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Thailand's historic LGBT bill exposes rifts inside community

Opponents call for amendment to existing law that could take years

An LGBT activist poses for pictures as he attends an International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia at Bangkok's Art Center, Thailand, May 17, 2019.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand marked a historic milestone on July 8, when the cabinet approved the draft of the Civil Partnership Bill that would make same-sex marriage legal for the first time in the socially conservative country's history.

That should be very good news for all Thai LGBT groups.

But what has been most surprising is that the hashtag #SayNoToPartnershipBill immediately became the hottest trending topic on Twitter on the same day, with some netizens even calling the draft bill "fake equality."

The #SayNoToPartnershipBill movement has led to strong resistance in both social networks and real life, as opponents claim the proposed law does not endorse equality among "straights" and LGBT groups.

"I completely disagree with the bill," Tunyawat Kamolwongwat, a member of parliament from the social-democratic and progressive opposition Move Forward Party, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

The key issue he cites is that under the bill, the same-sex partner of a public servant who died would be ineligible to receive the same government pension and financial benefits allowed to a widowed spouse in a heterosexual marriage. That would block the LGBT community's access to health care and insurance services.

There are more than four million people in Thailand who identify as LGBT, according to LGBT Capital, a consultancy website that focuses on that consumer segment. But some argue that the figure actually accounts for around 10% of the kingdom's population, which is currently close to 70 million.

The large LGBT community in Thailand has driven the movement to secure "social and government welfare." They have been calling for the same rights and legal status as straight married couples for decades.

The Civil Partnership Bill will next enter the parliament's scrutinizing process, likely in the third quarter of the year. If that process is straightforward and faces no strong disagreement, the bill could come to a vote by year-end. But with many members of parliament expected to disagree with many sections of the draft bill, a vote could be a long time coming.

A group of 20 Move Forward Party lawmakers led by Tunyawat proposed amending the existing Section 1448 of the Civil and Commercial Code, which bans marriage for same-sex couples.

"If we salute the equality of all genders, why do we have to issue a new specific law for the marriage of LGBT people? Why don't we amend the existing one?" Tunyawat insists.

In response to his proposal, the cabinet also on July 8 approved an amendment to the civil code allowing marriage between "two persons" instead of "male and female" partners, paving the way to amend the existing Section 1448. But an amendment would take years to finalize.

The argument over the Civil Partnership Bill has also revealed a growing rift within the LGBT groups in Thailand.

Some LGBT groups want the bill to become law, even though it does not cover all of the rights they would like, while opponents want Thailand to drop the bill, arguing that it provides "fake equality," and instead amend Section 1448.

The standoff could further stall LGBT rights, as 54 legislators from the Move Forward Party are expected to vote "no" for the Civil Partnership Bill, making its passage uncertain. Other parties including the largest opposition Pheu Thai Party could join hands with Move Forward. Pheu Thai has 134 seats of the 500 lower house seats, according to the parliament's website.

But continuing with Tunyawat's idea of amending the Civil and Commercial Code to entitle LGBT groups to all government welfare could take years.

"To amend the existing law is like trying to re-inscribe the ancient stone inscription. Why don't we accept the Civil Partnership Bill and try to amend it later to match our lives?" said Kittinun Daramadhaj, president of the LGBT group the Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand, which has been working for a same-sex marriage bill since 2012. Some other groups are also backing Rainbow Sky's proposal as a politically practical approach to delivering societal changes.

According to a study by the United Nations Development Program, Thai society has shown wider acceptance of LGBT groups, citing the growth of LGBT visibility in Thailand with a number of gay venues in Bangkok, as well as LGBT-themed publications and films.

But recent research indicates there is still persistent hostility, prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people, and social stigma still exists. For instance, those who identify as gay may not be allowed to teach at prominent universities.

The disagreement over the bill means Thailand's LGBT community is likely to continue in a vacuum with no law to support same-sex marriage.

The 20 opposition lawmakers led by Tunyawat seem unwilling to compromise, continuing to seek popular support by recently asking Thais to express their opposition to the bill on the parliament's website. More than 50,000 submitted their opposing views on the first day and millions more are expected to follow. The Move Forward Party could also lobby all opposition parties to vote "no" on the Civil Partnership Bill.

"I don't see any rift among LGBT groups. I just express my opinion to support the idea to amend the law for real equality," said Wachakorn Thanachokvanitchakul, a 29-year-old office employee who identifies as gay.

Asked if he would register a same-sex marriage even if he needs to wait for years for a "real" equality law, Wachakorn replied, "yes, definitely I will."

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