By Rina Chandran
BANGKOK, Nov 16 (Openly) - Thailand could become the first Asian country to legally recognise same-sex couples under a bill that would allow civil partnerships, but campaigners say it fails to address major concerns of LGBT+ people.
Public consultations on the bill were held this week and a revised version will go to the cabinet for approval by the end of the year, said Nareeluc Pairchaiyapoom, a senior official at the government department handling the bill.
It gives same-sex couples the right to register unions, as well as to property and inheritance, but does not recognise marriage between same-sex partners.
"The civil partnership bill is the first step to giving equal rights to everyone," said Nareeluc at the last of the public hearings on Friday.
"The final goal is same-sex marriage, but that requires more time and several actions to amend the civil code and get everyone on board. We will proceed step by step," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A largely conservative Buddhist society, Thailand has nonetheless built a reputation as a place with a relaxed attitude towards gender and sexual diversity.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1956, and authorities actively promote the country as an LGBT+-friendly destination.
A survey of social attitudes towards sexual orientation and gender identity found two-thirds of respondents had no objection to same-sex unions, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Yet LGBT+ people face considerable discrimination and stigma, and the civil partnership bill stops short of granting key rights, said Wannapong Yodmuang, an activist with the Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand, an advocacy group.
"We are not happy. The bill does not give us the right to be a family or to raise a family," she said.
"We recognise that amending laws and bringing new legislation is tough, but LGBT people must have the same rights as heterosexual people; there can be no compromise."
Same-sex couples cannot marry and do not have parental rights. The bill also raises the age of consent from 17 to 20 for homosexual people, she said.
Law professor Vitit Muntarbhorn said the provisions of the bill - which needs approval from the National Legislative Assembly before it can become law - were "modest".
"It is an initial stepping stone towards what LGBT people really want – a change in the law to allow for marriage rights," said Vitit, a former UN independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Across Asia, conservative values and deep-rooted biases have hamstrung progress on gay rights.
Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei ban sexual relationships between men, and Indonesia has seen an increase in raids targeting LGBT people.
Vietnam allows same-sex weddings, but no legal recognition or protection of such unions.
Taiwan's constitutional court in May last year declared same-sex couples had the right to legally marry.
But little progress has been made since, with a series of public votes set for Nov. 24 to decide whether same-sex unions should be written into law. (Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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