Formerly the founder of the Cheerthai Power group and candidate for President of the Football Association of Thailand, Palinee or “Pauline” Ngarm-pring is today the head of strategy for the Mahachon Party and Thailand’s first transgender candidate for Prime Minister.
Prachatai spoke to Pauline about the 2019 general election, the challenges of being a transwoman politician, LGBT rights in Thailand, and Thai politics in an era of transition.
Why did you decide to run in this election?
Actually it came from the wishes of both sides, meaning the political party wanted policies on LGBT issues. I myself am interested in politics, and have in the past been following it with frustration. I had the feeling that it could be better, so when I was approached, I thought that maybe I could do something that would be good for Thai politics , and the development of human rights and LGBT rights, so I decided to join.
What kind of political party is the Mahachon Party in 2019?
Many people judge the Mahachon Party from our past, but the political changes mean that each political party has evolved to get to this point. In the Mahachon Party, right now the people who have come into the party and do the work, are mostly young people. We have entirely new policies. The party’s political standpoint or approach may still be a little bit the same, meaning that we are a small party.Taking a clear side creates political enemies. That makes things difficult. However, in terms of political ideas, our party’s political standpoint comes from the ideas of the younger generation who joined the party. Obviously, we are pro-democracy. The important thing is to improve politics to prevents coups in the future. We have made it clear that we are pro-democracy, that we don’t want a dictatorship and we don’t want anyone to take power by force. This is clear.
Now it also seems like you are a party of diversity
Yes. Perhaps it is the most notable thing about us. No other party is like this. A lot of our people are members of the LGBT community, but in reality, our party does many things. We have policies on politics, the economy, society, many things. It’s just that this diversity is what people can easily see and is different from other parties. For me, I think this is a good thing because being an LGBT person in politics, I am ready to go beyond being only a representative of LGBT groups.
At the same time, in terms of LGBT diversity we have Nada Chaiyajit (head of policy). We have Anna (Warinthorn Watsang, MP candidate). We have Firzty (Shawathida Kuptawatin, MP candidate). We have Namkleng and Jimmy (Inarin Singhannuta and Kritipat Chotidhanitsakul, MP candidates). These people can speak about LGBT issues very clearly. Therefore, there are more dimensions than just being LGBT. People look at our gender identity and see diversity, but if they look deeper at our knowledge or experience, we can do more than that or go beyond that.
If we say we fight for diversity and for equality, it doesn’t mean we have to be self-centred. We have to really fight for equality. We can’t discriminate against men, or against women, because then we will also be discriminated against. We work for equality. We have to be able to work for everyone and represent everyone.
What do you think about rights situation of LGBT groups in Thailand right now?
Every day, we will see very strange stories, stories which show a lack of respect for our rights, whether it is schools and universities not allowing students to dress according to their gender identity, or some educational institutions forcing transmen students to wear wigs to class, for example. Or sexual violations in hospitals. We hear that a transwoman was placed in the same ward as men. These things are still happening, so this situation is ongoing. Not matter how hard we have worked, we may have to work harder, because society is large and there has long been a lack of knowledge and understanding. Thai people may not have given much importance to learning details about other people or about the social context, so this creates a situation where we don’t know and we don’t understand. It’s like teaching our own children. We have to keep on explaining. We can’t get mad at them. We can’t hit them hard. This is what Thai society is like. It still has weaknesses in knowledge and understanding. You may ask why do we have to know and understand? We need to know and understand others, rather than think of them as not important.
So the way LGBT people are seen makes it hard for us to live, but at the same time, we learn about ourselves and we also learn about other people. So in society we should learn about each other, about diversity, about why they are different from us and what they want. This is an important beginning. We could work slowly or intensely or compassionately, but we have to keep going.
There is still work to be done, right?
There is still work to be done, in addition to legal issues. In terms of the law, it is clear about the right to found a family, either by a civil partnership bill or by amending the civil and commercial code. 2 things have to be done on the issue of gender recognition, or changing our title to match our gender identity. If not, there will be problems, such as I told you about being violated in the hospital ward. This will happen. Other than legal issues, we also have to work on education and on support. We have to educate the public. We have to educate families. We have to educate colleagues at work. We have to educate society. At the same time, we have to support victims, people who have been discriminated against or who have been barred from education or who have been barred from employment, for example. We have to do three things together. The law is one thing, but education, support, and protection are also necessary.
Since you came back to Thailand you have been in the public eye. Do you think that helps create understanding in society?
Little by little. At least it’s an inspiration for people who are still hiding from themselves or can’t accept themselves. It is clear that is an inspiration, and there are more people brave enough to accept who they are. But at the same time, people who are closed off remain closed off. People who are contemptuous remain that way. But this group of people rarely reveal who they are. It’s like they just criticize others day after day, in other things too. But things are gradually changing, but is it better now? I have only been out for a year, so the road is still long. In the end it’s certainly not like society is going to fully accept or understand us. It’s not like that, but at least we can make it better every day. That could be a good thing.
Even though we will get tired, we have to work slowly and really work on it. But in the end, it has to slowly change. It’s like the many ‘songs for life’ on different topics that I listened to when I was young. Today, the society is like before. The expression ‘made in Thailand’ has still not happened. People who value Thainess, it’s not that clear, even if we have communicated these ideas for a long time. We need to keep hammering away at it.
When you were in America, and when you came back to Thailand, are the challenges we face different? How is being a transwoman in America and in Thailand different?
For me, in America, it was not that complicated. I was a woman. I went to work and lived a normal life. On days off, I went out, and nobody paid very much attention to me. When I went shopping, they called me ‘ma’am’, and they use ‘she/her’. They respected me. They treated me like a woman.
But when I came to Thailand, my role was entirely different, because a lot of people know me and know that I’m a transwoman. I can’t expect them to think of me as a woman. People think I’m a transwoman. But how do I make my being out beneficial to other people? That’s what I think.
So I have to make some sacrifices, because in America, I feel comfortable that wherever I go, people just treat me like a woman. They don’t really try to find fault. But in Thailand it’s different. I am open about my identity. Everyone knows I’m a transwoman, so there are things I have to sacrifice. In Thailand, everyone knows Pauline, knows I’m a transwoman. But how do I make my sacrifices beneficial to others?
Being a transwoman in the political field, do you have to face some challenges that are different from what male politicians or female politicians face?
If I really get to be a member of parliament, I don’t see anything as a problem. I have worked with men before, and I have worked as a man before. It doesn’t mean I will go back to being a man and join parliament. I will still be a transwoman. It’s just that my perspective or skills in talking to people is similar to what they were, but the good thing is that I can see more from both sides.
The obstacles don’t come from me. The obstacles may come from what other people think, from other politicians, something like that. Or even now, before the election, the obstacles may come from voters who don’t accept a transwoman like me, but if they study my history or look back at what I have done, they might change their mind. It’s just that right now, we are in a phase where I need to create understanding and make sure they know who I am as much as possible, what kind of transwoman I am and what I have done. These things take time to communicate. I hope that I will get into parliament and will make it much clearer in parliament that LGBT can work with normal people, because we are normal people.
If you actually get to be an MP, what is the first thing you would like to do?
There are a lot of things, not just first thing. The first thing I may have to do is probably to go to meetings. (Laughs.)
But there are many things at different levels: 1, get to know people; try to understand people; 2, prove myself, in ways that don’t upset anyone; prove myself in different kinds of work. But if you ask in terms of legislation, it depends on how many votes we have to push forward, but as far as I have asked, and as far as I can make out, most parties have no problem with legislation about LGBT people. Most politicians, if they have been sincere in their communications, as far as they say, no party has a problem, but that could be because the forum was set up as a forum about LGBT rights, and politicians were trying to please the audience or the media. We have to see how sincere each party actually is, but based on my idea and what I can make out, LGBT law should be an issue where parliament comes together with the same idea more than other issues. There shouldn’t be many problems in legislation, except in the details. But the most important thing, the first thing I should do as a transwoman MP, the first thing I will do is to explain to people in parliament what is appropriate, what they should or should not do, not out of respect just to me. But they have to respect everyone and their diversity. There will have to be quite a bit of discussion with MPs.
If we are to push for a Civil Partnership Act or for an amendment to the Civil and Commercial Code, at parliamentary level, you think that shouldn’t be a problem, right?
The drafting or amending process takes time, but there should be no problem when it comes to the concept or whether people can accept this kind of law. The problems will be in the details, whether people will understand and how they will prioritize these issues. For example, with gender recognition, people are worried about criminal records, about whether it will make it easy for people to change from male to female or female to male. But in fact this should not be a problem if the government computer system or database works as it should, and state officials can track everyone with their national ID number, right? So this is actually not a problem, but people raise it as a problem so that they will see that this is not necessary and can be cut out because it will make problems. But actually, complications or sensitivity on this issue can all be fixed. You have to make it a priority that human rights, the right to gender recognition are important and necessary. We begin by explaining this to parliament first.
Do you think that pushing for an amendment to the Civil and Commercial Code will meet more resistance that if we propose a Civil Partnership Act?
There is a lot of debate about this, isn’t there?
Amending Article 1448 of the Civil and Commercial Code will cause disputes because it affects other articles. This idea is now being used quite a lot in campaigns, but in the details, there are problems. It is sensitive. The sensitivity of this problem is that it causes new problems. As soon as we fix this problem, there is a new problem. We don’t know how big or small it is. But the draft of the Civil Partnership Act that was passed in the cabinet. It is not perfect. If we can start it over and make it perfect from the beginning, these two things can be done at the same time.
Say we have two tools. This is better than having one. We could pick up a hammer to bang in a nail or we could pick up a spanner to bang in a nail. It might not be the best but at least it is better than having nothing to hammer the nail with. Having more tools that will better help us get to what we want is not a waste, if it doesn’t take up too much effort. With the Civil Partnership Act, we have already made the effort. It would be a waste of time to simply throw it away. It might not be our time that’s wasted, but it’s the time of the people in the network who worked on it. We should consider both options and work on both of them; it won’t do any damage.
So we should do both because the goal is the same anyway?
Yes. It’s much easier to catch mice if you have two cats rather than one.
These two ways are not duplicated. When the time comes and one cat is somewhere else and can’t get the mice, the cat closest to the mice will get it. Or people can choose which cat they want to use.
If you become the Prime Minister, what do you think it would be like?
It’s quite hard to answer this question appropriately because a lot of people think of the person who is Prime Minister in terms of their prestige, their fame, or look at their manner. There are a lot of factors that make someone a Prime Minister. For me, I am confident I can do it, because I have seen past Prime Ministers and I feel I can do it too. But how do I line up all the factors? Today is not the day. Today, I know very well why I’m here. I’m here at least to enter parliament to prove that I can do this, but to get there takes time to line up the people and line up the ideas and people’s support to get to this point. It’s not about money, because if every Prime Minister has to be rich, real issues won’t be fixed. But as I said, I am confident because I have ideas from everyone’s perspective, from a male perspective, from a female perspective, from an LGBT perspective. It’s all combined.
Say we have a sexist Prime Minister. There will be problems for people in the country. If we have an anti-poor Prime Minister, or a Prime Minister who detests rich people, there will be problems, because they represent the thoughts of the few and they represent the few and they go on to manage the entire country. But I am confident because I know my thoughts are for every group. I try to include every group and understand every group.
I came from the middle class, not from the lower or upper classes. Why is it that society has to be divided into classes? We are in fact all the same. So wouldn’t it be better if I became a Prime Minister who sees people as equal and understands the ideas of every gender and social position? I said many times in interviews with the international media “I will make a better Prime Minister.” I don’t mean I’m the best or the most anything, but at least I have something others don’t have, which is that I am confident. But it’s not an easy thing to get to that point, because I don’t want to be PM. I know I can be Prime Minister and what I can do, but I don’t see having power or a position as a goal. I’m just talking about if I get the chance.
Being Prime Minister is just a tool to get what I want, which is changing people’s minds, changing society, making it better.
Some issues are just about changing ideas, like the rich and the poor, sometimes it’s just changing their ideas. Why do we need to have the rich and the poor? Actually, poor people want to have phones like rich people. But what if poor people think they’re already rich because they have food to eat at every meal, they have a house and land, clothing and somewhere to live. But poor people become poor because they don’t have mobile phones like rich people, so they think they’re poor. They don’t have clothes of this brand or that brand, so they see themselves as poor. In fact, no one is poor in this country, because Thailand has plenty of everything. It’s very difficult to starve to death. So if we can change people’s ideas, our country can develop. We can make our own brand of cars. We can have our own brand of mobile phones and use them too. We can help each other develop . That’s possible.
When we talk about the Prime Minister issue, there is a lot that needs to be done, but it is not the goal that I want. But if I get the chance, then it is a tool I can use to reach the goal of changing society for the better.
At this time, what chance do you think you have of getting a seat in parliament? How confident are you?
When we are doing something that is up to the public’s decision, it’s not possible to say whether we are confident because that is up to the decision of the people. My job is to do my best, to stand by my ideas as well as possible, and to keep my promises as well as possible. But I may not have promised that I will be a politician who is clean and just, but that is something that everyone should promise themselves anyway. I myself am clear about what my intentions are, what my goals are, and what methods there are to get to my goals. Like I said, my goal is change, not holding office. Am I confident? I really can’t say. We have to wait until 24 March to see.
If I fail, then I will still do my best to carry on. Maybe one day I will get to change society. Or while I’m not in politics, I may support our cause from outside. I will make myself useful to other people in whatever position I have. I have always done that. I am deeply hopeful, but I’m not confident, but I will try my best.
What do you think about a welfare state?
I think it’s an important thing that our country needs to keep working for, without using a welfare state as campaign tool. I say that the policies they are proposing as a welfare state are mostly populism. A welfare state is fulfilling human capital, so that they can compete from birth to death. Fulfilling human capital is valuing people as human beings, having the ability and potential to work and compete with other people and compete with other countries. A welfare state shouldn’t be just setting up a budget and helping the poor, helping the impoverished, helping children, or helping the elderly. It’s not just that. A welfare state has to enhance capability from the beginning, make sure people are educated and must bring out their special abilities. Education doesn’t mean just being educated in a system that aims only to produce employees. Education means giving well-rounded knowledge and the ability to make decisions to choose their own future. What should they excel in, something like that. A welfare state has to pay attention to this.
I think the best way to manage is in the form of a fund, because it will be fluid in terms of budget. It will be able to sustain itself, like a provident fund or other funds. We should have a human capital fund. If we need to increase the budget, we can inject budget, but if it can run and makes a reasonable profit, this fund will keep running without the state having to support it all the time. So I see a welfare state from the perspective of enhancing capacity, not handing out money.
For example, with young people, it’s not enough set up education as a system and have them study just in the system. Suppose that at the primary level, there needs to be an agency which takes care of special ability, enhance capacity, look after ability in sport, the economy, art and culture, in whatever they have strong qualities in skills, not just make them into company workers. This is important for young people. In Thailand today, only 60% of our children from birth to 5 years have the capacity to compete. The rest have no ability. The 60% will only be able to compete if they receive a proper education. In the end, it’s not more than we can handle. For young people, when they are capable of competition, the welfare state will use less budget, because they are not unemployed; they work in things they like; they can compete; they are the best housepainters in the world; they are the most efficient waste recyclers in Asia, something like that. They won’t be in a situation where they have to rely on social welfare payments from the government. This is the most important thing.
Once they are sixty or sixty-five years old at retirement age — we retire at sixty these days, right? — I think we should set out a budget to support the elderly, or we should make sure that they have the opportunity to take up a job that’s suitable for them, so they feel that they have more worth in their lives.
The welfare state should take care of transportation for the elderly, for travel to work. I have a friend in Japan. He is more than seventy years old now, but he is still working. So when an older person works, there is a special energy. They will live longer, and they won’t really get old, and they have a value to society. But in any case, if they don’t want to work, we have welfare for them, enough for them to travel, pay for healthcare, to live. For me, the welfare state is about supporting the security of people, whether young or old.
If we also consider LGBT issues while discussing the welfare state, which measures do you think would help improve the welfare state and respond more to the LGBT community?
The LGBT community in fact faces the same problem of human capital as other underprivileged groups because in terms of educational opportunity, it’s not like they can’t go to school. They can go to school, but they still face discrimination. They can find employment, but they still face discrimination. How could the welfare state address these issues? It must look at the issue of giving knowledge to people in society, whether in families, so that LGBT people are not kicked out of their homes simply because they are different from other people and because their family is compelled by the fear of what people will say.
The welfare state should have a healthcare agency for LGBT people. Transwomen and transmen in other countries have gender health centres, which look after sex issues for the LGBT community, and there needs to be enough to serve all localities, not just Bangkok and Chiang Mai. These should be everywhere. The welfare state should be responsible for healthcare for all underprivileged groups, including LGBT people. They should give information and understanding on hormone issues, checking hormone levels, controlling hormone levels for transwomen and transmen, so that they do not have health problems. Also, for people who would like to undergo gender confirmation surgery, the welfare state should consider this as something which is important for a person’s happiness in their life and their ability to work for others. But we need to think about what is appropriate, what is a health issue and is a true necessity. The welfare state probably may not include cosmetic procedures, but will include anything that is necessary regarding a change in gender identity. Overseas, the level of welfare state provision is different. If we’re talking about gender transition, even if the cost is high, the health insurance allows it. That is what is important. But they don’t allow for things like top surgery or cosmetic surgery, because those are beyond what is necessary.
What you said earlier was that the problem of poverty is the poor wanting mobile phones like the rich, but I disagree. I think we have real inequality in society, and one of the groups most affected by it is the LGBT community. When we go to schools and universities, we will find that not everyone has access to gender transition procedures, because there is an economic price to pay. What do you think about economic inequality?
What I said earlier meant that social values have been divided into rich and poor. So when social values are divided like that, it makes poor people want more. It makes differences more stark. But it doesn’t mean that poverty and wealth aren’t real. They are real, because people don’t have equal economic opportunity, or equal access to education, access to sources of knowledge, access to connections. It’s not the same. It’s really not equal. This is because Thailand still conducts business on the basis of connections, on who you know, not what you know. We have to change Thailand to conduct business based on what you know and your ability rather than who you know. For example, one of the Mahachon Party policies is about access to online markets, where the government has to help with training and an online structure of its own so that all people who, at the subdistrict level and village level, want to bring their OTOP products or agricultural goods to sell in the online market, can do so with equal market access opportunities, not just one group of people. This is not to mention opening opportunities for everyone to run businesses, a lot of which are now exclusive, or as good as exclusive, such as local alcohol products, or other consumer goods. Today these things are limited to a few capitalists. We need to do all this for people of all levels – I really don’t like using the word ‘level’—to have more access to these opportunities.
Even for the LGBT community—the LGBT community in fact has many opportunities, but not all of them. People who want to work in ordinary companies can’t get in, or once in they can’t progress, even if they have knowledge and ability. LGBT people therefore end up in special businesses, such as owning their own businesses, e-commerce, the beauty industry or in entertainment, but the unfortunate ones are LGBT people who have potential but have to go into the sex industry. In reality, they don’t want to do it, but since society doesn’t give them any opportunity it’s the way they can support their family, , so they have to do it. This is something where we have to give people most equal access to opportunities.
What do you think about Thai politics during the transitional period? Where do you think Thai politics is going?
It’s like a football match, but we don’t know which round we’re in. In a football tournament, there’s the final, the semi-final, but right now we don’t know which round we’re in, because there’s something that is always ready to end the game, change the game, or change the rules. So it’s hard to predict. What we have to do is to keep democracy running for now. If we don’t, it will fall apart. Democracy has to keep going. We have to try to keep it running. We don’t know if anyone is going to overturn it again. But if you ask right now, we are pro-democracy. Now that it’s been started, we try to keep it running, but how long it will have momentum depends on if there is anyone who will overturn democracy again. In that case, we have to try to get it back up.
There is a lot of uncertainty right now, but we can’t give up, and everyone running in this election probably understands democracy. We all should understand democracy well, but there are still many politicians running in this election without understanding democracy. It depends on the agenda of each of us. But if we are pro-democracy, we have to keep trying.