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Thai election

LGBT party offers new choice in Thailand's election

Seven million-strong community presses for equal rights

BANGKOK -- Thailand's much awaited election on March 24 is set to be dominated by pro- and anti-junta candidates, but the rest of the field will be far more diverse than in previous years.

While the main contenders have focused on the economy and the widening rich-poor divide, the Mahachon Party is preparing to field up to 20 candidates who openly identify as LGBT, and are promoting inclusion and equal rights.

Some may question the wisdom of running on a single-issue platform, particularly one so sensitive. But the LGBT community represents roughly 13% of the 51 million people eligible to cast their ballots, and many feel that the country's reputation for embracing diversity is not necessarily reflected in legal terms.

"There are an estimated 7 million LGBT voters Thailand," said Party leader Apirak Sirinavin. "If just 10% of them vote for us, I think we can win some seats in parliament, where we can push forward our policies."

That figure is based on public health statistics collated from records of patients who listed themselves as LGBT while attending medical appointments. 

Apirak added that the number of LGBT candidates in this election is the highest ever, and felt that the country was increasingly ready to accept a more diverse field.

In contrast to other parties, Mahachon hopes its focus on one specific issue will help win support. The party aims to push forward civil partnership and same-sex marriage acts that are being debated in the National Legislative Assembly.

"The LGBT community is generally accepted among friends and in wider society," said Pauline Ngarmpring, a 52-year-old transgender female candidate. "However, we still lack the laws to support the rights of our groups," added the former CEO and well-known sports promoter.

According to public health figures, Thailand's LGBT community numbers 7 million.    © Reuters

Since the 1980s, Thailand has built a reputation as an LGBT-friendly tourist destination that is based on far more than the vibrant nightlife of Bangkok and other big cities.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand has promoted the country to LGBT communities in the West, in hopes of tapping a demographic renowned for having high levels of disposable income. Tourism accounts for up to 20% of Thailand's gross domestic product.

Somporn Thamachat, a 30-year-old transgender dancer in Bangkok's Silom Road entertainment district, said she would vote for an LGBT candidate as she wants legal recognition for the community.

"Yes, we get wider acceptance, but we still lack the right to marry legally and to adopt. I think voting for the group could help," she said.

For many in the LGBT community, however, there are concerns over the Mahachon Party's perceived lack of a stance on wider issues. 

"I am not going to vote for them just because they are gay, only if their policies match my needs," said Eakapop Panthurat, a 35-year-old transgender female who works at a well-known public relations agency.

Even if candidates like Pauline do manage to secure a number of seats, passing bills in parliament will be a different challenge altogether.

"I think we finally ignited the light of understanding among Thais," said Kittinun Daramadhaj, president of rights group Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand. "But it will take years for some lawmakers, particularly those who hold conservative views, to completely understand and agree to pass laws to support us." 

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