BANGKOK - Thailand's new government has revived debate over a bill that would make the country the first in Southeast Asia to legalize same-sex unions but which has split the LGBT community for falling short of proposing full equal rights.
The cabinet of the then-ruling military government endorsed the bill in December, before the proposal stalled ahead of elections in March that returned the top junta leaders to power. The Justice Ministry's Rights and Liberties Protection Division has just wrapped up a series of public forums to hear feedback on the Life Partnership Bill before the new government presses ahead.
Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin said at a forum in Bangkok last week that the bill's fate would be "decided by public sentiment," according to local media.
That sentiment looks to be moving in the bill's favor.
An online survey of more than 1,000 people via YouGov published in February found strong support for same-sex civil unions in Thailand. While 63 percent of respondents supported the idea, 11 percent were opposed. The rest chose not to share an opinion.
Then in March, Thais voted the country's first four openly LGBT lawmakers into office, on the ticket of the progressive Future Forward party.
Tunyawaj Kamolwongwat, one of those lawmakers, credits the growing exposure of LGBT people and issues in the media for helping to sway a growing share of Thailand's older population.
"Many of us in every single section in our society talk about this, so they have to think," said Tunyawaj, who identifies as homosexual. "Before that they just believed in binary roles, just man and woman, right and wrong. But right now many mass communication and social media talk about this, so I believe they're going to change."
He said LGBT friends of his whose parents and therapists once tried to pressure them to be "normal" were learning to understand and accept them. "It's not [considered] an illness any more," he said.
But he and other advocates say their acceptance in "the land of smiles," as Thailand is sometimes called, can feel only skin deep.
"People say Thailand [is] like a paradise [for] the LGBT people. But for me, I have the questions — is it a paradise or paradox?" said Pongphorn Chanlearn, a gay man. "We face a lot of stigma and discrimination in Thai society, but it's not open [in] the public."
Both Tunyawaj, a filmmaker, and Pongphorn, a former university lecturer, are convinced their sexual identities have cost them contracts and promotions.
Short of full equal rights
As it stands, the bill would allow same-sex couples to jointly manage their assets and liabilities and to give and receive inheritance. It would also let partners act as legal guardians if one of them is deemed incompetent.
But Tunyawaj and others oppose the bill because of what it does not offer, namely full marriage rights, including the right to adopt children jointly.
"If we mention the current draft, it is not progress for us. It tries to control and manage LGBT people [rather] than to open freedom for marriage," said Pongphorn, director of local LGBT rights group Mplus.
"The final drafting ... separates us from the mainstream and doesn't support us equally."
Instead, they want Parliament to amend Thailand's Civil Code — which the Life Partnership Bill would not do — to make marriage between "persons" rather than a "man and woman."
Other LGBT rights groups are prepared to take the long way, convinced the bill will prove a springboard for achieving full equal rights down the road and give them time to prepare for the much tougher fight of amending the Civil Code itself.
"A life partnership bill, according to the history of so many countries, is the foundation to proceed to the amendment of the marriage law eventually," said Rapeepun Jommaroeng, an adviser to the Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand.
"We can study about the limitations and advantages. We can study about, if they have kids, what would happen. So it gives us the additional platform to move forward," he said.
Rapeepun was encouraged by Christian and Muslim groups at last week's forum that sounded open to same-sex couples joining in civil union. But he said they were still set against letting them marry.
Nareeluc Pairchayapoom, director of the Rights and Liberties Protection Division's International Human Rights Department, which is spearheading the bill, said moving slowly will also give advocates more time to bring conservative critics around.
"We need some time to make people aware of the ... rights of LGBT people and also take some time for them to understand and accept the same-sex relationships, because we have to accept that in reality not everyone agrees with this," she said.
Nareeluc said last week's forum on the bill was the last of six her department has hosted across the country over the past year and that the public could continue to comment on the draft on its website until Friday.
Given the feedback and the drafting committee's leanings, the department director said the bill was likely to see a few changes before heading back to the cabinet for final approval. She said the committee would probably raise the proposed minimum age for a same-sex union from 17 — the legal age for marriage in Thailand — to 19 and drop a condition that at least one partner be a Thai citizen.
Nareeluc expected the bill to reach Parliament by the end of the year.