By The Isaan Record

There may have been no one more surprised than the rally’s organizer himself, Pornsit Raksaasap, when protesters took to the stage waving a LGBT Pride flag and calling for equal gender rights at the city’s first protest on August 2.

It wasn’t surprising for him to see LGBT people organize publicly in Thailand—LGBT activists are quite visible in cities like Bangkok or Chiang Mai. Neither was it surprising for him to see the LGBT community being political. After all, Pornsit is a member of the sole political party, Move Forward, with openly LGBT individuals seated in parliament pushing for national policies to ensure gender and sexual orientation rights. 

But what might have been surprising for Pornsit was seeing LGBT people speaking out at a rally in, of all places, his home province, Sisaket

What might have been even more surprising was the troubling fact that he wasn’t on the stage talking about LGBT rights, given that he himself was a not-very-open gay man.

It hadn’t been intentional, but Sisaket was suddenly put on the map as a site for political protest—and LGBT rights.

None of it had been planned that way. 

Pornsit had run for MP of his constituency in the city district of Sisaket. The 27-year-old lawyer, a member of the Future Forward Party (later dissolved and resurrected as the Move Forward Party), had gone through the seminars and training the party had offered for its candidates. 

But at the time he had concealed his sexual orientation. Failing to win a seat in Parliament, he joined a local law office to begin his career as a lawyer, thinking he could assist his constituents in another way, with the everyday injustices faced by local people.

The dissolving of his party by the Constitutional Court in February angered Pornsit and many of his generation. Seeing young people in other parts of Thailand begin protests, Pornsit had had enough by July. He created a chat group, “Sisaket can’t take it any longer.” Within a day or two, hundreds had joined. 

He proposed a meeting at a coffee shop near the local Rajachaphat University. Pornsit recalls that some twenty people came to the meeting, not counting the police who also came to sit in. Pornsit didn’t know any of those attending: some young people, some older, frustrated red shirts, and some professionals.

Pornsit Raksasap at the August 2, 2020 protest in Srisaket, the province’s first protest.

It was only after a group had formed after the protest that Pornsit realized that seven out of the ten core leaders were LGBT. A local movement calling for constitutional changes suddenly became something much more.

How did this unlikely constellation of youth, gender identity, and demands for sometimes radical political change form?

Sisaket: On the second-tier of the margins

Sisaket doesn’t seem a likely place for an activist LGBT group to appear. Its provincial city is more like a town, with a population of little more than 40,000. Like other modest provincial cities in the Northeast, Srisaket as a town is largely nondescript.

Inhabitants themselves describe Sisaket as “rural,” meaning it’s at once charming and underdeveloped. There’s a sort of local international feel, as the elements of Lao culture in the north meet up with Khmer-speakers, and it’s not uncommon to meet people in the province who can speak Lao, Khmer, and Thai. 

It is also, much like the rest of Isaan, on the edge of the state’s interest in development. Sisaket’s gross provincial product (GPP) is 67,362 baht (a little over USD$2,000), a mere twelve percent of Bangkok’s. The United Nations Development Program’s “Human Achievement Index” places Sisaket province’s education and transportation as “low” and health and income as “somewhat low.” 

Like all Isaan provinces, Sisaket’s major export is its people who contribute to the nation in the prime of their lives in Bangkok as laborers, taxi drivers, waitresses, and commercial sex workers. For those educated locally, they, too, inevitably stream down to Bangkok to prove themselves, always on their guard to not reveal too much about their origins.

Sisaket’s claim to fame, the Khao Phra Wihan ruins, is not the temple itself—which is in Cambodia—but rather the access road to it. The province’s promotion of Khmer ruins ties it securely to the past but suggests little of what Sisaket offers to the present.

The city has taken some measures to stimulate tourism, such as the governor’s “100 photos, 1000 stories from Sisaket Exhibition” in 2018 after the province had been designated as a tier-two tourist destination. But tourism is a hard proposition to compete for the trickle of tourists to Isaan; apparently the Tourism Authority of Thailand even gave up on Sisaket when it closed up its provincial Information Visitors Center

For the time being, Sisaket’s no. 1 tourist attraction on TripAdvisor is a temple made with beer bottles. Curious, certainly, but unlikely to result in mass tourism.

Sisaket is a small town surrounded by hundreds of small villages with second-tier education, offering few economic prospects and scant hope for the new generation. 

But it was within this context that a group of LGBT came together with others to create a space for themselves in Sisaket and its future.

There’s no obvious explanation how this LGBT community came together, but each person has a journey to recount. Most came from districts outside the city. They came together seeking democracy only to find that there were many other LGBT also involved. 

In this sense, the LGBT community is very much part and parcel of democracy-in-the-making and as such, is a key component of Sisaket-in-the-making.

Phinithi “Phi” Sirikhunakan: “We have to fight, fight against little society, and then we have to go on to fight against big society.”

Some Sisaket LGBT profiles

Phinithi “Phi” Sirikhunakan defines himself as gay. He is a 20-year old, third-year student at Ratchapat University studying teaching. He comes from a district on the way to Ubon. He has lively  eyes, a laugh always playing on his lips, even when speaking about something serious.

He had never been involved in politics or protest before. He feels that demanding rights—both political and gender—are essential now. He was proud to be part of Srisaket’s first protest on Aug. 2, and proud that they were able to draw 1,000 people to it.

The current movement, in his mind, responds to the needs of the new generation. For him, it is time for LGBT to come out and demand their rights because for LGBT, the issue of rights is something immediate and close at hand. 

His childhood experience, like so many LGBT in Thailand, began happily. He was drawn to playing with girls. It wasn’t an issue for anyone. He didn’t ever have to think what he was. His parents always just told him, “When you grow up you can be anything. But please be a good person.”

That changed upon reaching secondary school. On the one hand, Phi was able to open up and express himself more. He had even come home with friends one day with his face made up and wearing red lipstick. He admits his parents were more than a little shocked, but they also accepted their son who they had always taught to think for himself.

On the other hand, the bullying began. Teachers mocked him, asking “You want to be a girl, huh?” Other kids called him a toot [gay] and katoey [transsexual]. As a young adolescent, he didn’t even know what some of the things he was called were. He only wondered why he was being attacked. He felt confused. 

One of his teachers liked to bully students he deemed as “homosexuals.” Phi says “this teacher saw us as a kind of clown.” But “we were not clowns,” he says, and “I wondered why his teacher was making fun of us. Maybe others thought the teacher was just being funny. But it wasn’t.” Why was this happening, he wondered. One teacher even questioned why a katoey was even at school. “Where was I supposed to study?” Phithi thought at the time. “Are we people or not? Where are we supposed to study?”

His local society, he says, made him insecure about who he was: “You’re a toot. You’re not a boy. You’re not a girl. What are you? What kind of weird creature are you?” That it was often his teachers, those looked upon to create a safe space for kids, who led the charge, inflicted a “deep wound that hurts until today.”

Phi believes that LGBT people have long faced “oppression.” When the youth movement erupted in Thailand back in June and July this year, Phi was ready, he says, “to step up.” His experience of being bullied in rural Srisaket he linked to the larger problems in the country.

“Our country has never been equal in the first place,” he says. The injustice in Thai society can be seen in any local situation, in what he calls, “little society.” The local situation is created by what’s going on in “big society.” Bullying becomes the norm. “The bullying,” he says, emerges and “bit by bit becomes normalized.”  

“It happens in big society and spreads to small society,” he argues. Oppression, injustice, is at both levels. Fighting against the bullying locally is connected to fighting the bullying on a national level. 

“We have to fight, fight against little society, and then we have to go on to fight against big society.” For Phi, the struggle for rights for LGBT is the same fight for democracy and for equal rights.

Phi has noticed that LGBT play an important role in the protests in Sisaket but isn’t sure why that role is so pronounced. He just says that for LGBT, the issue of equality is one that is “immediate and close at hand.”

Panote “Toei” Srinuan: “I hope that the society in Thailand will become a better place, not just for only some groups of people but for everyone.”

Panote “Toei” Srinuan identifies as a transwoman who works as a freelancer in Bangkok. Just before the protest group was forming, she had just returned to Sisaket after spending some months in the United States.

Her journey of self-discovery had started long ago and far away, while she studied at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

She believes that the LGBT community in Thailand “has been oppressed for so long because of their sexuality” and that they have essentially been “second class citizens for a long time.” She says there is an impression by some that “LGBT have been widely accepted here…but with conditions.” The conditions are that LGBT are made to feel “that they have to do something to be accepted. Having to do so makes them feel that they are not equal with others.” This “needing to do more” to be accepted is something that “remains in their hearts.” 

Toei was at the first coffee shop meeting in July where a first-year student from Bangkok challenged Sisaket to take a stand. At the protest, she felt a little insecure and felt that maybe some were questioning her as a transgender. But she soon felt better when she realized that “more than half the leaders are LGBTQ in Sisaket.” 

The impulse to fight for democracy draws directly on Toei’s own struggle with her gender identity. It started with her decision about herself: “I was born male. If I wanted to be accepted as an ordinary person in this country, then maybe I should have just lived my life as a male boy, as a guy. But I feel like I should live my truest life.” 

This gave her a key ingredient of democracy: empathy. “I feel like my self-discovery journey helped me a lot,” she says. “To accept yourself, you need to have a very, very large capacity of empathy for yourself.”

She feels that LGBT people, because of their own personal struggle with sexuality, tend to have empathy–for themselves and others. “You have to be empathetic to yourself in order to be empathetic with others. When looking at an unjust system like Thailand, we don’t want to see others be oppressed like we have been.”

“Democracy,” she says, “is not just something in the parliament or about running the country.” It is also “sexuality, human life, everything.” Democracy is something more basic. And it starts with respect: “If you want to get true democracy, everyone needs to accept others as they are.”

She believes that many in Thai society agree with the protesters. It is, she says, “the upper middle class and upper class” that are shocked because these classes were used to having docile and compliant young people. They’re “familiar with us being good” and remaining obediently under their thumb. But now, she says, “it’s time for us to roar.”

Toei’s hopes are high for the protests and a new Thailand, saying, “I hope that the society in Thailand will become a better place, not just for only some groups of people but for everyone.” 

Sarawut “Pon” Phochai: “Sisaket is a province in this country and it’s a province that pays taxes. So why hasn’t Sisaket prospered?”

Sarawut “Pon” Phochai, 21, studies law and administration at Sisaket Rajabhat University and is a core leader of the province’s protests. He identifies as a male, but is still working out his sexual orientation.

Pon wasn’t bullied very much by other kids when younger. The problem was the teachers. One teacher called him, “hider” [อีแอบ, meaning that Pon was hiding his gayness]. Though hurt, he didn’t react at the time. He was in a village school and had been taught to obey the teacher. 

“The teachers should have a better understanding of gender diversity,” Pon says.

Though his family never bullied him, he was for his part “considerate” of his family—meaning that he would not act too effeminate when around relatives.

Things got better when he went to upper high school, he met new friends in a new society and a school where the school didn’t forbid things. Feeling safe, he “began to enjoy life.” With a family that put up no objections and in a school where he wasn’t bullied, he says, “I felt that I was a lucky person.”

“It must be understood that some groups of people still do not accept these matters. Pon says he has “gender diverse friends, including lesbians, toms, gays, women who dress as women (birth-gender males who dress as females)—a very diverse group of friends.”

But he understands that it’s difficult for others to understand gender diversity. He says, “Some people understand gays. Some people don’t understand lesbians. Some people still don’t understand males who are bisesual.” With LGBT increasingly visible in Thai society, it’s an opportunity to educate. “I want people to understand gender diversity better than now.” It’s this moment in Thai society that has “inspired me to step up.”

But Pon also wants to see changes in Sisaket. “We want to see Sisaket to be like Bangkok,” he says. “in matters of development such as communication or other matters because we’ve seen what Sisaket has been like since we were born. How is the problem of traffic in Sisaket going to be solved? How are sidewalks going to be improved, because people step into holes?”

As the core leaders learn together more about their city, he says they’ve come to some conclusions. “We said, “Hey, this shouldn’t be! Sisaket is a province in this country and it’s a province that pays taxes. So why hasn’t Sisaket prospered? Why has prosperity got clustered into just one place?” 

Pon believes that the poor state of Sisaket is related to the national political situation. True democracy would bring prosperity. But a series of illegal actions have put Thailand into its current situation. The 2017 constitution, Pon says, came “illegitimately” and so how can Thailand become democratic when the constitution, “the supreme law of the land is itself undemocratic?” The only solution is for the constitution to be amended.

Banyat “Guitar” Phosri: “I felt that we’ve got to fight for our own future, for the future of our generation, the future of later generations.”

Banyat “Guitar” Phosri is 17 years old and studies computers at Sisaket Polytechnic College. They identify as LGBT, but they are still working out how they might want to define their gender. In English, they would prefer the personal pronouns, “they, them, theirs.” This soft-spoken child whose parents had taken them to red shirt protests back in the day. Their parents’ activism played a role in Guitar’s questioning of society and what needs to be done to help people have a better life.

Guitar is younger than many of the other protesters. They began their journey to self discovery only a few years ago. At first, Guitar’s father had difficulty accepting his child’s gender journey. For a long time, he wouldn’t speak to them. But their mother finally intervened, pointing out that a grandchild of a leading local official was gender diverse and accepted. Eventually, Guitar’s father came around. 

Guitar feels fortunate that they’ve been able to open up with his parents but admits that many other parents just can’t accept it. Arguments erupt. Misunderstandings continue. Both parent and gender-diverse child end up in a perilous situation that can break the family up and injure all sides. Though it might be difficult, Guitar is convinced that the best thing to do is to open up and talk. A solution can be reached.

Seeing what happened when police moved against their “brothers and sisters in Bangkok” were violently dispersed “sparked” greater involvement in local protests. “We looked at ourselves and asked what we can do to see the future of this country of ours,” Guitar says. Guitar and a group of eight from her school joined the protests on October 18. 

Guitar got up on stage and addressed the crowd, something they were familiar with as president of the study body at their school. They had only recently heard about the protests in Sisaket. Guitar joined in because they felt it was time to take a stance. The core leaders sent out a notice for those who wanted to be staff, unpaid staff, should apply. Guitar did, and now they are one of the core leaders. Of the 40 or so staff, Guitar says there are maybe five or six who are LGBT.

Guitar is now playing a role in organizing students on their own campus as well as coordinating with students from four other secondary schools into an alliance, with the same goals as other student groups around the country: the prime minister must step down, a new constitution must be drafted, and the king must be under the constitution. 

Guitar is helping set up this secondary school alliance and suspects that it can bring out some 300 protesters among the five secondary schools participating.

For Guitar, protesting for a better future is a practical matter. Their parents are rice farmers who face worsening rice prices. “I came out to protest because I can see the economy is terrible, really terrible. There are a lot of people who have no work to do in the village.”

Guitar had hoped for a better future, finishing studies and getting a job. But the future looks bleak. “There’s a lot of unemployment. Some people can’t find any place to intern as no businesses are accepting. Some people have no work at all. Some went on to university and upon finishing couldn’t find a job.” 

And so I felt that we’ve got to fight for our own future, for the future of our generation, the future of later generations.” It was time, Guitar says, “to come out and shine in the struggle.”

Phansak “Tee” Meekaew: “You just draft a constitution, a people’s constitution where the people have true participation. Just that.”

Phansak “Ti” Meekaew identifies as LGBTIQ and prefers “they/them/theirs” as personal pronouns. The 31-year-old says that he was saved of many of the daily indignities that so many LGBT suffer. An exception was when he applied to be student president when in 10th grade. He overheard a female classmate say, “I won’t choose a katoey! Would you want to have a homosexual to become study president?” He was hurt and thought, “Really? I’m not able to do the job? ”

In 2007, Ti was able to secure admission in two of the region’s top universities, but wasn’t able to come up with the 8,000 baht confirmation fee. Left with few options, they left for Bangkok for more than a decade, working first in a factory and graduating up to work in 7-11 stores. It was the 2014 coup that led him to reconsider what was going on. Studying on their own through websites like iLaw, they reviewed the 2006 coup and then the 2014 coup, asking themselves the question: why do these keep happening? How have they shaped politics?

Ti’s grandmother died while many of their other relatives were getting older, and so Ti came back to Sisaket where he tried his best to keep the family farm going. There wasn’t much money to spare.

From Sisaket, Ti watched the unfolding political mess: 2019 elections, the obscure formulas the election commission used that somehow gave power to a minority and allowed them to bring in an illegitimate prime minister. Ti placed all his hopes on the Future Forward Party. When the party’s leaders were kicked out of parliament, and more, when the party was dissolved earlier this year, Ti became very angry.

In mid-July, Ti sent out a message to a provincial group, “Sisaket People.” Many people responded but within a few hours his post had been taken down. They reposted the message and it was taken down again. Ti wondered, “Where have my right to freedom of expression gone? Isn’t this a space for us to express our opinions?”

One message that appeared and didn’t get taken down was one that asked people to come and have some coffee together. Somehow, Ti understood the message’s intent. They were shocked to find 20, 30 people there. A student from Bangkok was there, too, who pointed out people had been protesting in neighboring Ubon. What about Sisaket?

Even before the rally was held, the authorities showed up at their home and intimated that Ti ought not become involved in protests. It could make problems for Ti.

Ti was undeterred and the protest went on.

Ti was impressed by how big the protest was on August 2. Up to that moment, LBGT rights had not entered their mind. But when he saw so many LGBT at the protest, he thought, “Hey. there a lot of people like us [LGBT] here.” It made perfect sense to him that the protest leaders linked issues of LGBT with the larger political struggle, as, after all, it was all about equality, and LGBT were one group that didn’t have it.

Ti says that there’d never been a Sisaket LGBT group; they’d all met in the protests. They feel that LGBT have some qualities that make them stand out: their situation has forced them to be brave and they’ve always had to prove themselves and make themselves more visible.

“Equality” has become a touchstone for LGBT. It has created a space from which the LGBT community has entered the current fray. With the demand for equal marriage, it doesn’t restrict the types of love and union to a man and a woman. Ti asks why it can’t be between person and person? Why does it have to be distinguished?

At the same time, Ti understands that LGBT rights will only move forward when the current government leaves and a true democracy comes. The demands of protesters can all be met.  “It’s not too difficult for you to fulfill the demands of the people,” Ti says. “You just resign. You just draft a constitution, a people’s constitution where the people have true participation. Just that.”

Although not a molam singer, Ti believes that molam provides a “special space” for the LGBT community. They hope to work with molam troupes so that molam can help build a more positive image of LGBT.

An accidental meeting

All these individual stories somehow converged into creating an ad hoc LGBT group in Sisaket that has made LGBT issues a core part of the demand for democracy. These individual stories—the bullying by figures of authority, the generally accepting attitude of parents, the individual journeys of self-discovery of each individual—resulted in a modest , if not potent political force in an unlikely province in the Northeast.

Pornsit at first didn’t think about LGBT issues. At the time, youth throughout the region were joining the national push for constitutional change and getting the premier to step down. But when meeting with emerging leaders after the first protest, he suddenly realized that “nearly all are LGBT!” He was glad to have their help. He says that the LGBT members are “brave in their thinking, brave in expressing themselves, intolerant of injustice.” Seeing that there were so many LGBT in the group, he thought that rights to gender equality and equal rights to marriage ought to be issues that could be taken up, along with other political issues.

Pornsit “Tor” Raksaasap: “If we see diversity as normal, political opinions that differ can be seen as normal, because democratic society is respecting diversity. It is this that can bring us together.”

Pornsit had always thought that politics in the current situation is involved with everything. “Politics is everyone’s business,” he says. “Nowadays, everything is related to politics.” As things like the price of oil, taxes, and even laws like the Liquor Act are ultimately politics and help people see how close it is to their lives, he says that he saw a kind of “awakening” that has made “a lot of people come out”—including Sisaket’s LGBT, who had through the protests themselves come together for the first time.

By this time, Pornsit says, they have built a core group of volunteers that include doctors, teachers, and students.

Pornsit says that there’s simply been no discrimination, no derogatory remarks from other, non-LGBT people in the group. “It’s a new day and age,” he says, “a new generation.” As such, there’s new ways that very different people can come together.

For Pornsit, the political project can be summed up in a single phrase: embracing diversity. “We’ve held to the view that a good society is not one where everyone thinks the same thing or does things in just one way.” 

Instead, he says, “A good society is one that embraces diversity and understands that diversity is something normal, not a sickness. If we see diversity as normal, political opinions that differ can be seen as normal, because democratic society is respecting diversity. It is this that can bring us together.”

Blocked economically and politically

Sisaket has been part of nominal democracy in Thailand for 88 years. Since the 1960s, it, and all of the Northeast, has been the target of “development” projects. 

While scholars recognize that Sisaket has seen a reduction in poverty in the last few decades, the nature of the relationship between Isaan (and Sisaket) and Bangkok in this hyper-centralized country has been highly unequal. 

Though slow-motion efforts at “decentralization” have resulted in a slightly larger amount of taxation paid being returned to the province, the overall flow of money is still heavily in the direction of Bangkok. As a region, Isaan makes up a third of the population and contributes eleven percent to the country’s GDP. But, as of 2010, it received only six percent of government expenditure.

Source: World Bank, “Improving Service Delivery” (2012)

If “economic equality” were a pursuit of the central government, then the region should receive expenditure that is at least in some way connected to its population. If “fairness” was at least measured by getting back the same percentage of what it has produced. But it’s gotten neither.

Politically, the region has in the past twenty years used its big electoral vote to bring a prime minister of its choosing four times. One was denied an electoral victory in 2005 when the courts annulled the election, one was removed by the court for hosting a cooking chow, and two were deposed by military coups.

Sisaket, as a province, rejected military-drafted constitutions in referendums in 2007 and 2016. 

In addition, one piece of research argues that Sisaket lacks key components needed for the province to define itself. It says Sisaket has “poorly organized local civil society” combined with “weak local government leadership.”

It is into this milieu of persistent economic inequality and political blockage that this protest movement has grown in Sisaket. It has one focus on Bangkok and demands to make changes on a national basis, but it also has a focus on changing the local political scene. The movement is defining Sisaket in-the-making, which includes as a core value creating a space for diverse groups like LGBT.

Sisaket now has its own special charm?

Pornsit is glad that he’s chosen to stay in Sisaket. He views far-off Bangkok as a glass that never fills. More and more is poured into it—infrastructure, the new BTS line, the schools, the shopping centers—and it just overflows, is ever overflowing, while other cities don’t get a drop.

Bangkok can have the new Skytrain line, Pornsit says. “But why can’t Sisaket have just a pretty good city bus system?”

Pornsit might say that the incomparable fruit, a mountain fog, and perhaps more so, the warmth and easy smile of the people are Sisaket’s special charm.

But what could be more charming than a diverse group of people in creating a new kind of Sisaket?