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Kiss Thailand’s Tolerance for Gays Goodbye

More than two hundred red-shirted followers of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra introduced homophobia for the first time into Thailand’s festering political scene when on Saturday, February 21, they forced cancellation of a lawful and peaceful gay pride parade and rally in Chiang Mai. The disruption was organized by Rak Chiang Mai 51, the local faction of Thaksin-supported United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). Despite reassurances by local authorities that the parade would be allowed, the police made no effort to provide a buffer separating the disrupters from the marchers. Many of the disrupters wore red masks to avoid being recognized.

About two hours before the parade was to begin, spoilers blockaded a compound where organizers had come earlier to prepare for the event. Later, thugs yelling homophobic insults prevented other parade organizers from entering the site. Also, 30 violence-threatening spoilers forced organizers of the concluding rally to dismantle a stage set up at the rally site.

Two days before the event, warnings had already circulated in the area telling tourists to stay away from the planned parade route. In addition, for several days local radio stations controlled by the Thaksin clique urged its followers to disrupt the event. The logistical complexity of the disruption, which also included a fleet of sound trucks blaring homophobic epithets and threats of violence, indicated a significant level of planning and financing.

Outnumbered, and fearing the certain possibility of violence with no protection from the police, organizers were obliged to call off the event. And adding insult to injury, organizers of the parade and rally — under duress– were forced to apologize to the Red Shirts for “offending Thai culture”.

Soon afterwards the disrupters began to disperse. A group of organizers and supporters who had been holding a candlelight vigil outside of a nearby Buddhist temple were then able to enter the compound to join their trapped comrades. The ensuing scene was extremely emotional with many wailing loudly as they embraced. They then fixed lighted candles to the ground and joined hands in a short ceremony calling for peace and understanding. Aside for some thrown eggs, no injuries or acts of violence were reported, although the author of this report, who was participating in the vigil, was nearly hit by a flying whiskey bottle hurled by one of the masked red-shirted demonstrators.

In 2006 a military coup overthrew elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In the upside down world of Thai politics, where appearance and reality are often separated by a great divide, this apparent act of repression was, in fact, progressive. Thaksin (it is proper in Thailand to refer to people by their first name) is a master of crony capitalism and corruption. A media tycoon and one of the wealthiest individuals in the country, he systematically bought off anyone and anything to gain and consolidate power.

When an escalating protest movement and yet more affronts by Thaksin brought the county to a state of near anarchy, the military instigated a bloodless coup. In Bangkok, people responded by showering smiling soldiers with flowers as children played on the tanks. But the coup leaders were indecisive and incompetent, and areas that have been Thaksin strongholds started developing a counter protest movement of their own.

Two governments, essentially serving as proxies for Thaksin, were brought down by a combination of judicial mandates and protests organized by the yellow shirt wearing anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), comprised of social progressives and anti-corruption activists. These protesters are militant but non-violent. However, in the face of mounting violent attacks by red shirted pro-Thaksin demonstrators, the anti-Thaksin forces took measures to defend themselves.

Yet another government has been formed, but this time with leadership opposed to Thaksin. Consequently, it is now the pro-Thaksin UDD that does most of the demonstrating. With much of his known assets in Thailand frozen and having been thrown out of Great Britain and declared unwelcome in Japan, Thaksin is becoming increasingly marginalized and desperate. So are his supporters. Chiang Mai is one of their strongholds.

Thailand has long enjoyed a reputation for tolerance, and deservedly so. Visiting western gays are amazed by the relative paucity of homophobia in Thai Buddhist culture. The country is often referred to as a gay paradise. So, what caused this first and explosive manifestation of overt homophobia in Chiang Mai, which has the reputation for being especially laid back and carefree?

Is it merely a temporary local phenomenon confined just to Chiang Mai? Has latent homophobia simply been conveniently manipulated for political advantage? And if so, has the sleeping dragon now been roused by the troubling public speaking of one baffling, ambition-driven individual, namely Natee Teerarojjanapongs, Thailand’s best known gay activist.

Natee first gained prominence twenty years ago with pioneering work on HIV/AIDS in Thailand. His creative and highly successful campaign for safe sex education and compassion for people with HIV/AIDS was directly responsible for saving many lives. Possibly, the number totals in the thousands.

Now, years later, the charismatic public speaker and author of popular books on gay issues and on HIV/AIDS has attained celebrity status, and has become a favorite of the national media.

A dispute erupted between Natee and organizers of the Chiang Mai 2009 Gay Pride Festival, ostensibly over the character and plans of the event. It was not a debate about bare-breasted women or of floats transporting giant phalluses. Rather, many of the participants viewed the objections raised by Natee as, in fact, a red herring: the real controversy was over leadership and control rather than political substance.

Appealing to local authorities to cancel and forbid the parade, Natee went so far as to call a meeting of various local officials where he publicly denounced the forthcoming event as well as its organizers. Considerable media were in attendance. In the end, the authorities permitted the event to take place. With ever increasing publicity over the dispute, a national television debate between the two sides raised it yet higher. And with Natee’s oratorical skills in full bloom, many viewers became convinced that the gay pride parade would somehow “defile” the culture of Chiang Mai.

Ironically, Natee comes across more as a conservative homophobe in this debate than as a premiere gay activist.

With high visibility and national publicity, Natee embarked on a campaign to expose sexual misconduct by Buddhist monks involving novices (boys) in a temple in a nearby city. Though analogies can be made with scandals within the Roman Catholic Church, a senior Buddhist monk notes that in contrast, the problem is not endemic, but rather an isolated incident with which the Buddhist monastic order can and does deal effectively. That is to say, serious transgressions of this nature are not swept under the rug. The senior monk added that misconduct among monks generally involves matters related to money. Lay Thais corroborate this position, and agree with the senior monk that Natee’s national media approach is highly inappropriate. Feedback from talk radio programs indicates a resulting state of near panic, with parents fearing to take their sons to be ordained as novices in local monasteries. And, not surprisingly, expressions of homophobia, never before heard, are now being broadcast over the airwaves.

By creating an atmosphere of fear over predatory gay monks and going public with the dispute within the burgeoning gay movement, Natee Teerarojjanapongs, Thailand’s foremost gay activist, has created conditions that led to an upsurge of homophobia where virtually none had existed beforehand.

And again, not surprisingly, right-wing, violence-prone Rak Chiang Mai 51, frustrated and angry in an increasingly futile attempt to regain lost power, heard Natee’s call and assumed the role of the enforcer of public morals and decency. They “saved” the city, in their view, from an act of “defilement”. The hue and cry, however, tells a different story: by threatening violence and thereby forcing the cancellation of a peaceful action in support of human rights, the disrupters from Rak Chiang Mai 51 are, in fact, the real ones guilty of defiling Chiang Mai.

Natee privately condemns the Red Shirts’ disruption of the parade and rally. He argues that the event should have gone forth. However, as of this writing, he will not publicly condemn the disrupters nor accept any responsibility for what happened.

Addendum to article: A reliable source reports that the police were paid off by the Red Shirts not to intervene.

STEVE AULT has been a gay activist since 1970 including co-chair of the first national gay march on Washington, DC in 1979. Ault has been extensively involved in the peace movement from the 1960s onward.  He resides in New York City and for the past 20 years has made frequent visits to Thailand.   Email him at:  stgault@earthlink.net

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