January 15, 2019 at 2:13 pm EST | by Victor Maung
Civil partnerships bill sparks debate in Thailand
Some activists prefer changing Civil Code to allow marriage
A bill that would allow same-sex couples to enter into legally recognized civil partnerships in Thailand has sparked debate among the country’s LGBTI activists. (Photo public domain)

Thailand could become the first country in Asia to endorse same-sex marriage after a bill that would allow same-sex unions was approved.

The country’s Cabinet approved the civil partnership bill on Dec. 25, which has sparked debate among members of the LGBTI community. The move is seen as a milestone in efforts to improve legal rights for the estimated 6 million LGBTI people — an estimated 8 percent of the country’s total population — who live in Thailand.

Officials with the prime minister’s office told the Bangkok Post newspaper that a Thai citizen who is at least 20-years-old would be able to register their civil partnership with their same-sex partner, share assets and estates and adopt children under the bill. The officials say the differences are with eligibility for state welfare programs and income tax deductions.

While many in the country have applauded the move as the first step toward full marriage equality, some activists doubt the new bill will achieve this goal in the future. They prefer the amendment of existing civil codes to include same-sex marriages.

Pongthorn Chanlearn, a Thai activist who is the director of the M-Plus Foundation, a local LGBTI advocacy group, says the country’s LGBTI community is still debating the pros and cons of the civil partnership bill.

“Thai LGBTs are divided into two camps with regards to enacting the civil partnership bill,” Chanlearn told the Washington Blade. “On one side, same-sex couples will get the official recognition and support from the government if they can register their union, but it would go only as far as 80 percent of what the heterosexual couples have upon their marriage. The proposed bill will not satisfy the needs of people 100 percent but this is just the start.”

“On the other hand, those who don’t agree with the bill think marriage equality should be achieved under the current civil union laws, which guaranteed the equal rights for everyone, regardless of the gender and sexual orientation,” added Chanlearn. “Creating a separate marriage law for LGBT populations would classify them as second class citizens. Besides, there is no guarantee for this bill to move up to the full marriage equality in the future. Some believe if we have the bill, it would make the future amendment of existing civil partnership bill difficult.”

Chanlearn, who is an advisor to the drafting committee of the civil partnership bill, says he also supports the movement to amend existing laws to include the provision for marriage rights for LGBTI citizens. Chanlearn added he want to see compromise between two groups. 

Thailand’s existing marriage laws reflect a traditional interpretation of gender and family arrangements that specifically refer to men and women only.

Despite its reputation as a paradise for gay tourists, Thailand does not have any written laws or regulations in support of the LGBTI community.

“Legal and policy reform is seen as difficult both because lawmakers tend to be conservative and, because the constitution and country’s laws are seen as sacred,” says the U.N. Development Program in its 2014 Being LGBT in Asia report.

Is Thai government using bill to deflect human rights criticism?

The bill is currently before the National Legislative Assembly, which has a backlog of 50 bills. Lawmakers will stop working a week before the country’s general election, which is scheduled to take place on Feb. 24. The bill will take effect 120 days after its passage.

Vitaya Saeng-Aroon, an LGBTI activist and director of Bangkok Rainbow Organization, says the Thai government has chosen to take the step-by-step approach because legislators behind the bill are not sure about granting full marriage rights to same-sex couples for now.

“The choice they made is not perfect, but they do believe that the bill, once effective, will become a useful tool to bring full marriage,” Saeng-Aroon told the Blade. “Oppositions may occur. No one can tell when full marriage will be realized because it depends on the social context. It will also depends on the new government to come after the general election, expected to be held in February.”

Thailand’s military has ruled the country since a May 2014 coup ousted the civilian government. The  military government since then has been under pressure from international human rights advocates over the curtailment of civil and political liberties, imprisonment of dissidents and impunity for torture and other abuses in the name of peace and order.

The civil partnership bill was first drafted in February 2013, but debate was sidelined after the coup and a subsequent government reshuffle.

Some critics point out the military government hopes to push the same-sex partnership bill in order to improve its human rights record. Saeng-Aroon agrees the Thai government may have motivations to use the LGBTI rights issue to its advantage.

“The military government wants this bill as part of self-promotion in addition to their commitment with international agencies about human rights,” said Saeng-Aroon. “The bill is used as the government’s claim that they are progressing to the commitment.”

Thailand has a reputation for its relaxed attitudes toward LGBTI people, even though its society is largely conservative Buddhist. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1956, and authorities actively promote the country as an LGBTI-friendly tourist destination.

According to the UNDP, a survey of social attitudes toward sexual orientation and gender identity found two-thirds of respondents had no objection to same-sex unions. Chanlearn says 80 percent of respondents who took part recent online survey on the civil partnerships bill that Thai LGBTI activists conducted said they support the bill.

Taiwan voters rejected marriage equality in 2018 referendum

Across Asia, conservative values and deep-rooted biases have crippled progress on gay rights. Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei ban sexual relationships between men, and Indonesia has seen an increase in raids targeting LGBTI people.

Vietnam allows same-sex weddings, but these unions are not legally recognized or protected.

Taiwan’s Constitutional Court in May 2018 declared same-sex couples had the right to legally marry. The island’s residents in a referendum last November overwhelmingly rejected efforts to add same-sex marriage to the Civil Code, despite its reputation as a haven for LGBTI activism in Asia.

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