By Andrew Biggs
How comforting to see, in the pages of the Bangkok Post, young people using condoms with none of the hang-ups or bashfulness associated with that contraception.
By using them, I don’t mean “using” them. The kids were blowing up condoms like balloons and wearing gaily-colored hats made of condoms in a news story that certainly piqued my interest.
It also sent me hurtling back in time to my early days in Thailand, when there was a scourge across the land and a dynamic politician who tried his best to stop it.
I’m talking about Mechai Viravaidya, the man who brought condoms out from under the table in Thailand. That other table eyesore, the toilet roll, cannot be attributed to him, nor can it be lauded for its role in eradicating any scourges, unless you consider decorum to be a scourge. The toilet roll on the table is a cultural abhorrence that would have Miss Manners turning in her grave if, indeed, she is dead.
Hooray for Mechai! I’ve always been a fan. So good to see him back in the news this week, accepting an award on World Population Day.
He was so ubiquitous when I first arrived in 1989. He was a senator back then, and Thailand was in the deadly throes of AIDS. It had already cut a swathe through the country, particularly the young women of the North and Northeast.
It is almost unthinkable now, but back in those days, any conversation about HIV or AIDS with groups of Thais, particularly men, would almost certainly end up with someone saying: “And you know it’s a disease brought into Thailand by foreigners.”
That comment threw me and there were times, in late-night drinking sessions, where I felt a threatened by it. Was I being blamed for single-handedly bringing it into the country?
Coincidentally … years later I would have a starring role in a Thai movie, a black comedy called Sars Wars and no, there’s no need to go check it out on YouTube. I played a foreigner who single-handedly brings a virulent SARS virus into Thailand and infects the masses, turning them into rabid zombies. Don’t snicker like that … it won a Thai Oscar for Best Special Effects.
Anyway the point is, it reminded me of those early days when drunken Thai men sitting at tables with toilet rolls would point at me and tell me, accusingly, that AIDS was a foreign virus. As if that somehow exonerated the unfortunate Thai men and women who were left with the burden of passing it on.
Despite its international reputation, Thailand is a conservative society, and one of the challenges of the 1980s was getting people to talk about condoms — literally putting them on the table.
That’s where Mechai came into the picture. Like me, he had a brief career as an actor, though he was chosen to play the handsome lead in a soap opera as opposed to introducing a mutated SARS virus.
Prior to the AIDS era he was already famous for his family planning clinics. Thailand’s population was booming in the 1980s. He founded the Population and Community Development Association and did some extraordinary PR stunts to curb the population.
The best one was the travelling vasectomy tents. He set up tents, one at Sanam Luang, and invited men to come along for free vasectomies. This was done as a way of showing loyalty towards King Rama 9, since the vasectomies were performed on December 5, King Rama 9’s birthday.
What a stroke of genius. And it worked, as thousands of men popped into the tents for a quick snip to ensure families no longer had seven children, on average, as they were doing ten years prior. He is cited as the most influential factor in getting the average number of children per Thai family down from seven to just one and a half in 2017.
He had transformed from “family planning man” to “AIDS man” when I first met him, as a journalist, interviewing him on more than one occasion, and then seeing him socially at his restaurant on Sukhumvit Road.
The first time I interviewed him he was the Minister for Tourism, Information and AIDS. Yes, there was such a position and one suspects it was created just for him. After being so instrumental (literally) in getting Thai men to stop reproducing, he now ramped up his condom campaign.
At the World Bank Conference in October 1991 held at the newly-constructed Queen Sirikit Convention Center, Mechai handed out “survival kits” to all the delegates, namely, condoms in key rings. Thailand made the international news more for that than anything that was ever discussed at the conference.
He was always a great interview. He is half British thanks to a Scottish mother, though his Thai genes have definitely won out in his appearance. I am very proud to say he was educated at Geelong Grammar and then the University of Melbourne.
In the early 1990s his restaurant on the grounds of the family planning clinic, called Cabbages and Condoms, was a must-stop for tourists. It’s been around so long now we are used to it but back then it was such a preposterous notion to open a restaurant whose chief décor was condoms. Thousands of ‘em.
I took all my foreign guests there. The food was good and where else in the world would you receive a condom instead of an after-dinner mint? It was in that era that the Thai word for “condom” was “mechai”. I admit to being a little envious of that fact.
There has been talk of late of efforts to boost Thailand’s population in order to increase productivity. This plateau of the population can be put down to Mechai’s tents of 30-plus years ago, and now the Thai government wants to give the country a vasectomy reversal.
I am opposed to this for all sorts of reasons, beginning with the fact that our planet is already overrun by greedy, coal-and-oil-gouging human beings who use on average 20 plastic bags per person per day. Wouldn’t Thailand be a better place to live with half its current population?
This is the ASEAN era, is it not? Aren’t we supposed to be opening our borders and allowing migrants to do those dirty jobs Thais no longer want to perform? Apparently not, with the recent news that the government has just succeeded in sending vast numbers of migrant workers home thanks to strict new laws — again blamed, like AIDS, on foreigners.
Mechai made his appearance on World Population Day which fell last Tuesday, July 11. He won a United Nations award for his work in family planning and HIV and AIDS prevention, and it was during his acceptance speech that Mechai stated the sensible obvious.
There were alternatives to boosting the population, he said. What about boosting sex education in schools? What about raising the retirement age from 60 to 70? What about giving more work to disabled people? How about legitimizing migrant workers? It all makes perfect sense, but we are living in an era where perfect sense is a scarce commodity.
As Mechai accepted his award, his students from Mechai Pattana School were doing the Condom Dance and having competitions to see who could blow up the biggest condom. Hence the pictures in the press. Mechai is doing what he does best; causing a stir and all for a good cause. He has succeeded in the fields of family planning and HIV prevention like no other.
Perhaps now, in his golden years, we can get him to do something about those toilet rolls on tables.