Wider Image: Thai 'Drag Race' star marches for democracy and equality
With flawless makeup and costume that blends cabaret with catwalk and rainbow pride with royal court pageantry, Aunchalee Pokinwuttipob symbolises how Thailand's protests are about much more than calls for a change of government.
BANGKOK: With flawless makeup and costume that blends cabaret with catwalk and rainbow pride with royal court pageantry, Aunchalee Pokinwuttipob symbolises how Thailand's protests are about much more than calls for a change of government.
Aunchalee, 26, is a transgender drag queen and reality television show winner who is riding the momentum of youth rallies against the military and royalist establishment, hoping to advance a drawn-out struggle for same-sex marriage and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.
Alongside the broader calls for greater democracy, is anger at government failure to change laws and policies that transgender Thais see as discriminatory.
"We really want human rights. We've wanted it for a long time. It's related to freedom of speech and equality," said Aunchalee, better known by the stage name, Angele Anang.
"This is a new phenomenon in Thailand, because they didn't have this kind of opportunity to speak up in the past."
Aunchalee's outfits stand out in a sea of student protesters who often opt for black t-shirts: matching a technicolour dress with the golden "chada" crown of a Thai royal folk dancer, a rainbow umbrella with a silk dress cut to ribbons and a tight, low-cut shirt with a leather cap and frizzy white wig.
The demonstrations started in July, taking aim initially at prime minister and former junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, accusing him of clinging to power and harassing opponents.
They have since made unheralded calls for a curbing of the powers of a monarchy that the protesters say has enabled decades of military domination.
Starting from universities, colleges and schools, the appeal of the rallies has broadened, tapping festering frustrations with conservative elite rule over a country where younger generations are known for openness and free-wheeling attitudes.
It is a battle Aunchalee has fought at home in Ayutthaya near Bangkok.
Born the eldest son to a blacksmith, Aunchalee gets along with her monarchist father but rarely sees him and is unable to have a proper conversation with him about gender, identity and her role in the protests.
"We have problems, every time I express my opinions," Aunchalee said. "Thailand nowadays is no longer like what it was before.
"I feel bad because they chose to sever the ties to me."
Aunchalee dropped out of school at 15 and headed to Bangkok to star in cabaret shows, specialising with a Beyonce Knowles medley.
She started performing in bars in 2018 in the city's Patpong area, a lure for tourists, earning more and a chance to star in reality show "Drag Race", building a social media following that has expanded further since joining the protests.
Aunchalee supports the push to remove a government she says is out of touch with its people and she talks openly about a need to reform the monarchy in order to preserve it.
The demonstrations are also a rare window to push for greater liberalism and remove obstacles for LGBT people, she said, in areas like employment, marriage, inheritance, adopting children and joint ownership of property.
"I want equality and justice," Aunchalee said. "A law that can be applied in the same way."
(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)