Hundreds of gay, lesbian and transgender activists joined anti-government demonstrations in Bangkok to demand equal rights for members of Thailand’s LGBT community. Raising their movement’s rainbow-colored “pride” flags at the weekend, they stood shoulder to shoulder with the thousands of students who were calling for the country’s military-allied government to resign. “We’re here today mainly to call for democracy. Once we achieve democracy, equal rights will follow,” a 21-year-old transgender protester told a foreign news agency. “The LGBT group [does] not yet have equal rights in society, so we’re calling for both democracy and equality.” In recent days numerous rallies spearheaded by high school and university students have been held in several Thai cities, mostly on school campuses. Student activists are demanding greater freedoms in a country ruled by a conservative elite, which insists on maintaining the status quo whereby the age-old power structure with an inviolable royal family at the top is upheld in what many observers have described as a feudalistic society.
Young activists are calling for new elections and for Thailand’s latest constitution, which was drafted and passed in 2017 by a military junta, to be scrapped or revised. The current prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, has been in power since May 2014 when as the then army chief he led a coup that overthrew a democratically elected government. The ruling junta tore up Thailand’s existing constitution and drafted a new one, which apportions an oversized role to an unelected Senate whose members are hand-selected by the military. Observers say the current constitution makes it impossible for a democratically elected government to take charge unless it receives the blessing of the army. Some student protesters have also been carrying handwritten signs critical of Thailand’s monarchy. Thai royalists insist that the monarchy, which they see as a key pillar of society, is above politics. At a press conference on July 24, army chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong warned student protesters against speaking out against the country’s royals, any criticism of whom is against the law and carries long prison sentences. Tearing up emotionally, Apirat called on students to mind their manners and language, insisting the monarchy was key to the country’s prosperity and survival. “I understand they’re exercising their democratic rights [by protesting], but I think [their] vituperations and inapt language are making many people feel uncomfortable,” he said. Previously, Apirat, the son of an army general who once overthrew another government in a coup-prone nation, did not rule out yet another coup if the political situation warranted it. Many of Thailand’s LGBT activists are progressive and liberal-minded, observers say, and so their joining pro-democracy protests is no surprise. Although gays, lesbians and transgender people enjoy greater freedom to be themselves in Thailand than their counterparts in any other nation in Southeast Asia, a lack of general democratic freedoms and an ossified power structure in politics are hindrances to true equality, activists say. The cabinet this month signed off on a bill that would guarantee greater equality for members of Thailand’s LGBT community by allowing for same-sex unions to be registered officially. Many LGBT activists have welcomed the move but others have said the bill falls short of true equality by depriving people in same-sex unions of some legal rights available to those in male-female unions.
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