On January 16 the Thailand Protestant Churches Coordinating Committee (TPCCC) issued a letter requesting every Christian church and institution in Thailand to send a letter to the committee by January 31 in which they state their opposition (or support) for the Civil Partnership provision of the proposed new constitution for Thailand. The committee will collect these letters and duplicate them to be presented to the office of the Prime Minister “and others”. The letter listed as co-signers in behalf of the TPCCC: The Church of Christ in Thailand, The Christian Fellowship of Thailand, The Baptist Foundation of Thailand, and the Foundation of the Seventh Day Adventist Mission in Thailand. It was addressed to all congregations, organizations and members of those church groups as well as those under the Roman Catholic Bishop’s Council of Thailand.
For those unfamiliar with the issue and the groups being referred to I add the following notes:
With all due respect, I suggest that the Thailand Protestant Churches Coordinating Committee reconsider their request that churches send letters of protest (or support) with regard to the Civil Partnership provision of the proposed draft constitution. The following are my reasons for suggesting the proposal is flawed:
1. Churches in Thailand have not had an opportunity to study civil partnerships from a Christian perspective because no thorough material has ever been published in Thai and no occasions have been provided for informed dialogue on this topic. It is unfair to ask churches to reply to any matter they have not studied.
2. This is a matter which many sectors of world Christianity have spent decades studying, even if churches in Thailand have not. It is clear that it cannot be responded to without extensive study. That study has led to heated debate, but a majority of churches who helped establish the Church of Christ in Thailand have concluded that civil partnerships and marriage are right and moral. There is now a large group of Christian denominations in favor of this form of marriage and family.
3. It is not easy to see any way in which the enactment of civil partnerships would have a legal impact on Christian churches in Thailand. Therefore, it must be that the churches on the TPCCC believe the issue is moral and that Christian churches should exercise a moral influence. However, the committee’s letter requests those who are highly motivated to express an opinion, not about a point of moral importance, but about a legal issue about which everyone already had a chance to express themselves when public hearings were going on.
For these reasons, I respectfully suggest that the TPCCC refrain from creating a compilation of letters to be sent to the government. If it is time for the churches to take a stand about marriage equality and family life, then it is time to establish the opportunities and materials needed to study and debate this as other churches have done. If it is too soon for churches in Thailand to do that, then it is too soon for the churches to let a few voices speak for the whole church to the government.
Nothing, I believe, in the twentieth century, promoted Christian unity as widely as the annual observance of a week of prayers for Christian unity, given power and encouragement by the movement away from divisiveness growing out of the Second Vatican Council and the establishment of the World Council of Churches.
The annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity first began through the efforts of the cofounder of Graymoor Franciscan Friars, Paul Wattson, in 1908. During the same period Protestant leaders also proposed a festival of prayer for unity, and the two movements were combined into the present Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Joint activities between the Roman Catholics and the Faith and Order Conference of the World Council of Churches led to decisions to hold a week (8 days) of prayers for Christian unity beginning on the day of the Feast of the Confession of St Peter and ending on the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. Resources have been produced for the octave since 1968. In 2019 the week is from Friday January 18 to Friday January 25.
My introduction to this week of prayers was in January 1966 when students from Chiang Mai University and their Jesuit mentors from Seven Fountains Student Center came to the Thailand Theological Seminary for a joint service. I understood it was the Catholics’ turn to conduct the service and for the Protestants to be hosts. For a few years the plan was to have the service alternate between these two institutions.
As the next year approached, the Second Vatican Council was beginning to make an impact and ecumenism was much in vogue. I proposed that we might take this observance up a notch in 1967 by conducting a co-celebration of Holy Eucharist, a liturgy for which there was no established format and barely any precedent. The Rev. Dr. Kosuke Koyama and I were appointed to represent our seminary in making the suggestion to Father Andre Gomaine, SJ, of Seven Fountains. He listened nervously as Ko made the proposal enthusiastically and then said he would discuss it with the bishop. A few days later Fr Gomaine reported that, much to his surprise, the bishop had approved the idea. “I told the bishop that the Protestants want to have con-celebration of Eucharast as part of the service of prayers for Christian unity. The bishop was taking a shower and I was talking to him over the wall of the shower stall. The bishop agreed. I asked him if he had understood, and he said he had understood just fine but there should be no publicity about the event. Just do it.” Father Gomaine apparently felt trapped, but he worked with us in mapping out the liturgy. We divided the liturgy so that the parts emphasized by Protestants were done by Protestants and the parts most sacred for Catholics would be done by Catholics. Simply, the preacher was Ajan Prakai Nontawasee, a teacher in our seminary and soon to be the first woman to head a theological seminary in Asia and the first female Vice Moderator of the Church of Christ in Thailand. The consecration prayers (which I found out were called anamnesis and epiclesis) were done by one of the Jesuit priests, Father Siegmund Laschenski (if I remember correctly). Holy Communion was celebrated at two tables side by side, symbolizing our lamentable separation, we said. We later found out this was a historic and not uncontroversial thing we had done. The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano had a front page note that asked simply, “What have the Jesuits in Chiang Mai done?” That, Fr. Gomaine told us, was a serious reprimand, but nothing came of it.
As 1968 approached it was the Protestants’ turn to host the event. This time we proposed to have the Roman Catholics insert a short original cantata into the liturgy which would be conducted in two locations. The first was to be in Sacred Heart Cathedral recently finished as a gift from the King of Belgium. Gerald Dyck of the Thailand Theological Seminary’s Department of Church Music wanted to compose a cantata in the style of JS Bach, with solos, arias and choruses. He asked me to write verses for the choruses. It was accompanied, as Gerry remembers it, by a string quartet. Singers and musicians from both the cathedral community and from First Thai Church practiced and performed. The cantata was suitably focused on Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ, and the response, “You are the rock on which I will build my church.” Gerry took the cantata to Bangkok where he put together a larger ensemble (at a rehearsal of which the photo above was taken, from Gerry’s memoirs).
From 1969 on, the joint services were organized by the two large Chiang Mai congregations rather than the student centers. Services are held in Bangkok to the present time.
Predictions are largely projections of our hopes and fears, a friend of mine has reminded me. He’s right that they are largely projections, but I believe my predictions for 2019 are also observations based on evidence and experience interpreting trends I know something about. For what they are worth, here are my SIX GRIM PREDICTIONS FOR 2019.
1. The coronation of the King of Thailand on May 4-6, together with national elections and the ratification of a new constitution will consolidate the power of the military-royal alliance. It will give the King the most power a king has had in Thailand in nearly a century, since the end of the absolute monarchy. Some scholars say this is a virtual restoration of the sort of power once vested in the monarchy backed by an army under his personal control.
2. The US government will enter a time of crisis recalling the debacles of Nixon-Watergate, Warren G. Harding-Teapot Dome bribery scandal, and Andrew Johnson’s 1868 impeachment trial decided by a single vote by the junior senator from Johnson’s home state of Tennessee. Donald Trump is losing support he needs to stay on top. His plan in becoming President was to amass a personal fortune, and the GOP’s plan in boosting him was to erase as much government interference in big business as possible. They were counting on rapid action (especially Supreme Court appointments) before the great majority gets its counter-action coordinated. Time is running out on Trump and his dwindling backers. Trump is speeding up the clock by his bizarre antics and his public attacks on his critics, even those within his own inner circle.
3. It is really just abortion that holds the Christian Right together as a nationalistic force in the USA. Without abortion the coalition between right-wing Protestants and Roman Catholics would dissolve. Behind all the rhetoric and flag-waving is the plan to make abortions a crime. But behind that is the millennia-long struggle to repress sex. Abortion, by itself alone, is a contest between those compelled by the emotional notion that innocent children are being slaughtered, and the analytical argument that aborted embryos and fetuses are not yet children in any rational sense. Emotion always wins in contests of this sort. But when the matter expands to include the whole array of sexual freedom, action swings back and forth. Abortion has been politicized, but the longer-term outcome depends on the pendulum more than the politicians. 2019 will feature a major re-eruption of abortion battles but the swing on the broader question is away from the radical right in Europe and America.
4. China will not overtake the USA as the world’s major money merchant … this year. However, the USA has misplayed its hand too many times to recover. When China gains control, the blow to the US standard of living will be astounding. Of the great income producers (mining, manufacturing, and marketing), marketing is the easiest. Of the things to market, as the merchants of Venice discovered, money is the easiest – and banks are the money markets. My grim prediction for 2019 is that the USA will pass a tipping point from which it will not recover. This may not be the onset of another economic depression, but it could be a big policy blunder such as letting the national debt escalate to the point that borrowers of US dollars disappear and creditors begin to collect US gold, or failure (again) to hold financial magnates accountable at some critical juncture.
5. As for Christianity, 2019 will bring still more shift from the northern to the southern hemisphere. Euro-American hegemony of world-wide Christianity is at an end. The Pope is from South America, African Anglicans can compel the Anglican-Episcopal alliance to do what it wants, at least on some issues. Christianity has chosen sex and gender as its special target and has backed cultural repression of LGBT people, as well as outright persecution and prosecution. The few Christian groups and denominations that have resisted have been fractured, and are failing to stem waves of disenchantment with organized religion north of the equator. In 2019 the United Methodist Church will have its turn. It will be the year they make the choice of which side to take. In fact, a General Conference has been called for February 23-36 in St Louis to consider “human sexuality” and coincidentally whether to tolerate threats from Methodists from the southern hemisphere.
6. Higher education is in jeopardy. Its value measured in terms of “cost v. worth” is questionable. Already, valuable alternatives are developing as employment opportunities for graduates shrink. Here in Thailand the vast majority of college and university graduates do not retain positions more than five years related to their undergraduate fields of study. The exceptions may be health sciences and engineering. And even those who do work at jobs for which their degrees prepared them, have positions for which they could have been trained more quickly and cheaply than by university education. The more higher education becomes about training skilled workers for service positions so they can be factors of production, the less higher education will be thought to be necessary. In the USA a rebellion is developing against the modern indentured servitude that immense, career-long student debt imposes on students who now find jobs in their field are low-paying or unavailable. For decades the goal of higher education was the production of a valuable national human resource pool of independent thinkers. Today, not only is independent thinking considered unnecessary, it has been rendered largely impossible by post-modernism wherein the voice of the individual is indistinguishable from the voice of the group. In Thailand the problem is exacerbated by the unmitigated over-supply of university “seats” available due to unremitting construction of universities and falling birthrates (6.2 children per mother in the 1960s down to 1.5 in 2017). Last year there were 300,000 seats available for which just 230,000 students applied. The number of students at private universities in Thailand is down by 70% nation-wide. This decade, 2016-2026, will see accelerated decline of the perceived importance of higher education compared to expanded options, just as the half century, 1966-2016, saw a devaluation of education so that a bachelor’s degree acquires for graduates what a high school diploma used to provide. 2019 will see several closures or mergers of high-profile institutions of higher education.
I commit these 6 grim predictions to print so they can be reviewed this time next year. I rest my prophetic reputation on them.
Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
' Tis the season to be jolly,
Don we now our gay apparel,
Troll the ancient Yule-tide carol….
“’Tis the season to be jolly,” the familiar Yule-tide carol reminds us. It’s been a tough year, but on Christmas Day the Thai Cabinet gave us a present. So far, the gift consists of hope and a promise (made to us, remember, by politicians before an election, hem, hem). According to a bulletin flashed to the world around suppertime Christmas night:
The Thai cabinet has agreed to a proposal by the Department of Justice in which the salient parts affirm certain rights for persons of diverse sexuality, including the right to establish families, rights to personal property (finances), right to adopt a child, inheritance, and right to register as life partners. This is considered a step toward full marriage equality, a sort of cautious approach. Now the proposal is sent to the National Legislative Assembly for consideration.
The Bangkok Post explained a few hours later that the “Civil Partnership Act” will be in a queue behind more than 50 other bills to be considered before the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) adjourns on February 15, if national elections are actually to be held 7 days later as is still the plan. Whenever the Civil Partnership Act is passed by the NLA and published in the Royal Gazette, it will be the law of the land 120 days later.
Before we launch our gay celebration we should note that this is a compromise measure. Civil partnerships are a new category of law. Marriages have been worked out in countless court cases, so the rights and responsibilities of married couples and the families of which they are a part are now settled. It will take several trials for ever-cautious officials to adjust to “civil partners” as parents, land-owners, tax payers and citizens. We are supposed to have almost the same rights as married couples with regard to children; the proposed act provides for civil partners to be able to adopt children, and all the laws with regard to adoption are already established. That is a major issue and a great relief. Another relief, previously expected to be litigious, is that the bill will give civil partners the same rights as married people with regard to assets and estates.
As the Bangkok Post understands it, the proposal differs from law pertaining to married people in that civil partners will still be treated as (separate) individuals with regard to personal income tax, and some forms of state welfare. For example, if one of the partners is a government employee, welfare benefits [hospital insurance, retirement benefits, and coverage for parents] will not extend to the partner. The bill also stipulates that these partnerships must include at least one Thai national, and the individuals must be at least 20 years of age.
I believe several factors facilitated this advance here in Thailand. First, LGBTK issues have not been politically targeted in a culture war between opposing factions. Second, all kinds of gay people have long been a vaguely identifiable “presence.” Third, religious groups who object to legitimization of LGBTK rights are a nearly voiceless minority. Fourth, it is seen, at the moment, as a political advantage for the government in power to be generous. Fifth, LGBTK advocates in Thailand have chosen to coax the authoritarian regime to act (rather than to mobilize the population).
I predict that, cautious though the new act may be, the right to be parents and to have legal status will eventually have a widespread liberating effect. When this becomes law it will help a lot.
It’s been a year in which we have not had much to celebrate. Now it seems we will soon be adorned with new status. So as our favorite gay holiday, New Year’s Eve, approaches let’s proudly don our gay apparel (suggestions above from previous years) and sing,
“H A P P Y N E W Y E A R”
When government troops attacked the town where rebels had their headquarters, an unwed couple escaped to the young man’s ancestral village up in the hills. The trip was rough and as they arrived at nightfall the young mother went into labor. An old woman in the village cut the umbilical cord with a shaft of razor sharp bamboo and wrapped the baby boy in a clean cloth and put the mother and the baby to bed next to a hot fire.
Now, in the middle of the night three older boys keeping watch over a pile of newly harvested rice out on the hillside were awakened as they slept curled up next to their water buffalo. They trembled in terror at the sight of a radiant being hovering over their threshing floor, for these lads were deathly afraid of ghosts and they had a few dirty secrets so they were certainly unready to have their karma calculated that night. But the divine being said, “Don’t be afraid. Go down to the village and find the couple in Grandmother’s hut. Their baby will bring immense joy to you.” And just then, as they told it, the earth and sky were full of music giving praise to God. So with the kind of euphoria that an escape from death can bring, the boys went and found it was just as the angel had said.
In those days three itinerant monks were making their way through the hills, camping at night in abandoned temples or cremation grounds. People in the village took rice out to the travelers and had their fortunes told. The couple brought their new born child to be blessed. The oldest monk tied white cotton strings around the baby’s wrists to secure its spirit and chanted a blessing. Then the youngest monk spoke secretly to the young father. “Be warned,” he said. “Troops are coming this way.”
Even though the month of sequestration by a hot fire was not over, that night the young family left the village and crossed the river into the next country where they sought refuge.
This recurring story may be taking a slightly different form near you.
M E R R Y C H R I S T M A S
“What does Christmas mean to you?” I was asked to talk about this at a Christmas gathering last week. I decided to tell about the Christmas when the meaning changed most for me.
It was the week before Christmas 1965, my first Christmas in Thailand as a Presbyterian missionary. The Rev. Pisnu Arkkapin and I were appointed to be the faculty Christmas tour leaders for ten first year students of the Thailand Theological Seminary. Although the group was young and green, they were practiced and ready to do a one act play based on the story of Jesus healing the man born blind, and they were ready to sing carols.
Our first stop was a rural village in Lampang Province where a Christian physician had hopes of planting a church, a daughter of the mother church in Lampang. The plan was for our students to present their Christmas program on the elevated front porch of a small country house. There was no electricity yet, so lighting was by pressurized gas lamps (called “Lords of the Storm” as I remember). When it grew dark, villagers began to gather in the yard. Students engaged the children in games and singing. And then came the play. It got well under way. I was “back stage” in the living area of the house making myself useful and out of sight when rocks landed on the roof. Tiles broke over my head and created a disturbance. The culprits had been drinking home-made whiskey, we were told, and objected to Christians coming to their village. Their temporary interruption of the play was the main memory any of us had about our visit to Lampang.
The next night we were aboard a third-class local train for the long trip to Bangkok. The train was crowded. Even so, we had a roped-off few seats in the back end of the dining car. After the food service ended and customers were gone the students began to sing Christmas carols. Soon the car filled with smoke from burning chili peppers. Anyone who has experienced it (as just about everyone with any experience of Thai cooking has) recognizes the smell immediately and knows that escape is the best option and coughing is inevitable. Ajan Pisnu told me that the cooks were displeased with our singing, or had been put up to it by someone. The idea of Christians spreading Christmas around was unwelcome.
The night after that was Christmas Eve. Our venue was the oldest Thai (Presbyterian) Church in the country, Samray Church on the banks of the Chaopraya River in Bangkok. Christmas festivities were planned to begin at sunset with a big dinner, a church service, and then a program of singing and plays. By now I was beginning to gather that those two activities were essential for a Thai Christmas celebration as far as the young people were concerned. Christmas for youth groups would be sadly lacking if the groups could not sing and put on a play. In fact, three or four Samray Church youth groups sang and then set off to serenade. These serenading groups were called “Angel Choirs.” It was near midnight before our turn came. In addition to the dwindling number of Christians, the church yard was still crowded with people who came for the free food and entertainment provided once a year. Hardly anybody paid attention to our drama. It was the least important aspect of the evening for most of the crowd who were waiting for a fire-works display at midnight and Christmas presents. Then we, too, set off to serenade seminary benefactors scattered around Bangkok. In every case we arrived hours after we were scheduled to have been there. People were gracious, and not disappointed when our serenade was cut to one carol and “We wish you a Merry Christmas.” At only one place were we set upon by dogs, but Ajan Pisnu assured me neighbors had not put them up to it.
So I came to Christmas morning with a radical new perspective about what Christmas means. Aside from all the memories I had grown up with, I now realized that here in Thailand, where Christians are barely 1% of the population, Christmas is inserted into a non-Christian setting. Every Christmas activity in this environment is an evangelistic undertaking. Every excursion by “angelic” youth choirs is also an intrusion into a potentially apathetic or hostile zone. In the background is always the sense that Christmas is radical.
Half a century later, Christmas has been essentially domesticated. No drunken youths throw stones at groups singing Christmas carols in shopping malls. Burning chili peppers really would be just incidental to food preparation. The morning I typed this, a Buddhist abbot asked if he could bring a group of children to our house on Christmas morning. But in this environment Christmas is still more radical than I ever dreamed back home in central Illinois in the middle of the USA as the Eisenhower era was ending.
The picture accompanying this blog essay is from the “essentially domesticated” Christmas celebration at Payap University in 2015, exactly 50 years after the incidents I am recalling.
There are funerals and there are anti-funerals.
The funeral this week of the late US President, George H.W. Bush, reminded me of three narratives that emerge when famous people die. There are celebratory eulogies, recollections, and recriminations. These discourses are delivered in two types of forum. One is the familiar funeral, and the other is a kind prominent in our time that counters the eulogies being presented.
Eulogies are formal remarks ostensibly memorializing the deceased. George HW Bush’s son, ex-President George W Bush, delivered a passionate and memorable eulogy, as did 3 others. Eulogies try to verbalize what will help everyone attending the funeral be satisfied that the deceased person is being properly remembered. Eulogies “work” when they celebrate the life of the person being laid to rest. The goal is for those closest to the deceased to agree, “Yes, that covers it.” Now they have done all they are supposed to have done for their loved one and they can move on with their lives.
Meanwhile, countless others are recalling times or events when the deceased made an impact on them. The memories might be as trivial as, “I was standing on the platform when his campaign train passed through and he waved.” Or as impersonal as, “His highway expansion program transformed out town.” The recollections of those with close connection or expertise might be data significant enough to record and keep track of, to be sifted when historians in the future begin to analyze not only the biographical record but the outcomes that have turned out to be significant. That, part of which is legacy, takes at least fifty years to become clear, and needs to be reviewed periodically as data troves or new methods of study become available. It is one of the mistakes of those talking about famous people to believe that historians can begin valid work any time they choose, and a funeral is one such time. One of the speakers at HW’s funeral was a “presidential historian.” When a historian purposively selects only laudatory topics or buffers troublesome issues, the result is not history but eulogy. It’s the right thing for a funeral, but it’s not history. Frequently, historical reflection will reverse an initial consensus after a full range of primary source material and analysis of long-term results of actions are seen in light of relevant factors not apparent at the time.
Occasionally a person has created enough sharp divisions of opinion and effects from their actions to incite an anti-funeral – a protest or outcry against the narrative that cultural norms would prescribe for a funeral. GHW Bush’s death created this sort of second discourse. Individuals and public media felt constrained to try to correct the record, or balance the accounts, by pointing out Bush’s failures and his negative impact. They have things to say, now, while the topic is current. Those anti-funeral messages are more significant when they are, or when they make clear reference to, valuable primary sources.
At first, I thought this negativity toward Bush was peculiar to our time of politicization and cultural division, but it is not. True, we are politically divided in the USA and this is becoming strident and intrusive. Also true, the funeral of a celebrity or national leader tends to urge that arguments be deferred. This is a cultural value, for all funerals, actually. Negative comments are counter-cultural. The pressure to celebrate the positive creates a climate for exaggerated favorable regard for the deceased, and this is actually what the protest is trying to restrain. Critics don’t want a movement to gain momentum that whitewashes important aspects and flaws of their dead hero. But most of the time the funeral does its job of laying the person to rest, soon to be remembered, if at all, by things mostly incidental.
Immediate negative response is not new, nor peculiar to our time. When King Leopold II of Belgium died in 1909, so angry was the public at his atrocities in the Congo, they lined the funeral route and booed. Shakespeare reminds us that Julius Caesar’s cremation was intended to be a mere formality following the assassin’s prior anti-funeral until Mark Anthony turned it into a revolution. Joseph Stalin’s lavish state funeral in 1953 (during which 109 people were crushed in a stampede) was such that the anti-funeral, as it were, was delayed until Aleksandr Solzhenitzen’s works published from 1962-1971 at about the time that Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana defected to the West (March 6, 1967).
[I call Solzhenitzen’s recriminatory writing “anti-funereal” because it was a direct protest against the official adulation at Stalin’s funeral and afterward, but The Gulag Archipelago was not written as history; its refutation of Stalin was implicit.]
The fact that a person has a funeral is an accomplishment not all major public figures achieve. Hitler fell so completely that of the millions who would have attended there were none left to hold one when he shot himself.
RACE TO BE FIRST WITH THE LEAST
Now it is again possible that Thailand will be the first nation in Asia to legalize same-sex partnerships.
In Taiwan on Saturday November 24, nation-wide referendum proposals passed by the overwhelming margin of 2 to 1 to urge the government of Taiwan to block same-sex marriages or civil partnerships. Referendum issues to express public opinion had been pushed by conservative religious and social groups to try to get the legislature to take action opposing same-sex unions before a high court ruling comes into effect next May which would mandate such partnerships. [See our celebration of the court’s decision in May 2017: www.kendobson.asia/blog/taiwan-wins. Our celebration was premature.] The “anti” forces resorted to devious, illegal tactics and used mountains of money from homophobic Christian churches in America, while the “pro” forces attempted to impress the people and the government through mass rallies and public debates. This has to be a set-back for LGBT groups in Taiwan, and for all of us who were hoping the right minority would win the votes on Monday. Indeed, the anti-same-sex-rights groups are a small minority, and LGBT folks and their friends are another minority, while the majority in the middle can swing either way. For the time being, and a critical time it is, the middle is heavily on the side against anything but marriage between one man and one woman.
While this was going on in Taiwan, in Thailand the military government was holding public hearings on the question of same-sex civil partnerships to be included in a new constitution being fine-tuned leading to elections for seats in a new parliament to be convened early next year (maybe). Some announcement about the matter of civil partnerships could be made before the New Year. The machinery is moving things forward in the direction of civil partnerships, which would be the first national legalization of such a thing in Asia.
In Thailand as in Taiwan LGBT activists are hoping for more than legalized partnerships, which would create a new category of relationship under the law, and open a can of worms as countless cases crawl to courts. It would be so much more sensible to just abolish the mention of “between a man and woman” from the marriage provisions of family law, and say “between two people.” Politics, as we have always known, is the art of the possible. If 100% is not possible we will take a smaller percent and work toward a better percentage. In the push toward inclusion of “partnerships” in the new Thai constitution, late reports are that a couple of key provisions are back into consideration (to quiet some of the opposition). It is suggested the new law will satisfy most advocates if it includes the right for same-sex couples to adopt children, have tax benefits similar to married couples, and for partners to have a legal voice in medical decisions regarding an incapacitated spouse.
Meanwhile, gay news sources in Taiwan are reminding disappointed advocates of marriage equality that all is not lost. The legislature may do nothing (although one interpretation of the Taiwan referendum law is that if 25% of the voter population expresses an opinion the legislature must take action to reflect that). LGBT legal advisers argued against the referendums that were held last Saturday, on the basis that it ought to be up to the courts to settle the legal rights of disempowered minority groups, rather than leaving it up to the public at large. If the legislature gets away with doing nothing between now and next May, marriage equality will become law, with the implications and nuances still to be determined. However, it is very likely that legislators have noticed the large margins of public dissent, and that will prompt them to take defensive action to minimize equal rights.
Lawmakers in both Taiwan and Thailand are now in the mode of trying to determine just how little they can get away with.
Note: The Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR), the main LGBTQ legal defense team that brought the May 2017 case before the Supreme Court of Taiwan, has sued the Central Election Committee of Taiwan for allowing this "unconstitutional" referendum to proceed. You can read their public statement (English translation) via this link: TAPCPR STATEMENT
A rampant infection is widespread among us. It’s a virus of the mind. It has a couple of recognizable symptoms you may be able to diagnose in yourself. Do you feel exhausted by the news? Are you “sick of it all” and just want to stop caring and take care of yourself? Then you may be coming down with this virus.
This week my attention was drawn to a New York Times' investigation of one of the causes of our condition. You can see the 15-minute dramatic video here: Meet the KGB Spies Who Invented Fake News
What the video talks about is a Soviet project that ended when Mikhail Gorbachev met with Ronald Reagan a year or so before the Berlin Wall came down. In that meeting Gorbachev apologized for a phenomenally successful Soviet disinformation campaign that spread the entirely spurious idea that the worldwide AIDS epidemic was the result of a leak of virus developed by US biological warfare scientists to target African and Gay populations.
In brief, the Soviet secret police (KGB) got an article into a paper in India that first mentioned this lie in 1983. Then after a couple of years they revived the article in the Soviet press, using their own planted story from India as the source, and they invented a pseudo-scientific substantiation of the idea written by two scientists who were a husband and wife team in East Germany. The story then became what we’d now call “viral” spreading through hundreds of newspapers in Africa and from there into mainline media in scores of countries. Americans from coast to coast got word of the idea on the evening of March 30, 1987 when Dan Rather talked about it on the nightly news. US State Department investigators pieced together how the campaign worked, and exposed it, leading at last to Gorbachev’s apology in December 1987. When the Soviet Union collapsed two years later the State Department concluded “problem solved.”
But now we know more.
The AIDS story was not an isolated action. Soviet agents who defected describe a concerted effort with a very extensive purpose: “To change the perception of reality of every American to such an extent that despite their abundance of information no one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interests of defending themselves, their families, their community, and their country.”
This was a campaign to spread DISINFORMATION.
Disinformation is “deliberately distorted information that is secretly leaked into the communication process in order to deceive and manipulate.” Those defectors have mentioned scores of stories, including the one that the CIA was behind the shooting of JFK.
When the USSR was dismantled, the State Department concluded, “The formidable Soviet … disinformation apparatus which has manipulated world opinion for decades has disintegrated. But many large fragments of their apparatus continue to exist and function, for the most part now under Russian rather than Soviet sponsorship.”
There is not the slightest reason to doubt that this same disinformation program is continuing in this time of radically de-centralized communications media. Nor should we fail to see it has been very effective. The science behind disinformation was pioneered by Pavlov. What we cannot yet know is the exact extent of Soviet involvement in particular stories now that disinformation has thrown us into doubt about everything we hear. It does not matter to the disinformation disseminators whether we accept a story that the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 was an inside job, whether we believe that vaccines cause autism (or where that myth originated), or whether the CIA is hiding what it knows about extra terrestrials. We are now conditioned to bewilderment and fatigue. As the stories grow ever more bizarre we want to just be somewhere else, away from the idiot ranting that the California wildfire is God’s punishment, and that migrants from Honduras are coming to rape our children.
We are almost beyond doubting and disbelieving the news. We are now entering the time when we don’t want news at all.
During the modernizing period of Thai history (ca CE 1840-1940) the emphasis was on conforming to European rigid binary types, especially for the royal and elite classes. Women’s hair was to be long and men’s hair short. Women were heavily clad from chin to ankles and carried parasols; men wore shirts and jackets and tall silk hats if they could afford them and carried walking sticks. Men had one way of sitting and women another, and these varied by social class and circumstance. Women’s duties and recreation increasingly differed from men’s but heavy scorn was reserved for boys who played like girls.
When King Mongkut, Rama IV, ascended the throne of Siam in 1851 the threat of imposed colonization was rising. European empires were expanding and trouble was on the way for Siam and its vassal states. His Majesty was an avid reader of newspapers, especially those from Singapore where he learned as much as he could about what the British expected of a modern civilization. That was the beginning of an effort to modernize to protect Siam from being forcibly included in the British Empire. The nation’s greatest modernizer was King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, 1868 to 1910. He felt it was both prudent and necessary to expand agriculture from simple subsistence farming into an economic resource to develop funds with which to begin building a modern country. He also wanted the rapidly increasing foreign observers to notice how the county was civil. Railroads, steamships, and modern buildings would do that. Another indicator was how the elite, at least, looked. Westerners of the Victorian Era insisted on rigid gender identities. They commented ceaselessly on how backward Siam was in this regard. Photographs from that time showed that other principles than being modern were guiding such things as hair styles and dress. The King could not mandate changes of style for the population at large, but he had the say with regard to his very large household and those he employed. In the move to modernize, one critical area was law. The king hired international experts to draft a comprehensive code to conform to international codes, but the project stumbled over family law. This issue was to remain unsettled for 70 years with the ostensive reason being that polygamy was considered a unique cultural characteristic and there was no need after a thousand years to abandon it just to conform to European standards and morals. Something about everything should remain Siamese, the argument went. So when Italianate palace buildings were erected they included Siamese roof lines, and when European court dress was adopted, trousers and skirts were Siamese. When King Vajiravudh, Rama VI, ascended the throne in 1910 the issue of legalizing family law was a major matter, and that depended on a decision about polygamy (actually polygyny since only men ever could have multiple spouses). Under Rama VI conformity to standards stipulated by the King became a measure of how Siamese one was. Well into the twentieth century the pressure to modernize did not extend far from the compounds of the rich and royal. But gradually, an element of elitism began to burden the matter of how ordinary people dressed and cut their hair. The elite dressed stylishly modern, and those who did not were clearly socially inferior. Indeed, their ethnic communities were not fully Siamese. This was a matter of growing shame (although under Rama XI [1946-2016] ethnic diversity became a matter of civic pride).
The absolute monarchy was brought to an end in 1932 by a revolution led by “Young Turks” in the military from the middle class who wanted more modernization and less monarchy. One of the early acts of the people’s parliament was to reverse the policy that had defended polygamy as a unique cultural heritage. Right away, Siam’s full-fledged constitution and legal code at international standards and with mostly international nomenclature enabled Thailand to join the community of nations as an equal. All nations lifted their extra-territorial treaties and ended the last vestige of proto-colonization of Thailand.
Ironically, this modernization of family law finally ratified an elitist position that disqualified whole sectors of the population from the sort of full inclusion they had always had. Under family law after 1934, all Thai citizens were one of three types: Mr., Mrs., or Miss. There were no exceptions for people after they came “of age”. Gone were categories of minor wife, temporary wife, secret wife, and slave wife (that had ended when slavery was abolished [about which I shall produce another essay later]), those women were legal nonentities without recourse to justice, as were prostitutes of all types. The end of these types of wife meant that even the King had no minor wives, concubines, or others – most of whom had been acquired for political reasons and to insure a large, loyal cadre of royal sons to assume control of government agencies and functions. Since there was no “Inner City” (wrongly called a harem) behind the Grand Palace there was no longer any need for eunuchs, so these were not mentioned in the new family law code. Eunuchs were perhaps the smallest gender group to be ignored in the law. One of the largest groups suddenly non-legal (but not yet illegal) was kathoeys. Although Buddhist monks were excluded from the list of Mr., Mrs., and Miss they were no legal problem because they were not officially citizens, having no right to vote, own property, inherit wealth or titles, or to live outside the Sangha and its stringent regulations. Nor were they an exception to the sexual binary theory. They were “obviously” all males. The law entitled and protected them as a group. But kathoeys were gender deviates when binary monogamy insisted there were only two sexes.
Before changes in family law began to become a reality, homosexuals of all types were given all rights and access to the type of justice specified for their rank in society. They were simply people scattered within the socio-political levels of Siam. They had their place. But that had little or nothing to do with who they loved or how they lived with them. Members of royal families had duties to perform that took precedence over everything, but being homosexual was less relevant throughout the rest of society. In this system fathers controlled families, princes controlled fathers, and kings controlled princes. There was only one case of a gay liaison among princes being prosecuted, and it was for disobedience. Indeed, Rama VI was tolerant of gay relationships to a scandalous extent, although he finally married in order to try to produce an heir.
It is hard for those of us living in the twenty-first century to realize what it was like to have one’s place in the cosmos become unclear. Theoretically, the modern legal system takes care of all individuals, treating them equally under the law. But under Thai family law there are gaps. The issue today is how these gaps are addressed, whether by the slow process of cultural shift later codified into law, or by the more aggressive means of recognizing the need to have a law even if society may not be uniformly in favor of it.
We hear that the military government of Thailand is anxious to promulgate a new constitution and have elections. The word is that gay civil partnerships (but not marriages) will be included in the new law. That would fill one of the gaps to a small extent. Sexual diversity, however, is a culturally shifting matter. There are now more identifiable categories of gender and sexuality than before. Simultaneously, the whole idea of elitism and exceptionalism is under siege. Twenty first century needs will not be addressed by nineteenth century means. We would not want to go back to the waning feudalism of the post-Ayutthaya era where homosexuals were fully included but endured the same suppression as everyone else in their level of society.
Still, it is fascinating that there was a time when gender diversity was taken for granted.
Notice the costume and hair-style changes from Rama IV to Rama VI, reflecting attempts to conform to Western ideas of civilization without becoming slavish. Notice, also, that the population outside the palace did not much care about that. – Some of the concepts of the evolution of family law are thanks to Assoc. Prof. Tamara Loos of Cornell University in her excellent study Subject Siam: Family, Law, and Colonial Modernity in Thailand published by Silkworm Books in 2006.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.