Navigating Sin and Karma in Thailand


This post is by Santi Leksakun, and is part of Tsk Tsk: Stigma, Shame, and Sexuality, a series hosted by Gender Across Borders and cross-posted with RH Reality Check in partnership with Ipas.

I used to believe in bap (Thai for ‘sin’), a concept that was taught and embedded in my head since I was young by my granny. She was a very religious person, the kind you’d always see praying and meditating in religious places. When she was alive, like any decent Thai Buddhist, she would go to temple every Buddhist day, often dragging me out of bed early to join her listening to the monks chanting.

As we walked home together from the monastery, she’d tell me:“whatever you do in this life to other people, whether good or bad, those things will return to you. Maybe not in the exact same way, but the payback is definitely terrible, remember Santi! What goes around comes around.” As little kid, I considered this a threat from a scary old lady, rather than a moral teaching from a kindhearted granny. She passed away many years ago now, and though I miss her very much, I feel oddly liberated, little by little, from the trepidation of sin she instilled in me.

When I was in high school, I had several close friends who got pregnant and had abortions. If they hadn’t, and if the school had found out, my friends would have been kicked out and would never have had a chance to continue their studies.

I accompanied one friend to a local clinic to get an abortion. At the time, I didn’t realize what I was going with her to do, or what the clinic was that we entered. My friend asked me to sign a paper, lying that I was her husband, and had gotten her pregnant. The clinic was a plain, creamy-white four-story building with no fence or windows, only a narrow entrance at the front. It was located next to my school where students walked by every day.

We never knew what was going on inside, and only after entering myself – accompanying my high school friend – did I realize. Walking in and up a concrete stair slithering to the second floor, visitors meet  a middle-aged man with a serious face who asks, “How many months?” Every time I think back to high school, the image of this clinic pops into my head. I remember wondering,is abortion even legal?

Throughout high school, three of my very close friends became pregnant, and each had an abortion – with me accompanying them to the nearby clinic and “signing off” as their husband or the one who got them pregnant (although it was never me). And even though I didn’t actually performed the abortion, somehow I felt guilty. What my granny had threatened about karma, “what goes around comes around,” would come into my head and haunt me. I’m gay and to be born gay, in the Buddhist belief, is a result of committing adultery in the past life. I would think about supporting my friends’ in seeking abortions, and it made me a bit terrified. Gay, abortion…I couldn’t imagine what I’d  be in the next life.

I wanted to get away from this feeling of sin. When I graduated from high school, I went to college and started a new life, wanting to leave all these behind. But in college, I thought more on my experience in high school, and began to think more closely about issues of gender.

I learned that in Thailand, gender prejudice is seamlessly concealed in sex education. There is this belief that women are weak emotionally and physically, so they must be protected. There is a double standard that has been implanted in people’s minds through generations, that boys can easily experiment with safe sex by putting on condoms, and aren’t responsible for any mistakes. Whereas girls will not only lose dignity but also their futures and commit the atrocious sins of breaking the first (to abstain from taking life) and the third (to abstain from sexual misconduct) of the Buddhist five precepts if they ever encounter an unexpected pregnancy and seek an abortion.

Sex for young girls in Thailand is a very controversial topic, obstructed in discussion by the belief that a girl should be extremely careful about her manner, behavior, and reputation. So a well-brought-up and obedient young girl would learn about the reproductive system as taught in school, but would never truly learn about her body or her basic right to control it, or how to address unintended pregnancy.

It is several years later now, but every time I drive past my old school I see that building – the abortion clinic standing there. I stop to look and think, “what if the place were not there or had never been there?” How many girls would have suffered the consequences of unplanned pregnancies or would have undergone unsafe abortions that could have injured them or taken their lives? I think of my close friends who were able to have safe abortions, and realize that they now have good jobs, have moved on with their lives, and are contented. I’m glad there was a place like that to offer them that service, and that it is still there continuing to help other girls.

Santi Leksakun grew up in Chiang Rai, a small city in the north of Thailand near the border of Myanmar. He is a project coordinator at Sem Pringpuangkeo Foundation, a non-profit organization that facilitates the provision of scholarships as well as supportive activities for AIDS orphans in the six provinces in the north of Thailand.    

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