syphilis or HIV/Aids. But they do not go to a general clinic or hospital to receive treatment, such as antiretroviral drugs, because they are afraid of presenting themselves to the doctor or do not want others to know about their symptoms. There are not enough agencies and budget to support operations in local areas and provide knowledge about HIV/Aid prevention to men who have sex with men. Some of them even do not know about the use of condoms and lubricants. So they need a special clinic to provide medication and consultation about HIV/Aids infections.
"A onestop service is really needed to provide information and healthcare to them. This is the only way for them to protect themselves from HIV," he said. Chatwut Wangwon, of a joint programme of the Public Health Ministry and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said that while working in Phuket for four years, he found that most men who have sex with men and become infected with HIV are students, of working age and single.
At least 27 per cent of them could have sex with men or women, which means they could transmit the disease also to women. About 50 per cent of them do not use condoms while only 26 per cent do. Some of them do not use a lubricant but try other substances such as detergent, which could easy destroy a condom. The best way to reduce HIV infections among this group is providing free condoms and lubricant, Chatwut said. The health authorities also have to raise their awareness of health checks for early warning signs of HIV infections so they can provide medication immediately. "The best thing that we need to do is make them know earlier about the infection and their symptoms," he added.
November 28, 2008
‘Ladyboy’ protests amid Thailand’s political chaos
by Julia Ziemer
The ever increasing turbulence of the anti-government protests notwithstanding, a demonstration of a different nature was taking place yesterday in Bangkok. Unaffiliated to any political party, a group of transgender ‘ladyboys’ paraded past central Police Headquarters in Bangkok to protest at the lack of AIDS awareness in Thailand. Glamorously dressed in brightly coloured ball gowns and feathered head-dresses, the group struck a contrasting pose to the increasingly militant demonstrations undertaken by the yellow-shirted PAD supporters across the capital.
The PAD has most recently shut down a second airport in Bangkok, following a string of stunts that have taken place over the last four months in an attempt to cause national chaos and topple the government. With calls for new elections and a plethora of political factions vying for power, the current landscape looks hopelessly divided between the army and various political groups. Since gaining independence in 1947, Thailand has experienced an endless upheaval in government.
Until 1992 there was intermittent military rule, a period characterised by coups, coup attempts and popular protests. But despite its instability, the Buddhist country has always been seen as liberal when it comes to LGBT issues. Though not officially supporting same-sex unions, the LGBT community there is considered one of the most free and open in the world. As well as holding transgender beauty pageants, trans actors play key roles in Thai movies and soap operas.
Transgender figures are also seen in department cosmetics counters, popular restaurants, cabaret shows and in the famous red-light district. While observers hope the increasingly fraught situation in the country will end peaceably, the ladyboys, with their stylish parade of singing and dancing showed the world how peaceful yet fabulous protest is all about.
December 3, 2008
Thailand holds first sexual diversity day
by Douglas Sanders
Thailand’s first "Human Rights Day for Sexual Diversity" was launched on Nov 29 to mark the anniversary of the drafting of the Yogyakarta Principles in Nov 2006. It was held in the shopping heart of Bangkok, surrounded by Siam Square, Siam Centre, Discovery Centre, MBK and Paragon. We gathered in a small plaza in front of the Lido movie theatre, with our own stage, seating and tables. Saturday shoppers streamed past on the sidewalk. Paragon Centre, with its Prada and Gucci stores, was across the street.
Over two hundred intrepid LGBTIs were brought together under the umbrella of the Sexual Diversity Network. Sponsors were Central World (whose giant mall was a couple of blocks away), the National Human Rights Commission, the Global Fund for Women, the Human Rights program at Mahidol University, and the Southeast Asian Consortium on Gender, Sexuality and Health (funded by the Rockefeller Foundation). The program began with lively game show contests. Then four notable Thai speakers. Former senator Jon Ungpakorn, something of a liberal hero in contemporary Thailand. Dr Seri Wongmontha, the pioneering gay activist, who lost his job at Thammasat University years ago for his advocacy. Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN expert and co-chair of the meeting that drafted the Yogakarta Principles.
The fourth speaker was Alisa Phanthusak. She runs the famous Tiffany Theatre in Pattaya, the pioneering transvestite cabaret show in the country. It is famous throughout Thailand for its annual Miss Tiffany contest, a TV special. Alisa, as a member of the Constitutional Drafting Assembly in 2007, led the campaign to have a reference to sexual diversity included in the revised constitution. While that effort failed, it marked her emergence as a public voice for LGBTI rights in the country. Signatures were gathered urging Thailand to add it support to the French statement on LGBTI rights, to be made in the UN General Assembly in a couple of weeks. Insiders said that the government had already decided – again – to be ‘neutral’ on LGBTI issues at the UN. At least they will know that local organisations are asking for more.
The most serious part of the program over, it was time for a mix of panels and entertainment (dancers, performance artists and lip-synch cabaret). In between cabaret performances, a panel chaired by psychiatrist Dr Sukamon Wipaweeponkul had individuals talking about ‘coming out’ to their parents. The endgame was a parade with everyone carrying matching rainbow umbrellas. We fought our way through the shopping crowds to overhead walkways. The destination was the classy plaza in front of the new Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre, a block away.
There the day ended, with everybody taking pictures of everybody else. Over there was Sisters, the Pattaya kathoey organisation. Over here was SWING, focused on male sex workers. Pioneering lesbian activists Tang and Lek posed. Miss Tiffany and Miss Alcazar added their elegance to the event. The rainbow umbrellas had given us high visibility, but only for a short while. The English language Bangkok newspapers gave the event no coverage. They were full of stories of the siege going on at the international airport, the ongoing Thai political crisis and international economic woes.
Only the weekly LGBTI page in The Nation Media Group’s Daily Express tabloid, announced it in advance, and reported on it afterwards. Bangkok had Thailand’s first “pride parade” in 1999, largely sponsored by local gay businesses. But there were no pride parades in 2007 or 2008. Sexual Diversity day has now taken their place, and promises to be an annual event. Rather nicely, it leads into World AIDS Day (December 1) and international Human Rights Day (December 10).
Douglas Sanders is a retired Canadian law professor, living in Thailand. He can be contacted at sanders_gwb @ yahoo.ca.
December 4th 2008
Thailand’s king and its crisis: A right royal mess
Thailand’s interminable political conflict has much to do with the taboo subject of its monarchy. That is why the taboo must be broken
Bangkok – Even the most revered of kings, worshipped by his people as a demigod, is not immortal. Thais were reminded of this last month when six days of ornate cremation ceremonies, with gilded carriages and armies of extras in traditional costumes, were held for Princess Galyani, the elder sister of their beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej (pictured above). There was talk in Bangkok of the princess’s funeral being a “dress rehearsal” for the end of Bhumibol’s reign, 62 years long so far. Making one of few public appearances this year, shortly before his 81st birthday on December 5th, the king did indeed look his age.
The funeral only briefly calmed a political conflict that has raged for three years between supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister ousted by royalist generals in the 2006 coup, and an opposition movement backed by much of Bangkok’s traditional elite, apparently including Queen Sirikit. But the day after the ceremonies ended a grenade exploded among anti-Thaksin protesters, killing one. The anti-government protesters, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), who had been occupying Government House since August, then seized Bangkok’s main airports, causing chaos. The siege was lifted only eight days later, after a court dissolved the main parties in the pro-Thaksin coalition government.
Mr Thaksin is in exile, convicted in absentia of corruption. But a government dominated by his allies has governed since democracy returned in last December’s elections. It looks poised to carry on under new party names despite the court ruling. Last month Mr Thaksin staged a huge rally of his “red shirt” supporters to remind his “yellow shirt” royalist foes in the PAD, who claim to be protecting the king against Mr Thaksin’s supposed republicanism, that he remains Thailand’s most popular politician.
Besides justified concerns about Mr Thaksin’s abuses of power, one of the royalists’ worries is that he was building, through populist policies such as cheap health care and microcredit, a patronage network and popular image that challenged the king’s. Another fear is that Mr Thaksin’s alleged generosity to Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn in the past was intended to build up influence with him once he succeeds to the throne. For these and other reasons, the little-told back-story of King Bhumibol is vital to understanding the predicament of this country of 64m people. Many Thais will squirm at what follows, and will prefer the fairy-tale version of the king’s story. But the king’s past actions are root causes of a conflict dividing the country, and need to be examined.
Bhumibol’s tale, even if stripped of the mythology his courtiers have spent decades constructing around him, is exceptional. The American-born son of a half-Chinese commoner accidentally inherits a throne close to extinction and revives it, creating one of the world’s most powerful and wealthy monarchies, and surely the only one of any significance to have gained in political power in modern times. The king’s charisma, intelligence, talents (from playing the saxophone to rain-making, a science in which he holds a European patent) and deep concern for his people’s welfare make him adored at home and admired around the world. His image perhaps reaches its zenith in 1992, after the army shoots dozens of pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok, when television shows both the army leader (and prime minister) Suchinda Kraprayoon and the protest leader, Chamlong Srimuang (now a PAD stalwart), kneeling in an audience with him. Shortly afterwards General Suchinda resigns, and the king is given credit for the restoration of democracy.
However, Bhumibol’s story is also that of a king who lost faith in democracy (if he ever really had it), who constantly meddled behind the scenes in politics and thus, in the twilight of his reign, risks leaving behind a country unprepared for life without “Father”, as Thais affectionately call him. Understanding why a country that was until recently a beacon of pluralism in Asia has become such a “mess”, as the king put it in 2006, is impossible without lifting the thick veil of reverence surrounding him.
This is not easy because, paradoxically, a king whose adulation by his subjects is supposedly near-universal is nevertheless deemed to need protection, in the form of the world’s most ferociously enforced lèse-majesté law. Whereas other monarchies have mostly abolished or stopped enforcing such laws, Thailand’s was made harsher in the 1970s. Even the most mild, reasoned criticism of the monarchy is forbidden, punishable by up to 15 years in jail. This has had a remarkable effect not just on Thais but on successive generations of Western diplomats, academics and journalists who, with few exceptions, have meekly censored themselves.
All the king’s men
The origins of this, in part, were in the Vietnam war, in which America found King Bhumibol a staunch anti-communist ally. Recognising his value as an anti-red icon, America pumped propaganda funds into a campaign to put the king’s portrait in every Thai home. Even today, although quick to decry undemocratic moves in other Asian countries, America rarely protests at the arrests of Thais and foreigners for criticising the monarchy. Foreign journalists and academics need visas and access to officialdom to do their jobs, and thus have played down the royal angle to any story.
As a result of this conspiracy of silence, only one serious biography exists of one of Asia’s most important leaders. “The King Never Smiles”, by Paul Handley, an American journalist (2006), notes that the king’s restoration of the power and prestige of the Thai monarchy “is one of the great untold stories of the 20th century.”
Mr Handley says that in the two intervening years nobody has disputed the main facts in his book; not even the most damning stuff, which explodes the myth that the king rarely intervenes in politics and then only on the side of good. Perhaps his gravest charge is that in 1976 the king seemed to condone the growth of right-wing vigilante groups that, along with the army, were later responsible for the slaughter of peaceful student protesters. As has happened often in modern Thai history (and could easily happen again now), the 1976 unrest was used as a pretext to topple the government and replace it with a royally approved one.
Bhumibol was 18 when he took the throne after the mysterious death of his ineffectual brother, King Ananda, in 1946. He promptly came under the sway of his uncles, princes itching to restore the power and wealth the crown had lost when the absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932. As he grew into his robes in the 1950s he created a comprehensive patronage system. The award of honours in exchange for donations to royal causes made the monarchy the predominant fount of charity. This “network monarchy”, as it was dubbed by Duncan McCargo, a British academic, put the king back at the centre of Thai society and recovered much of his lost power.
A theme now embraced with gusto by the PAD, inspired by the king’s speeches over the years, is that electoral politics is irretrievably filthy and that Thailand would do better with ad hoc rule by royally favoured “good men”. The epitome of these is General Prem Tinsulanonda who, as unelected prime minister in the semi-democracy of the 1980s, did more than anyone else to foster the idea of the king’s near-divinity. Now president of the privy council, General Prem is also supposedly above politics. But this too is a myth: he is widely seen as the mastermind of the 2006 coup. Shortly beforehand he told the army that the king was its “owner” and Mr Thaksin merely a replaceable “jockey”.
The PAD is a motley bunch, united only by fanatical hatred of Mr Thaksin. It includes disgruntled businessmen, aristocratic ladies, members of a militaristic Buddhist outfit, formerly anti-monarchist intellectuals and reactionary army types. Its “new politics”, consisting of a partly appointed parliament, sweeping powers for military intervention and, of course, a strong crown, is “Premocracy” redux. The army is a big part of the country’s predicament. Its generals believe they have a right to remove any government that incurs its, or the palace’s, displeasure—taking its cue from the monarchy that has approved so many of its coups. These two obstacles to Thailand’s democratic development are inextricably interlinked.
Mr Handley criticises the way the king has undermined the rule of law. When he has intervened to make known his wishes, his influence is such that it is taken as an order. In an example too late for the book, months before the 2006 coup the king ordered the country’s judges to do something about the political crisis. In a recording of a phone call between two Supreme Court judges shortly afterwards, later posted on the internet, one says they need to avoid the perception that they are following palace orders because “foreigners wouldn’t accept it”.
Since then, their interpretation of the king’s wishes has become increasingly clear, as the courts have rushed through cases against the former prime minister and his allies, while going easy on their critics. Some cases, such as the corruption allegations against Mr Thaksin, clearly deserved the courts’ attention. Others were trivial, such as the court-ordered sacking in September of Samak Sundaravej, the pro-Thaksin prime minister, for doing a television cookery show. In contrast, rebellion charges against the PAD’s leaders over their seizing of Government House were watered down and the courts freed them to continue the occupation.
None of this is to absolve Mr Thaksin and his cronies of their sins. But even his gravest abuse—a “war on drugs” in 2003, in which police were suspected of hundreds of extra-judicial killings—was not entirely his fault. The dirty war against supposed drug-dealers was misguidedly supported by Thais of all social classes. Even the king, in an equivocal speech that year, sounded at times as if he approved of it.
Father knows best
Other countries, from Spain to Brazil, have overcome dictatorial pasts to grow into strong democracies whose politics is mostly conducted in parliament, not on the streets. Thailand’s failure to follow suit is partly because “Father” has always been willing to step in and sort things out: his children have never quite had to grow up. The Democrats, the parliamentary opposition, are opportunists, cheering on the PAD while seemingly hoping for another royally approved coup to land the government in their lap.
The rage of Bangkok’s traditional elite against Mr Thaksin stems partly from embarrassment at having originally supported him. When he came to power in 2001 there was a feeling that Thailand needed a strong “CEO” leader, as the former businessman presented himself. His then party, Thai Rak Thai (TRT), was the first in Thai history to win a parliamentary majority on its own, and formed the first elected government to serve a full term, after which it was re-elected. Mr Thaksin’s policies of improved public services and credit for the poor, though self-serving, promised to improve an unequal, hierarchical society: another reason why the old palace-linked elite wants him eliminated.
The government of generals and bureaucrats installed by the 2006 coup-makers performed miserably. In last December’s elections, though TRT had been disbanded, Mr Thaksin’s new People’s Power Party won most seats. This spurred the PAD to resume its protests. In clashes in October PAD members fought the police with guns, bombs and sharp staves, hoping the army would again use disorder as the pretext for a coup. The PAD nevertheless blamed the clashes entirely on police brutality, and the anti-Thaksin Bangkok press let it get away with this. The death of one PAD member, apparently blown up in his car by the bomb he was carrying, was quickly buried. But the death of a young woman, reportedly when a police tear-gas canister exploded, became a cause célèbre.
Up to this point there were only whispers as to why the PAD enjoyed such lenient treatment—even from the army, which refused to help the police remove protesters from government offices. However, rumours of an extremely influential backer were confirmed when Queen Sirikit, attended by a clutch of cameramen, presided over the dead woman’s cremation. The king remained silent.
Nobody can discuss, of course, what effect the queen’s support has had on the majority of Thais who still, apparently, back Mr Thaksin. A whirl of lèse-majesté accusations have been made against pro- and anti-Thaksin figures. But the PAD’s ever more menacing behaviour, the palace’s failure to disown it, and the group’s insistence that Thais must choose between loyalty to Mr Thaksin and to the king, may be doing untold damage to the crown itself. Some of Mr Thaksin’s voters must be contemplating the flip-side of the PAD’s argument: if the monarchy is against the leader they keep voting for, maybe it is against them. Such feelings may only be encouraged by the PAD’s condescending arguments that the rural poor, Mr Thaksin’s main support base, are too “uneducated” to have political opinions, so their voting power must be reduced.
At a pro-Thaksin rally in July a young activist ranted against the monarchy, calling the king “a thorn in the side of democracy” for having backed so many coups, and warning the royal family they risked the guillotine. She was quickly arrested. What shocked the royalist establishment was not just the startling criticism of the king—but that the activist was cheered. “It is more and more difficult for them to hold the illusion that the monarchy is universally adored,” says a Thai academic.
This illusion is crumbling amid growing worry about what happens when the king’s reign ends. The fears over Mr Thaksin’s past influence on the crown prince are overshadowed by far deeper ones about the suitability of the heir to the throne. Vajiralongkorn has shown little of his father’s charisma or devotion to duty, and in his youth suffered from a bad reputation. In a newspaper interview he defended himself against accusations that he was a gangster. But even his mother, in an extraordinary set of interviews on a visit to America in 1981, conceded he was a “bit of a Don Juan”. “If the people of Thailand do not approve of the behaviour of my son, then he would either have to change his behaviour or resign from the royal family,” she said.
The Thai press dutifully self-censored and certainly would not repeat these criticisms now. Nevertheless, the crown prince will probably remain deeply disliked. There has been speculation over the years that the king might pass the crown to the much more popular Princess Sirindhorn, who now does most of his job of touring the country to meet the masses. The 8pm nightly royal news on television constantly shows her, smiling through endless visits and ceremonies, making merit at Buddhist temples and doing other good works. In the crown prince’s rare appearances he looks reluctant and stiff, and is rarely seen meeting ordinary people.
The patrilineal tradition of the Chakri dynasty is unlikely to be broken. And the prominent role played by the crown prince in Princess Galyani’s cremation removed any doubts about whether he was the chosen heir, says a Thai academic. Even so, many Thais, a superstitious people, will remember an old prophecy that the dynasty would last for only nine generations—Bhumibol is the ninth Chakri king—and that a tenth would be a disaster.
Some day my prince…
For all these reasons, a former senior official with strong palace ties says there is a terror of what will come after Bhumibol. “When we say ‘Long live the king’ we really mean it, because we can’t bear to think of what the next step will be,” he says. Most Thais are too young to remember a time before Bhumibol took the throne. His death will be a leap into the unknown. It would seem wise for royal advisers to be doing some succession planning. But, says the former official, none seems to be going on. And any advice offered would probably not be heeded: “The king is his own man. Nobody advises the king,” he says.
In the shorter term, a trigger for renewed confrontation may be, if a pro-Thaksin government survives, its plan to amend the constitution passed during the military regime that followed the 2006 coup. Some mooted changes, such as restoring a fully elected Senate, seem reasonable. But the PAD assumes the main motive is to relieve Mr Thaksin and his allies of the various legal charges against them. Neither side yet seems willing to compromise. Both have made clear their readiness to use street mobs to achieve their ends.
A messy but effective “Thai-style compromise” is still hoped for, to pull the country back from the brink. It is even possible to dream of the red- and yellow-shirt movements transforming themselves into a well-behaved, mainstream two-party system with broad public participation. This, in turn, might help the country escape the dead hand of the courtiers and generals who are trying to drag the country into the past. But none of this is likely.
If Bhumibol’s glittering reign either ends in conflagration or leads to a Thailand paralysed by endless strife, with nobody of his stature to break the deadlock, it will be a tragedy. But he will have played a leading role in bringing about such an outcome. There is of course an opposing case to be made—that the king has been a stabilising influence in a volatile age, that his devotion to duty has been an inspiring example and that he has only ever done what he thought best for the country. But that case has been made publicly, day in, day out, for decades. Thais are not allowed to discuss in public the other side of the coin.