Today the Far East is increasingly a bellwether for the recovery and future of the world and will be an important power in the twenty-first century. No longer relegated to being just a supplier of low-cost labour, products and services, it is now clearly demonstrating its full potential. Coming together to face the sheer size and possible influence exerted by China, India and Japan, the 10 countries gathered in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) can be an interesting interlocutor for other nations and for the West in particular, in potentially unprecedented ways.
The pandemic, which for over a year has upset all known parameters and has led to a precarious balance between safeguarding health and pre-existing economic models, seems to be better under control in Southeast Asia, to the point that even financial indicators show fewer worrying trends almost everywhere there than elsewhere. So it is precisely in this area, which is so central to the future balance of the world, that it becomes interesting to look at and explore social issues, in an issue of this magazine dedicated to LGBT+ issues.
Given the many nuances in ASEAN countries (the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Cambodia) it is not surprising that there are still great differences here in addressing, even at the regulatory level, personal expression. Some attribute the greater spread of more conservative approaches to these issues to a certain influence exercised by Western powers in colonial times. In a certain way, therefore, the homophobic tones detectable in these latitudes, which are not necessarily violent but intrinsic in some local laws, could be partially considered a continuation of the visions of the “conquerors” of the past. This is certainly an extreme oversimplification. In fact, the variety of economic situations, levels of education, development and social advancement within ASEAN is too great to be able to offer a unitary overview. There are also significant, persistent contradictions in terms of freedom of expression of sexual orientation. In fact, there are very advanced cases, such as the 2020 bill that could make Thailand the first country in the area to allow marriage between same-sex couples, and extremist choices such as that of Brunei, where homosexuals have risked the death penalty by stoning since 2019. Similarly, there are varying levels of acceptance between different generations, with young people much more tolerant and open-minded.
It remains clear that in this area much is happening in the region, with the emergence of more or less local and important movements and initiatives: after all, this is an issue that also has economic repercussions. At the end of 2020, Time Magazine argued that “there is every reason to think that the recognition of the rights of the LGBTQ population is aligned with the Asian acceleration in becoming the hub of the world in the 21st century”. After all, “Asian economies would greatly benefit from the increase in human capital and new ideas that a more inclusive civil society could bring”. A reflection that in some ways confirms a 2019 Pew study, which noted that more affluent countries, regardless of their geographical location, exhibit greater acceptance of homosexuality: Japan, for example, is significantly more tolerant compared to Greece or Poland, and wealthy South Korea is much more so than Bulgaria or Ukraine.
It is difficult to offer a univocal description of the situation, which is very complex and full of nuances, but a push towards a return to traditional tolerance, which if we want to generalise, is a common characteristic of Asian culture, would be a further way to strengthen those steps forward made against discrimination regarding sexual orientation. A path that parallels the economic, cultural and social growth of this fascinating part of the world.