Thailand’s Invisible Gender Law

By Neang Sinen, Fellowship, DMF Fellowship Article Program 2017

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Kath Khangpiboon, co-founder of the Thai Transgender Alliance, at a conference of the United Nations Development Group-Asia Pacific Human Rights Network in Bangkok, Thailand. Source: Kath Khangpiboon

BANGKOK – Wearing a navy and white dress and with a serene smile on her face, Kath Khangpiboon looks like she is about to go out on a meandering Sunday stroll. But she is someone with a mission and she is determined to carry it out.  A co-founder of the Thai Transgender Alliance, Kath says that nearly three years after a landmark law on gender equality was passed in this country, members of the local LGBT community still face “a lot of discrimination”, keeping advocates like her as busy as ever.

“Until now they cannot find ways to protect their rights,”says Kath of Thai LGBTs. “This has given rise to high numbers of discrimination and sexual harassment cases because society has always stigmatized the LGBT community.”

That’s not how Thailand likes to portray itself, of course. For outsiders at least, Thailand is LGBT paradise, home of the beautiful ‘ladyboys’. There was even an LGBT Expo scheduled to be held in Bangkok this month, aiming, among other things, “to promote Thailand as the LGBT market centre offering products, services, and activities for LGBT people”. Yet UN Women itself has been moved to note that most of Thailand’s estimated 231,000 transgender women face “discrimination and abuse in all stages of their life”.

Just take Kath’s employment in 2014 as a lecturer by her alma mater, the prestigious Thammasat University. It created a media firestorm that centred on her being a transgender rather than, say, her academic qualifications (she has a master’s degree in social administration). Her termination several months later was as controversial; fired for supposedly having social-media posts “inappropriate” for a Thammasat academic, Kath was refused reinstatement even though she had the full support of the social-administration faculty, to which she had belonged.

Thailand’s Gender Equality Act of 2015 was supposed to help prevent cases like Kath’s, and more. Passed in March 2015 and implemented six months later, the law criminalises discrimination based on gender, including those against someone with a “sexual expression different from that person’s original sex”.

But observers say the law – the first of its kind in Southeast Asia — has had little impact so far, largely because of low public awareness of it. Remarks senior journalist Kornkritch Somjittranuki of the online newspaper Prachatai: “(Very) few people know that this law exists. Even I don’t know what (is) written in the law.”

WannapongYodmuang of the Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand (RSAT) agrees. “Not many people know about the law,” she says. “There is a lack of awareness among the public, including the LGBTs themselves.”

That, in turn, may be due to the current political situation, says Kornkritch. “I think it’s partly because the law was passed under the military regime so the process of public hearing is very rare,” he says. “I think the military passed this law only to improve its human-rights image among the international community.”

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Ms. Lakkana Punwichai, an author and a commentator for Voice TV, during interview about LGBTIQ, media, and Gender Equality Act at Brainwake Organics in Bangkok, Thailand.

At the very least, the military junta, which ousted the administration of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014, has not been very encouraging of free speech. To Lakkana Punwichai, author and a commentator for Voice TV, this could also be a contributing factor to the public’s low awareness of the law – as well as of LGBT rights.

“The most important thing in life is freedom,” she says. “People should be allowed to express their feelings, have friendly conversations, to freely ask questions and discuss with one another.”

But with the local media also constantly reining themselves in, discussions fizzle even before they start, and questions often go unanswered. It’s a situation that can only spell trouble for those who should be benefitting from the law, which needs to be not only publicised, but also explained as thoroughly as possible.

For instance, Wannapong says that while the law now provides “better legal protection” for LGBTs, they still find it hard to file a complaint with the Consideration of Unfair Gender Discrimination Committee (CUGDC).

“In order to approach the committee, we need to fulfil very high requirements and go through many levels,” she explains. “We have to convince the people, the community, in order to prove any complaints raised.”

In addition, stifled free speech could mean that any long-held negative stereotypes of LGBTs may have little chance of getting corrected.

Prachatai’s Kornkritch explains the social stigma suffered by Thai LGBTs this way: “There’s still a belief that people are born as LGBT because they had committed bad karma in their previous lives. Therefore they are now reborn as an LGBT to pay for their sins.” (Ninety-five percent of Thais are Buddhists.)

He says, however, that his industry is now doing better when it comes to LGBTs.

“I’ve seen a lot of development on Thai media on this issue,” says Kornkritch. “There are various soap operas that have LGBT main characters now. Some even directly challenge the Buddhist belief about LGBT. I think it’s partly because many influential people in the entertainment media industry are also LGBT.”

Wannapong also says that while Thai media used to portray LGBTs as freaks, criminals, or figures of ridicule, the media these days put them in more positive light, “creating a more open relationship between them and society”.  She says that the change came after the law was passed.

Kornkritch begs to differ on that point, though. “I don’t think that the law plays much role in changing the media landscape,” he says. “I believe that the movements to promote LGBT rights in Thai media had already existed long before the law. So the law is actually the reflection of that social change.”

And yet just last March, Ronnapoom Samakkeekarom, Kath’s colleague at the Transgender Alliance, presented to the press a survey of 72 stories on transgenders from Thai-language media from 2013 to 2016. The stories were done during the annual military-conscription period. Only three of the 72 discussed the challenges faced by the transgender conscripts; majority poked fun at the LGBT recruits.

A more comprehensive study by scholars from Burapha University in Chonburi province meanwhile found that Thai mainstream media tended to use negative stereotypes and coarse – even vulgar — language when writing about LGBTs. Funded by the United Nations Development Programme and released last June, the study covered news reports from six Thai media outlets that ran between July 2014 and June 2015. In large part, the study found that LGBTs were pictured as being “unstable, mentally deranged, or outright dangerous”.

Transgender Alliance’s Kath thus suggests other avenues aside from popular media to raise awareness about LGBT issues. “We have to mainstream gender diversity at the educational level such as high school and universities,” she says. “Such basic knowledge must be entrenched before they enter (the workplace) and participate in social development.”

She also says, “Whilst the law is not yet perfect, it still provides us with a platform to discuss gender equality and diversity beyond the binary constraints of male and female stereotypes. Shedding light on the situation is the first step to the realization and appreciation of gender diversity.”

This article is produced for the 2017 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) Developing Media Fellowship Program raising a theme “Gender and Access to Information”. Mr. Neang Sinen is a Project Assistant for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) project at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) based in Phnom Penh.

Year in Review: The Human Rights Situation in Cambodia in 2015

In 2015, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (“CCHR”) witnessed deterioration in the human rights situation in the country, with the vast gap between the theory and the implementation of human rights law growing even wider. The past year has seen a number of human rights abuses perpetrated against citizens; from land rights violations and attacks on Internet freedoms, to crackdowns on protestors and the political opposition. Throughout the year, the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) increasingly restricted fundamental freedoms, failing to follow Cambodian constitutional obligations and domestically enforceable international human rights standards. This post provides a brief snapshot of just a few of the major human rights issues observed in 2015.

Threats to freedoms of association, assembly and expression

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The year was marked by a number of restrictions to fundamental freedoms and attempts to stifle dissenting voices. After years of debate and heavy criticism from both national and international observers, the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (“LANGO”) was finally enacted in August, representing one of the biggest threats to freedoms of association and expression in Cambodia in recent years. Despite calls from civil society organizations (“CSOs”) to amend the law, the LANGO contains troubling provisions with regard to the imposition of mandatory registration, onerous registration requirements, reporting obligations, and broad and vague grounds for denial of registration and deregistration. CCHR has already received worrying reports from around the country whereby the law has been used to restrict the activities of CSOs. For example, in August, a group of 71 families in Khsoeum commune, Kratie province, were informed by local authorities to cease all protest activities to protect their land until they had registered under the LANGO.[1]

It is clear that throughout the year, the RGC increasingly attempted to restrict the activities of CSOs and criminalize those who dared to challenge them. For example, the environmental CSO Mother Nature was heavily targeted by the RGC in 2015; its co-founder – activist Alex Gonzalez-Davidson – was deported in February, and a number of its members arrested. Three youth members of the organization arrested in August after engaging in peaceful protests against controversial sand dredging activities in Koh Kong remain in detention.

Aside from the LANGO, a number of other laws were passed this year that also restrict fundamental freedoms, including the passage of the election laws[2] in March, following a highly rushed and opaque process; and more recently the Telecommunications Law in November.

The use of social media in Cambodia continued to be a popular tool for news broadcasting and political discussion, despite outright attacks on Internet freedoms and digital rights by the RGC this year. Attacks on Internet freedoms include the arrest of university student Kong Raya and the conviction of Senator Hong Sok Hour in August, both cases relating to Facebook posts, and the more recent arrest warrant issued for the opposition leader’s Facebook manager in early December. This month, Prime Minister Hun Sen ominously warned social media users that he is watching them, threatening “you should not use bad words to insult me, because I can get you if I want to.”

Although the RGC announced at the end of 2014 that the draft Cybercrime Law had been shelved, a second draft was leaked this year, demonstrating that its passage is very much still on the minds of legislators. Although the latest draft appears to have had the most contentious article removed (for now), the broad scope of this law leaves it open to serious abuse. Given that the RGC has already been targeting Internet users and cracking down on the right to freedom of expression before the law has even been passed, the ramifications of the law being adopted are extremely troubling.

While the RGC had vowed to pass the Trade Union Law by the end of 2015, encouragingly the law – which threatens the right to freedom of association – remains under discussion, and the RGC and the opposition have met with trade union leaders to discuss their concerns. What remains to be seen is whether this will have any effect on the final legislation.

The end of the “culture of dialogue”

The year saw the collapse of the so-called “culture of dialogue” between the CPP and the CNRP. The end of the short-lived political truce was followed by politically motivated arrests and charges against opposition members, evidencing that the judiciary remains firmly under the influence of the ruling party as ever. From the 11 CNRP activists jailed in July (despite no evidence being presented in their trial), to the conviction in August of Senator Hong Sok Hour, the CPP’s political influence over the police and judiciary is glaringly apparent. Moreover, the savage beating of two opposition lawmakers outside the National Assembly in October is widely reported to have been orchestrated by the ruling party.

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Notably, history seemed to repeat itself this year, with Sam Rainy going into voluntary exile once again, following the issue of an arrest warrant in November in connection with a defamation case dating back to 2008. Several more questionable charges have been brought against him since, and he now faces a number of years in prison. Diverging from history however, is the vow made by Prime Minister Hun Sen that there will be no pardon for Rainsy this time around.

Ongoing land disputes

One of the most obvious forms of human rights violations that continued to plague Cambodia this year was the ongoing violation of land rights. 2015 saw a continuation of pre-existing land disputes, and the beginning of a number of new conflicts. Insecurity of land tenure continued to be a pressing issue felt by a majority of Cambodians, due to land grabs and forced evictions, often associated with land concessions, infrastructure projects and powerful tycoons. Moreover, while a number of land rights activists were released earlier in the year, land rights activists continue to be harassed and intimidated at the hands of the authorities.

2015 was meant to finally see the resolution of the ongoing Borei Keila saga, whereby former Borei Keila residents had long been waiting for a resolution since their violent eviction in January 2012. However the disappointing decision announced by Phnom Penh City Hall on 13 November saw the majority of remaining families denied on-site housing as initially promised by Phanimex Company, and was met with outrage by the affected residents. Now four years since their eviction, the remaining affected residents of Borei Keila continue to seek adequate redress.

Positive developments: LGBT rights, social and economic rights

While undeniably the human rights situation in 2015 looks bleak in Cambodia, in some areas however there were promising signs of improvement. As mentioned in a blog post earlier this year, the RGC appeared relatively open to legislation protecting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, who often encounter discrimination in Cambodian society. However, as CCHR’s recently released report on the welfare of LGBT individuals points out, there is still a cultural lack of understanding in relation to the LGBT community, thus there is a long way to go before attitudes can be changed, even if the law is adapted to protect LGBT people.

It is also true that there has been some progress in the arena of economic and social rights: a healthy GDP growth in Cambodia in recent years, increased access to mobile and Internet technology, and emergence of a middle class have all contributed to an increased standard of living. Yet much of the economic prosperity generated is concentrated in Phnom Penh. In rural areas a few well-connected businessmen, senators and international corporations collect the huge profits earned through land concessions. Ultimately in 2015, basic healthcare, electricity and even clean drinking water remained a concern for many Cambodians.

Where to in 2016?

As 2016 arrives and the local and national elections draw closer, we can expect further shrinking democracy, with increased pressure from the RGC on dissenting voices both politically, and under the LANGO and other broadly drafted laws. Statements made by senior military leaders outlining their loyalty to the ruling CPP, along with warnings of “civil war”, by Prime Minister Hun Sen should he lose power, add the very real threat of physical violence to the already oppressive and hostile political atmosphere.

However, despite the RGC’s attempts to restrict fundamental freedoms, as citizens become increasingly aware of their rights, they continue to exercise them and advocate for them. Thus, there remains hope that through community advocacy efforts, the work of CSOs, and international pressure, the New Year will signal a new dawn in Cambodia, in which human rights are respected.

[1] See CCHR’s open letter to the Ministry of Interior, dated 21 August 2015 http://bit.ly/1mTiDWc

[2] The Law on the Organization and Function of the National Election Committee and the Law on Election of Members of the National Assembly

Support for same-sex marriage continues to rise

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2015 is shaping up to be a potential watershed year for same-sex marriage reform around the world. In March the Slovenian Parliament passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage by a comfortable 51 votes to 28, making it the seventeenth country in the world to legalize the practice nation-wide; a first in a former communist country.[1]

Perhaps even more surprising is the current move to legalize same-sex marriage in the Republic of Ireland. In May this traditionally conservative, majority Catholic country will hold a referendum on adding a clause to their constitution stating that: “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex,” thus making the restriction of marriage to heterosexual couples unconstitutional.

This is truly remarkable considering that homosexuality was a criminal offence in Ireland less than a quarter of a century ago, and civil partnerships have only been available to same-sex couples since 1 January 2011. Current polls estimate support for the yes campaign is at 74%. If the referendum is successful Ireland will become the first country in the world to adopt same-sex marriage by public vote.

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LGBT rights: making equality a reality

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (“LGBT”) Cambodians are still far from enjoying the same rights as others and living a peaceful life – something that is highlighted in two different reports released this month. One is CCHR’s new Briefing Note –  Discrimination against LGBT people in the Cambodian legal framework released today, and the second is the Cambodia country report of the Being LGBT in Asia regional program of UNDP and USAID, which was launched at a press conference on August 7th.

Two LGBT Cambodians celebrate Gay Pride in 2010. (c) CCHR

Two LGBT Cambodians celebrate Gay Pride. (c) CCHR

The level of discrimination LGBT people face is still unbearably high and affects many aspects of their daily life. Surveys show that discrimination, rejection or violence happen in the family, in the community, at school, at the workplace and in the health sector, to name but a few of the problems regularly faced by LGBT Cambodians. It has major consequences on their ability to fully integrate in the society and on their mental health.

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