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Thailand Inches Closer to Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage

FILE - Participants hold a rainbow flag during a Pride Parade in Bangkok, Thailand, on June 4, 2023.
FILE - Participants hold a rainbow flag during a Pride Parade in Bangkok, Thailand, on June 4, 2023.

Thailand on Thursday edged closer to becoming the first Southeast Asian nation to recognize same-sex unions when bills to change an existing law cruised through their first reading, progress that prompted Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin to say he believes love will "finally triumph."

Four marriage equality bills were debated by the elected Lower House in Thailand's parliament, and all were easily passed in 360-10 vote, moving them along to the next two readings. One of four bills is likely to be selected for royal assent — the final step for a bill to become law.

If the bills are passed and receive royal assent, Thailand could soon join Nepal and Taiwan to become one of the few governments in Asia to endorse gay marriage.

Rare unity

To push through the bills, Thai politicians struck a rare note of unity. The bills agree to make same-sex unions legal by striking "man" and "woman" from the legal recognition of marriage, instead describing it as a union between "individuals."

"We are finally on the road to bridging the gap to equal rights for all today!" Premier Srettha said in a post on X after the vote. "Congratulations to the LGBTQIA+ community for the Same-Sex Marriage Bill passing its first reading. May love finally triumph."

FILE - Pheu Thai Party's Srettha Thavisin, center, is hugged by supporters at the party headquarters in Bangkok, on Aug. 22, 2023.
FILE - Pheu Thai Party's Srettha Thavisin, center, is hugged by supporters at the party headquarters in Bangkok, on Aug. 22, 2023.

The same-sex marriage push gives the Pheu Thai-dominated coalition a milestone win in social policy after it angered millions of young, progressive voters by allying with conservative former rivals to take government after elections in May.

Pheu Thai abandoned the more radical Move Forward Party, which won the most seats in that election but was blocked by a conservative appointed Senate from taking power.

Instead, the second polling party Pheu Thai stepped into a coalition including several key figures from the unpopular government of Prayuth Chan-ocha, which came to power in a 2014 coup and governed until August.

'A formal apology'

Thailand has long been seen as a haven in Asia for LGBTQ people with a vibrant gay and transgender scene, welcoming visitors from across the world.

The kingdom hopes to be chosen to host World Pride celebrations 2028.

LGBTQ activists hailed the breakthrough but said the apparent irreversible momentum behind same-sex unions was well overdue.

"If the bill passes, we will consider it a formal apology from the state which has long taken away our rights, our human dignity," said Waddao Chumaporn, a leading LGBTQ activist who addressed parliament before the debate began.

"This apology is like a guarantee to our LGBTQ youth, their families as well as everyone else who wants to live in this country with equal rights."

Under Thailand's current marriage law, same-sex couples lack legal recognition, including to transfer inheritance in the event of one partner's death as well as share health care benefits.

Campaigners insist the final law must include full equal rights.

"There are no reasons that we shouldn't be allowed to have a family with dignity like all humans," Anticha Sangchai, a lecturer at the Faculty of Learning Science and Education, Thammasat University told VOA.

"For once this goes beyond politics … sooner or later you have to give everyone the same rights," said Anticha, who identifies as bisexual and wants to marry her partner of four years as soon as the law changes.

For the LGBTQ lawmakers who had unsuccessfully tried to get the bill passed into law since 2020, it is a major leap in a long journey for equality in a kingdom where conservative values shape the law, despite an increasingly open culture.

"This is the first time in modern Thai history that all sides have come together," Thanyawat Kamonwongwat told VOA. Kamonwongwat is transgender and was one of four members of the Move Forward Party who helped make equal marriage a topic of public debate. "Change is in the air. We will go from a society where transgender children committed suicide after being bullied, to a society where a transgender person can assume decision-making roles."

But government critics say Pheu Thai's support for same-sex unions must not divert from their refusal to push for a new constitution which will build a fairer society, or the party's stance on not amending the royal defamation law. That law protects Thailand's most powerful institution, the monarchy, from criticism and public debate.

The Pheu Thai party is using the marriage bill "to dodge people's complaints and questions on rewriting the constitution," Patsaravalee Tanakitvibulpon, a prominent pro-democracy activist, told VOA. "Pheu Thai got off on a poor start by joining hands with authoritarians, so they'll do anything within their capacity to maintain support."

Since the new government took power, at least nine people – most under the age of 30 – have been jailed for alleged royal defamation committed during mass protests in 2020 against the former military-backed government.

Meanwhile, Pheu Thai's patron Thaksin Shinawatra has returned to Thailand from years in self-exile and had an eight-year jail term slashed to one – and he is widely expected to soon be allowed to serve his time at home.