In the face of a reality consumed by the coronavirus pandemic, there have been places across the globe where activism has not only continued but flourished. One of these places has been the South East Asian nation of Thailand, a constitutional monarchy that has suffered a long history of coups and military rule. Pro-democracy protesters in the nation have been out on the streets since February of 2020, and despite peaks and valleys in protest levels they have continuously maintained their presence. Amongst these pro-democracy protesters is a subsection of Thai society that has long been in a sort of ambivalent status in the nation: LGBTI persons. Despite the country’s more open attitude to LGBTI persons than some in the region, many LGBTI persons still see regular discrimination and societal pigeonholing into certain roles, such as entertainment, leaving Thailand as a work in progress in LGBTI acceptance and rights. The LGBTI community in the nation has a significant rationale for supporting, and engaging with, the pro-democracy protesters. The hope is that by locking arms, the groups can together bring more force upon the monarchy and military. In particular, the LGBTI protesters are, in the opinion of university student Siraphob Attohi, hoping that having a democracy will increase LGBTI representation and equality, creating a more welcoming and well-rounded society for all involved.
Background on the Protests
Thailand has a long history of coups, and as a result of these coups a long history of unstable government. Over the course of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s rule as monarch, which lasted seventy years from 1946 until his death in 2016, there were at least ten coups and seventeen different constitutions. Often resulting in heavy military control for at least a short period of time after each coup, the Thai people have tasted democracy and had it taken away several times over the last seventy-five years. This has not changed under King Maha Vajiralongkorn, and even worse for the new king is that he is significantly less popular than his father. Despite the semi-divine status that his father carried, King Vajiralongkorn has not been able to muster the same respect, and this has led to even more criticism of the current system from many in the country.
This current era of political instability and infighting started in 2019 with a “suspect” election that resulted in a pro-military politician being elected. The resulting protests started in early 2020 in large part due to the Future Forward Party, a popular opposition party, being dissolved by the Thailand constitutional court. Popular among students of many ages in the country, this caused the effect of drawing out the party’s base to the streets to demand change. Despite losing steam, they were once again pushed up in the national consciousness when in June the exiled activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit was abducted. Shortly afterwards in August, things started to heat up with calls not only for the party to come back, but also for things such as a renewal of the constitution and such that resulted in open criticism of the monarchy, which can carry a lengthy prison sentence in the nation. September saw massive demonstrations in Bangkok, but by October a State of Emergency was declared and protests were banned, with violence growing. Despite the risks, particularly later on, the LGBTI community had not run away from the challenge, and LGBTI persons were a constant presence in the massive protests.
LGBTI Integration in the Protests
Thailand stands in a suspended state in terms of LGBTI acceptance. Per Equaldex, on one hand, there are some protections against LGBTI discrimination, and homosexuality is legal. On the other hand, the right to marriage is not present and changing gender is illegal. It’s a mixed bag of results, and this mixed bag on the legal side is reinforced in society. Thai society, per a USAID report, “does not wholly accept sexual and gender minorities. Attitudes… can be somewhat tolerant as long as LGBT people remain within certain social confines,” (9). Both legally and culturally the LGBTI community is stuck in a strange situation. Despite the presence of some acceptance, there is much work to be done, and this is where many in the LGBTI community saw an opportunity in the pro-democracy protests.
Ana Salvá of The Diplomat explored this through the explanations provided by Siraphob Attohi, an LGBTI university student. To Siraphob, introducing an expanded version of democracy to Thailand would help with many of the above issues, as it enables more representation and potential progress. As well, as Siraphob is a member of the drag community, he notes that participating in these protests means political and social liberation, that “you can be a feminine drag queen, a masculine drag king, or whatever you want to be, just putting on makeup and a costume. When state and society teach and tell you what to do or how to be, acting as a drag says: Fuck it! I do and I am what I want.”
Global Voices, publishing on behalf of the independent Thai news site Prachatai, has noted a similar resolve. During the Pride parade in Bangkok in November, “Thai women, members of the LGBTQ community, and pro-democracy protesters joined.” The community as a whole was calling for the resignation of the “elected” Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, reforms to the monarchy itself, and even a new constitution. Dancing, singing, and marching through the city, all the activists present were one unified voice in their argument, and it seems to resemble that feeling of liberation which drives Siraphob. This liberating idea is a driving force for many in the pro-democracy camp, from students to drag queens to other subsections of society, and it continued to unite the groups for a long time. Entering March of 2021, however, the pro-democracy struggle seems to have hit some bumps, and questions are starting to float up about how much success is possible.
The Current Situation: A Lull, but not a Stop
The situation has deteriorated in the nation’s capital regarding protesters, as police forces have started to use “water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets” against protesters, per The Guardian. As protesters got inside the grand palace in Bangkok and as the situation deteriorated, people were injured, and more were detained. On top of increasing police force against protesters, a surge in pandemic cases late last year also put a halt to much of the protesting, and it has been hard to get things back on track for many activists. It has started to wear down the abilities of some who were initially protesting. As Emmy Sasipornkarn of Deutsche Welle put it, “bids to reinvigorate Thailand’s pro-democracy movement have been hampered by the pandemic and arrests of key protest leaders.” With a lack of clear direction, and with the pandemic causing issues that were largely avoided last year, the protesters are starting to get stuck in a rut. The LGBTI community has obviously been affected by the police and the pandemic as well, and across the board there seems to be a general slowdown in the protests.
Despite this current lull, there still remains the ideas that grounded the protesters early on. Amongst both the LGBTI and the broader community in the protests people are looking for a way to improve upon the situation in Thailand. To many, the way to do that is for further democratization and further expansion of rights. These goals continue to drive many to support the people out in the streets, and these goals continue to give hope to the LGBTI community that perhaps one day they will have a more inclusive and better represented role in Thai society.
Alexander Champeau, 8th April, 2021