Thailand could become the first country in Asia to recognise same-sex civil unions under a law that is expected to be approved by the end of the year, but activists say the bill fails to grant them the same rights as heterosexual couples.
“We need LGBTIQ to be included and not [to have] a separate law that creates second-class citizens,” said activist Matcha Phorn-in, using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning.
Activists are demanding the bill be dropped and the Civil Code amended to allow anyone to marry regardless of gender.
“If [the bill] is not approved, it will be easier to make changes in the Civil Code [in the future],” said Matcha, who last week took part in Hong Kong Pride Parade to advocate for same-sex marriage in Thailand.
Despite its image as an LGBT-friendly country, Thailand provides limited protection for sexual minorities in law, not allowing transgender people to change their gender on their ID and other legal documents.
“How can we support this law if this is another law that discriminates against us?” said Matcha.
Nada Chaiyajit, a transgender activist and lawyer, believes the civil union bill erodes the right of everyone to be treated equally before the law.
“The constitution says that … there shouldn’t be specific laws for specific groups. But this law is meant just for one group of people,” said Nada, who is taking part in the drafting of the bill.
Although the law would expand the recognition of LGBT couples in certain areas, such as succession, it would not address issues such as adoption, joint welfare benefits, taxation, or medical consent where a partner is incapacitated.
A right to surrogacy, another major demand of activists, is also not included in the bill. Even if it was included, according to Nada, it would conflict with a 2015 surrogacy law that restricts access to heterosexual couples who cannot conceive by natural means.
The draft bill also introduces a legal concept never used before in Thai legislation: life-partner, instead of spouse. This could lead to difficulties in getting rights recognised by different government offices and organisations, according to Anjana Suvarnananda, founder of the Anjaree Foundation, Thailand’s first LGBT rights organisation.
“[Because of this] many areas will not be covered immediately and many rights will not be recognised [by government offices] which will mean that LGBT people will have to take offices to court,” the activist said.
The government recently concluded a two-week public consultation process on the bill that included public hearings and an online portal to receive feedback.
Nareeluc Pairchaiyapoom, director of the International Human Rights Division at the Thai Ministry of Justice, said the bill was welcomed by most of the public in the consultation process, but received a “mixed” response among LGBT groups.
“Very few people disagreed with the law,” she said, while acknowledging that the main complaints from LGBT people related to the bill’s failure to amend the Civil Code or recognise a right to adoption.
About 750 people took part in five public hearings across the country, according to Nareeluc, with more than 2,500 comments received through the ministry’s website.
The Ministry of Justice is currently summarising the feedback to send to the government by the end of the month. The bill will be announced in its finalised form in December.
LGBT activists have complained that the public consultation has been limited since most of the drafting process was carried out in secret and the draft bill was only made public on November 5.
“There has barely been any participation from civil society and I don’t think they will make substantial changes after the hearings,” said Kath Khangpiboon, a transgender activist.
“I feel that the military want to pass this law quickly so they get the support from … LGBT people during elections.”
Thailand has been ruled by a military junta since a coup in May 2014, but fresh elections have been announced for early 2019.
Some Asian countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia tolerate same-sex couples celebrating informal weddings, but no country in the region recognises same-sex marriage. Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore ban homosexuality outright.
Taiwan is set to vote on same-sex marriage on Saturday after its constitutional court recognised the right of same-sex couples to marry last year.