Retired gay foreigners targeted in Thai bill

Recognising gay unions in Thailand poses lots of unanswered questions.

Two foreigners will be able to get legal recognition for longstay visas in an amendment to the civil union bill agreed by a parliamentary committee. Spokesperson Thanikarn Pornongsarote said that the general idea was to promote gay tourism in Thailand, but the main effect may be to promote one year visas and extensions of stay by foreign couples. He added that the Tourist Authority of Thailand had long promoted the country as gay-friendly, but it was time to update the country’s image.

Under the previous version of the civil union bill, one or both partners in a civil union had to be Thai nationals to qualify for registration. The amendment would enable a foreign couple to qualify for a “joint” marriage or retirement visa and extensions at Thai embassies and local immigration bureaux. Such flexibility would make Thailand the first country in Asia to make such a progressive leap. Taiwan is the only other country in Asia to have an equality act, but activists say it is flawed. Gay partners there cannot legally adopt children and so-called marriage is limited to Taiwanese nationals only.

However, gay civil rights have far to go before implementation. There are currently two proposals under deliberation by the Thai parliament, one for civil union and the other for full marriage equality. The differences are largely technical although civil unions stop short of changing the constitutional definition of marriage between biological opposites. The Rainbow Alliance, a Bangkok-based pressure group, says that the civil union proposal is more likely to pass into law because of opposition by conservative elements to changing the constitution.

A separate issue is whether a same sex union in Thailand would be formally recognized in other countries. If so, there might well be a boom in gay international couples travelling to Thailand specifically to obtain the paperwork and without any intention of residing here. Parliamentary drafters say this would depend on whether Thai legislation stipulated any specific visa requirements and on legal codes in other countries concerning homosexual relationships.

Gay civil unions (not marriage) already have the backing of the Thai Cabinet. There is a promise that the legislation will be on the statute book before the next general election which must be held early next year. Even if final approval was delayed for pressure of other business or because of political upheavals, the next parliament is likely to be dominated by the opposition Pheu Thai party which is generally thought to be left of center in civil liberties legislation.