Thailand May Be First in Southeast Asia to Allow Same-Sex Unions

Siraphob Thanthong-Knight

(Bloomberg) -- In Thailand, the ruling coalition and opposition lawmakers don’t agree on much. Yet within both camps there’s growing support for legalizing same-sex unions.

Seven years of work has yielded a draft bill that is near the final stage of approval in parliament. If passed, Thailand would be the first in Southeast Asia to allow such unions, and the second in Asia after Taiwan, which legalized them in May.

The law in Thailand wouldn’t go as far as endorsing marriage yet would allow same-sex couples to jointly manage assets and liabilities, and to inherit from their partners.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle basically agree on the principles behind the legislation though opposition members have criticized it for not going as far as marriage equality. Proponents say it’s a step in the right direction in a region that’s behind in recognizing and guaranteeing rights of the gay, lesbian and transgender community.

The bill -- approved by the Cabinet late last year ahead of March’s general election -- is back in the spotlight as the new parliament is in full session. One difference this time is that there’s a group of elected, openly-LGBT representatives in the parliament for the first time in the history of Thailand’s eight-decade-old legislature.

“It’s very significant that we now have LGBT representation in politics,” said Kath Khangpiboon, a transgender lecturer in the social administration faculty at Thammasat University. “Success in passing such legislation in many countries comes from having representatives lobbying and working on it.”

There’s a growing social movement in Thailand demanding same-sex unions and the government recognizes that, she said. “The key question is whether the bill truly reflects what people want,” she added.

Laws Lag

Though Thailand has an LGBT-friendly image and takes in an estimated $5.3 billion annually from LGBT visitors, the country’s laws are mixed in accommodating LGBT rights. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is illegal, yet some in the LGBT community say they have trouble finding jobs outside the tourism, media and entertainment industries. Currently, same-sex couples don’t have legal rights.

The bill, which is expected to come up for a vote in parliament early next year, could have enough support to become law. The backing of the ruling coalition is key, as it has a slim majority in the Lower House.

A complication is that the coalition and opposition have different approaches to legalizing same-sex unions. The government and the Justice Ministry support the partnership bill as drafted. The opposition, primarily the progressive Future Forward party and some rights groups, wants to scrap the bill, and amend the country’s civil code to legalize the unions.

“There needs to be a consensus for this bill pass,” said Kerdchoke Kasamwongjit, deputy director general of the Justice Ministry’s Rights and Liberties Protection Department, who has been working on the bill since its inception in 2012. “This law can’t satisfy everyone but it’s a good basis for future laws that could be added to expand the rights.”

Kerdchoke said he thinks the majority of the LGBT community supports the partnership bill.

However, the opposition doesn’t see the bill as going nearly far enough.

“The partnership bill differentiates same-sex unions from marriages, and that’s pushing us further away from equality,” said Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, a transgender parliament member from Future Forward.

Tanwarin, one of the four LGBT lawmakers from Future Forward, is a leading opponent of the measure. There’s currently no law allowing for a change in legal gender in Thailand, so the partnership bill would in effect be applied to some people in the transgender community as well.

She proposes amending the country’s Civil and Commercial Code that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman to a union between two persons. “Our law should be genderless,” she said.

The draft version of the civil partnership bill is currently being reviewed by the Office of the Council of State, an advisory body to the government. After receiving approval from the Justice Minister and Justice Permanent Secretary, the bill will then be forwarded to the parliament for a vote.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll see a positive change,” Tanwarin said. “Equal rights isn’t too far from reality for Thailand.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Siraphob Thanthong-Knight in Bangkok at rthanthongkn@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sunil Jagtiani at sjagtiani@bloomberg.net, Jodi Schneider

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