Story by Attachai Had-an
Cover illustration by Kittiya On-in
In preparation for the upcoming election on May 7, 2023, “The Opener” has studied the spread of misinformation and how it might impair the quest for a free and fair election in Thailand.
Lessons from the 2019 election campaign until now indicate that while many political parties, including those in the government coalition, have long advocated on behalf of ‘vulnerable’ social groups like women and children, they have seldom implemented policies on their behalf.
Unsurprisingly, some people have come to believe that such policy pronouncements are little more than empty campaign rhetoric designed to woo voters.
In this article, we will look at how gender-related policies - policies addressing the welfare of women and children, LGBTQIA+ , and gender equality - are being discussed this election period.
Pracharath’s Mother-Baby Bonus Policy: Another Campaign Pledge Before the Election?
During the 2019 election, many political parties campaigned using policies to support maternal and child welfare. For example, Palang Pracharath Party promoted a policy called “Pracharath mother” which offered a 3,000 baht (or over USD 90) monthly subsidy for nine months of pregnancy, a 10,000 baht (over USD 300) payment to cover the cost of childbirth, and 2,000 (over USD 60) baht per month in support for children under the age of 6 - a total of 181,000 baht (or over USD 5,500) per person.
Under the same policy, parental leave was to be provided for at least 30 days after childbirth. Those staying home to look after sick children could also still get paid by submitting appropriate medical certificates.
The Democrat Party campaigned with a similar “Baby Bonus” policy, which provided 5,000 baht (over USD 150) for the cost of childbirth and 1,000 baht (over USD 30) per month for raising a child up to the age of 8. It also stipulated free education and free lunches for children until Grade 9.
Despite the fact that Palang Pracharath Party is leading the coalition government, and the Democrat Party is supervising the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, these policies were never implemented.
Instead, since 2016 the push for child welfare has been driven from outside the government by civil society organisations. Because of CSO efforts, a policy was implemented in 2017 to offer low-income families subsidies of 600 baht (over USD 18) per month for children under the age of 6. Initially it benefitted at least 90,216 people.
After support criteria was adjusted to include families with an annual income of less than 100,000 baht (over USD 3,000), the number of children benefiting in 2022 increased to 2,351,720 - a significant portion of the country’s approximately 4.2 million young children.
Child Development and Thai Politics
Janya Thapporn and Siriporn Thapporn, a centre volunteer
Stating the obvious, Janya Thapporn, the founder and head of Sirisombath Preschool Child Development Centre, a facility that has been operating for 10 years, notes that parental circumstances have a huge impact on childhood development. Low-income single mothers face particular difficulties.
Janya explained that if mothers receive financial aid from the government to help take care of their children, they will have more time for their families and higher incomes, reducing the burden of paying for milk and food.
Janya established her centre to take care of children from low-income families. The centre receives a food subsidy of 20 baht (over USD 0.60) per person per day. She said that she agreed with the Democrat Party's policy because it was about nurturing children, the future of the nation.
“Even though it is almost the end of the term, the government still has the power to do it. Children all over the country are still waiting,” Janya said.
Janya believes that the policy was not implemented because the Democrat Party was not leading the coalition and lacked a majority vote. She reckons that budgeting during the COVID-19 situation was also a problem.
Siriporn Thapporn, a centre volunteer who takes care of the children, said although many policy promises were made during the campaign, nothing much changed after the election. She had been hoping for the implementation of policies to improve women's health.
“The policies of each party during the campaigns were not very different. [I was hoping] they’d deliver on 80 percent of their promises …”
Now she admits to feeling a little desperate sometime. "I still hope that the next government may actually implement mother and child care policies … but I’m confused because they’ve campaigned for these policies in the past but haven’t really started anything yet. The new party is campaigning again but policies have yet to be implemented … and if we don't follow up, we don't know whether something has changed or not,” Siriporn said.
Call for Universal Basic Services
Sunee Chaiyaros, chairperson of a universal child welfare policy working group which represents some 340 civil society organisations, said that since 2016, her organisation has been lobbying for policy reforms in three areas: increasing the stipend to low-income parents so that they can raise their children properly; prevention of domestic violence; and improving welfare for mothers and children.
During the 2019 election campaign, Sunee’s working group met with many party representatives who seemed to agree with the idea of universal welfare, a state policy of taking care of every child equally. Subsequently, however, although the government has adopted new policies, these have been limited to low-income earners and are not considered part of universal welfare.
According to Sunee, the Palang Pracharath Party and the Democrat Party proposed policies that budgeted more than the working group asked for. After forming the government, they failed to implement their policies, however. Contrary to what they promised during the campaign, they only provided assistance to the very poor, a policy that did little to address current problems in the sector.
Sunee added that after the election, the opposition party continued to debate questions raised by CSGs in parliament with the result that in 2020, the Committee for National Child and Youth Development Promotion passed a resolution in support of universal welfare. However, relevant agencies failed to comply with the resolution. When asked about the matter, Jurin Laksanawisit, leader of the Democrat Party and Deputy Prime Minister, and Chuti Krairiksh, the Minister of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS) blamed a lack a budget.
“Don't say they don't have money. It was a decision made by the MSDHS in 2022. They are supposed to take care of the population from birth to death. Last year, they received a budget of approximately 24 billion baht (USD 731 million). The Ministry of Defense received a budget of approximately 200 billion baht (USD 6.1 billion),” Sunee said.
Sunee notes that nowadays, old age pensions, disability allowances, free education, and medical insurance cards are all considered basic universal services. She adds that there are still problems - only poor mothers and children receive assistance. She wonders why this important issue continues to be overlooked.
During their previous campaigns, Palang Pracharath Party and the Democrat Party promised that welfare would be provided to everyone. Despite this, the government has not implemented this mandate, even though there is a constitutional provision that the state must take care of children. And a resolution from the Committee on Child and Youth Development Promotion led by Jurin to protect the rights of children.
“I have lost all hope for this government. As long as there is no election, there is no pressure on them,” Sunee stated.
Her organisation’s next move is to communicate urgent issue to the new government. They plan to meet with 15 political parties, and increase political pressure from their supporters.
Sunee notes that the state has a duty take care of mothers during their pregnancy and look after children until they reach the age of six. They are supposed to increase the subsidy from 600 to 3,000 baht per month. She adds that civil groups will be monitoring how political parties frame their positions.
“We used to wonder if children were being denied universal basic services because they have no vote. But lots of people who can vote have taken up the issue - parents, labor groups, LGBTQIA+ groups, P-Move, and even land rights groups. Our group will create a network and pressure political parties for policies, not just marketing schemes. We have to keep on pressuring them; children are a national resource,” Sunee said.
In a recent study, the Thailand Development Research Institute Foundation (TDRI) argued that amid the challenges of the new world, the welfare system must be people-centred, leaving no one behind. In the past, the Thai welfare system has targeted specific groups of people, leaving 60 percent of the population to rely their own resources.
Private charity has picked up some of the shortfall. Thai people donate an average of 7.3 billion baht (or over USD 223.65 million) per year to charities and foundations, more than the budget of the MSDHS.
Advocates agree that it’s high time Thai civil society and the private sector establish a fund to help children.
In response to the United Nations’ (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Thailand formulated a “Leave No One Behind” vision for its social policies—at least on the surface.
Digital disruption and political attentiveness have made marginalised and vulnerable people visible, however. They have been transformed into policy bases, not mere electoral bases like in the past. Political parties have to rethink the inclusiveness of their policies. They must not only recognise diversity but place such issues front and centre in the upcoming election.
On Same-sex marriage
Bills calling for same-sex marriage and the promotion of LGBTQIA+ rights have been introduced in Parliament, beginning with the drafting of the 2013 Civil Partnership Bill which was introduced into the House of Representatives along with several related bills proposed by CSOs. These were shelved by the 2014 coup.
The Justice Ministry’s Rights and Liberties Protection Department later reviewed the Civil Partnership Bill. It was proposed to the Cabinet by General Prajin Juntong, the Minister of Justice, and it was approved by the Cabinet in late 2018, before being revised in the parliament. The term of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) lapsed before the bill was passed and it was returned to the Ministry of Justice.
The fact that the military government had approved a bill granting the right to the family formation for LGBTQIA+ people generated a lot of buzz before the 2019 election. Also noticed was the fact that during the military governments of General Surayut Chulanont and General Prayut Chan-o-cha, gender equality was often promoted by allowing Pride Events or Gay Expo to be staged.
During the campaign, the Future Forward, Democrat, and several other political parties voiced support for LGBTQIA+ rights, same-sex marriage and gender-neutral titles. Concrete policies were lacking but there were some changes in Thai politics. Future Forward Party fielded the first LGBTQIA+ member for Parliament and the conservative Palang Pracharath Party talked with LGBTQIA+ groups about their demands.
In June 2022, Move Forward Party proposed a draft Same-Sex Marriage Bill in the House of Representatives. The same day, the government placed the draft on its agenda along with a proposed amendment to the Civil and Commercial Code and a partnership bill from the Democrat Party.
All four bills were approved by the House of Representatives and passed to a committee for further consideration. Now, however, it appears that the new laws will not be completed before the end of the current parliamentary session, and the legislative process will return to the Ministry of Justice for a third time.
LGBTQIA+ rights as a marketing campaign?
Noting that the world and Thai society have accepted LGBTQIA+ as a natural thing, Kittinun Daramadhaj, president of the Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand and chairperson of the LGBTQ Community Advisory Board (MCAB), asserts that the current atmosphere is appropriate for advancing the rights of LGBTQIA+ people.
In the past, under the Thaksin Shinawatra and Abhisit Vejjajiva governments, LGBTQIA+ rights were not openly questioned, but they were also not promoted by law or policy. Later on, when a civil partnership bill was debated during Yingluck Shinawatra's government, the law still adhered to a gender binary system, a paradigm that still informed Constitutional Court rulings as late as 2021.
Now, however, the #EqualPeople agenda has seemingly gained acceptance in society due to a growing awareness of international human rights principles and the government’s “No one left behind” campaign. Kittinun attributes some of the ‘progress’ to political marketing schemes that target an LGBTQIA+ population of over 4 million people in Thailand and some 7 billion people worldwide.
According to Kittinun, political parties looking to win the support of this group are having an impact on social acceptance. As Kittinun sees it, parties have to cater to LGBTQIA+ constituents; those that fail to do so risk losing the vote to other parties. Seemingly unsupportive MPs are ‘outed’ by the media and online platforms. Because of this attention, during the election campaign, the Rainbow Sky Association was invited to express its concerns to every political party.
According to Kittinun, this is also why the state sector will appear to join with opposition parties and civil society groups whenever they propose new legislation. Laws proposed by the opposition and civil society are seldom passed. By lending its support, the government can claim ownership and not lose votes. As a result, bills proposed by the opposition, such as the 2015 Gender Equality Act, often encourage the government to enact laws that they otherwise might not adopt.
Despite this ‘progress’ Kittinun worries that political parties are not really concerned for the LGBTQIA+ community but instead are engaged in a marketing scheme in which there is no sustainability and no clear results.
"If they don't understand [the real issues of the LGBTQIA+ sector] and are just campaigning to gain votes - or trying not to lose votes - sustainability will not happen,” Kittinun said.
Once there is a law on family formation, Kittinun believes that it will be easier to pass other laws banning gender discrimination and protecting gender rights, due to a better understanding of people in the society.
Kittinun adds that many political parties have already gone beyond same-sex marriage to focus on cross-sectional issues. What is lacking, he believes, is a population survey of vulnerable groups. Without it, he worries that political parties will campaign by using the big framework of equality without looking for sustainable solutions
LGBTQIA+ and 2023 elections
According to Mookdapa Yangyuenpradorn, a Fortify Rights officer and independent gender activist, LGBTQIA+ people in Thailand still face various types of direct and indirect social discrimination and violence. The absence of clear legal protections does not help the situation at all.
Mookdapa cited a recent Constitutional Court ruling that reflected the state's perspective that LGBTQIA+ people were somehow radically different from men and women - a separate species. During the COVID-19 pandemic, LGBTQIA+ people were also excluded from certain occupations, exacerbating the discrimination they already faced in state schools, hospitals, and even prisons.
Despite provisions in the Constitution providing protection for all genders, gender still too often interpreted in traditional binary (male and female) terms. The Gender Equality Act has been passed, but it has not been practically enforced and its terms have not been properly communicated to the public. Many government officials still don’t know that the act exists, let alone how to enforce it.
Mookdapa was pleased that during the 2019 election campaign, many political parties discussed gender diversity on mainstream media. The openness stood in marked contrast to the oppression LGBTQIA+ people had been facing for many years.
After the election, however, Mookdapa found gender issues were seldom raised by the government. A few parties treated gender diversity as an economic issue. Some even touted the idea of homonationalism to present Thailand as a civilised nation. Mookdapa believes that such measures were little more than superficial marketing schemes which did nothing to end discrimination, stigmatisation and violence against members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
“I think the government brings these drafts to promote what they have done, to make voters feel how far we have really come. But are we satisfied with “how far” ? Can’t we dream of a more equal society?” Mookdapa asked.
Mookdapa guesses that the same-sex marriage bill and the civil partnership bill, which are unlikely to be passed by the House of Representatives before its term ends, will be promoted during the next political campaign period. She plans to keep an eye on which party states its intent to move this pending legislation forward in the medium and long term. As a voter, she is a bit worried that in the upcoming elections, these bills will used motivate people to head to the polls, that the bills will be used as a marketing tool to garner votes.
Her hopes for the legislation are different. “I believe that these laws will help to break down prejudices in society, leading people to better understand the LGBTQIA+ community. The purpose of my movement is to create sympathy in society, to promote mutual acceptance,” Mookdapa said.
Since the 2017 constitutional referendum, the Thai government has seemingly taken steps to curtail the political participation of younger people, particularly rights advocates. Many who took to the streets to protest were met with state violence.
Part of this is due to the fact that the politically powerful have become adept at using misinformation to win elections.
Right advocates hope that voters will be able distinguish between campaign marketing ploys and actual promises.
In the upcoming Thai election, voters—and the world in general—will be watching to see how Thailand treats its vulnerable groups.
Note: This story is produced under the ANFREL Asian Media Fellowship on Election Reporting through the generous support of the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI) Mission of Canada to ASEAN.