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Equality still a dream

In the lead-up to its second reading, the civil partnership draft bill marks a decade since its inception, dating back to a gay couple who were denied legal recognition in 2012 because the law limits marriage to a man and a woman. Given the conservatism of earlier decades, civil partnership was "the first brick" at a time when marriage equality was almost inconceivable. However, history is often ignored. Despite its long journey in conjunction with the new bill, the uphill push for marriage rights will remain an unfinished business under the current government.

After that gay couple filed a complaint with a parliamentary committee, the Ministry of Justice proposed civil partnership in 2013 in the hope it would gradually evolve into marriage equality. It faced resistance from civil society groups, but it was the military coup in 2014 by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha that aborted the first step of promising change. A civil partnership draft by the non-government sector also stalled under military rule. In an undemocratic society, those in power are not bound by public interest and therefore are devoid of political will. Interference by external forces has reversed hard-earned progress in civil rights. It is like one step forward, two steps back.

In late 2018, the cabinet approved the government-sponsored civil partnership draft bill in principle, but the National Legislative Assembly did not pass it. The shift came in the 2019 election when the newly-formed Future Forward Party received overwhelming support for its call for democracy and equality. After its dissolution saga, Tunyawaj Kamolwongwat of the reincarnated Move Forward Party unveiled its proposal for marriage equality in June 2020. A month later, the government scrambled to dust off civil partnership amid public criticism that it would grant fewer rights than its disruptor.

The duo went through a very lengthy process that coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. The civil partnership draft bill underwent further revision, while its counterpart remained in the queue for review until lawmakers voted for it last February. Finally, they approved civil partnership and marriage equality and two other drafts in the first reading last June despite earlier reports that the government whip planned to shoot down the opposition’s version. Then an ad-hoc committee of the House of Representatives revised and forwarded it to the chamber for further reading, which is expected to take place this month.

The new version of a civil partnership is a combination of proposals from the Ministry of Justice and the Democrat Party. It has broadened the term “civil partner” to be “person”, regardless of sex. It also scraps the previous requirement that one of them must be a Thai national. Meanwhile, the latest edition of a marriage equality bill comes from the Move Forward Party and the Ministry of Justice. Except for a few changes in wording, its substance — an amendment to the Civil and Commercial Code to allow anyone to marry, regardless of their sex — remains intact. Comprised of various political parties and advisers, the ad-hoc committee managed to overcome differences to ensure the civil partnership and marriage equality proposals are in their best shape. They share inclusive legal terms for relationships but differ in the degree of legal status and entitlements. Some members of the committee hoped that both will be enacted, but in reality, one will pass into law.

“Marriage equality will resolve the issue once and for all. But if they vote for civil partnership, it will drive a wedge in society because while a heterosexual couple is given two choices, a same-sex couple is entitled to civil partnership only,” said Kittinun Daramadhaj, president of the Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand, who is an adviser to the ad-hoc committee, in a public forum at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University last month.

The problem is after its second and third readings, either will be sent to the Senate or the Constitutional Court. The writing is on the wall for marriage equality. In the wake of a complaint from a lesbian couple, the court delivered a verdict in November 2021 that the law that allows only a heterosexual couple to marry is not unconstitutional because, by tradition, marriage is the union of a man and a woman for reproduction. It recommends that a separate law should be introduced for those with gender diversity. It is feared that this sexist, homophobic ruling will justify the enactment of civil partnership. If it is the case, those who disagree will likely have to launch a new bid for marriage equality again.

What if an unexpected incident occurs? Parliament dissolution will stall these proposals that have been in the pipeline for ages. Kerdchoke Kasemwongchit, deputy director-general of the Department for the Protection of Rights and Liberties, who is the mastermind behind the first version of civil partnership, told the forum that, due to the political situation, he has already planned to resubmit proposals for civil partnership and marriage equality under the next government.

“Will the current government manage to survive and review our laws?” he asked. “It is likely that we will have to repeat it in late 2023.”

Thana Boonlert is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

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