No future for LGBT rights in Deep South?

Human rights activists are calling upon people to fight for gender equality and respond to serious violations of LGBT rights in Deep South.

A controversial but necessary documentary

On 7 February 2017, Thai PBS was subject to harsh criticism after the release of a documentary about Buku FC, a football club in Pattani established to provide local women and LGBT individuals a space to express themselves. The football club was founded by Anticha Saengchai and Daranee Thongsiri, LGBT activists and owners of the Buku Books & More Pattani bookstore.

Buku FC team-mates warm-up before playing football. Photo by Fadila Hamidong
 
The criticism started after the activists published the documentary on their Facebook page. Some Islamic academics wrote that it would cause problems since football is not part of the Islamic tradition. It was even argued that the LGBT activists were using Western customs in order to brainwash “the people” [Muslim community]. The activists were also called “Satan” in social media.

Some scholars from the Peace Studies Institute of Prince of Songkla University argued that playing football in a secluded place is acceptable but that teaching homosexuality in Patani is not. Since Anticha and Daranee are not Muslims, they are characterised as “outsiders” in the Deep South and often threatened.

Some of the students who participated in the documentary have also been targeted. According to the LGBT activists, religious leaders in the region are trying to identify the participants and even their families.

During a panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand about NGO social work, rights and religion in the Deep South, Daranee Thongsiri said that they had to close their bookshop two days after the broadcast. The activists are still afraid since “[they] cannot identify who are their enemies”.

Two articles were posted on the website Deep South Watch about the LGBT activities of Anticha and Daranee. One of them, written by a political science academic from Ramkhamhaeng University argued that the activists are trying to destroy the Muslim religion and society. “Deep South Watch often posts articles that attack us.”

The situation calmed down after the website interviewed Professor Chaiwat Satha-Anand from Thammasat University about Islam and sexuality. To him, in Islam, genders are dictated by a person’s physical sex given by God. In parallel with the Universal Declarations of Human Rights, in the Muslim world there are ‘Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights’, ‘Declaration of Human Rights in Islam’, and ‘Arab Charter of Human Rights’ none of which acknowledges the rights to SOGIE.

Concerns about human rights activists’ ignorance

Angkhana Neelapaijit, President of the Justice for Peace Foundation and a National Human Rights Commissioner, was concerned that human rights activists and human rights lawyers do not want to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity and take a stand on these issues in the Deep South.

She started to work on gender equality and wrote her first report in 2010. Two years later, she worked with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) on a report about women’s access to justice and gender equality.  One section focused on the Malay Muslim communities in the southern border provinces of Thailand.

She found that many women were uncomfortable and sometimes afraid to criticise the religious laws that can discriminate against them as women. They are not aware of their rights to freedom of opinion and expression.

(From left to right) Daranee Thongsiri and Anticha Saengchai with Angkhana Neelapaijit and Sunai Phasuk at the FCCT's discussion on LGBT rights in Thailand's Deep South on 22 March 2017 

She also worked on gender equality in the region. Angkhana said that she found many children in the region who are victims of discrimination within their own family. Some of them were forced to marry and even raped.

“We are all human beings and all equal,” she said.

She is very concerned about the most basic rights, including the right to life, the right to access education, and the “right to love and to be loved”.

“We all have to work harder on an understanding of religion and beliefs about gender equality and LGBT rights.”

She called on human rights defenders to ensure that people are no longer discriminated against because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, or physically attacked by extremists, community leaders or activists.

Community leaders promote death for “infidels”

Sunai Phasuk, Senior Researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, has been monitoring the situation in the Deep South for more than 12 years. According to him, one issue that has not yet been covered is the the activities of ethnic Malay Muslim leaders within their community and the Buku affair is a pertinent example.

A very rigid interpretation of the definition of Islam and the Malay Muslim identity has been enforced. For him, this identity is reflected through a strict interpretation of a “dominating male mission”. In the attacks against Buku, the expression of hate is much more intense and severe that what is reported on TV or by the press.

“It’s not a surprise, but to me it’s is very disappointing and sad to see community leaders, activists, including those working on human rights, working on … abuses, have been the ones who attacked LGBT activists and LGBT advocates. [...] When you look at the justification, it is based on the argument that LGBT do not have any place in this ethnic Malay Muslim identity because it is un-Islamic,” he argued.

Over the past 12/13 years, Human Rights Watch discovered, after lengthy research, that the aim of the campaign of the separatist movement in the region is to promote a territory composed only of Malay Muslims. LGBT activists have been referred to as infidels on social media.

By following the activities of the separatist movement, Sunai discovered that prominent figures in the ethnic Malay Muslim community are promoting the idea that “anyone who is considered an infidel means that they deserve to be executed. And that is still going on.”

“They are publicly advocating the execution of LGBT activists. They even call on separatist militants to enforce the disciplinary punishment and that must be put down in writing.” LGBT people do not benefit from any support from the community. The documentary was removed without any justification from Thai PBS. He is concerned about the sensitivity of the issue which should not be sensitive since LGBT rights are basic rights that need to be respected. There is no reason to justify human rights violations on the grounds that the violation has been perpetrated within the Malay Muslim community.

“Who knows? There has been one incident, maybe a second round, maybe a third round. In the Deep South, anything can happen. What they [community leaders] are offering [to their population] is another version of oppression.”

Even if the situation seems better now, the two LGBT activists have said that they cannot operate their gender and sexuality bookshop any more. But they still continue playing football.