September 24, 2022

BANGKOK — Mechai Viravaidya has twice seen Thailand in desperate trouble — first from a devastating population explosion and then from the AIDS epidemic — and he responded to both crises the same way: with condoms and his own considerable charisma.

Birth control was something Thais neither talked about nor practiced much in the early 1970s, when the country’s population was growing at unsustainable rates and the average family had seven children.

So Mr. Mechai decided to tackle the issue no one else would touch, spearheading a nationwide campaign to publicize and debunk contraceptives.

“It was not a job for smart people, intelligent people, respectable people, classy people,” he said in an interview in June.

Mr Mechai, now 81, is actually all of those, the foreign-educated son of two doctors, the husband of a former private secretary to the king and, over the years, a government minister, organizational leader and senator.

But he is also uninhibited, unpretentious and always willing to put on a show to convince people.

His goal with the family planning campaign, he said, was to make condoms just one more product that shoppers picked up at the market, along with soap, toothpaste and dried fish. To achieve this, he knew it would help to lend condoms positive associations, something that made people smile.

“If I can achieve it by blowing up condoms or filling them with water,” he said, “then fine, I’ll do it.”

Mr. Mechai was speaking not far from the Bangkok offices of the Population and Community Development Association, the organization he founded nearly 50 years ago to fight poverty in Thailand through family planning.

He went around the country, village to village, with an endless series of gimmicks and publicity stunts that linked condoms with entertainment. Filling them with water beyond the point of spasm was a key performance.

“Who can blow up the biggest condom?” he shouted to the crowds. “Who can make it pop!”

He opened what he called family planning “supermarkets” at bus stations to distribute contraceptives and persuaded Buddhist monks to bless condoms by distributing videos of the ceremonies. To educate younger Thais, he created an English safe-sex alphabet that included letters such as B for birth control, C for condom, and V for vasectomy.

Besides the spectacle, the campaign had serious infrastructure behind it. Mobilized and trained a network of 350,000 teachers and 12,000 village leaders.

And he didn’t limit his family planning efforts to just condoms. In Bangkok, he offered mass free vasectomies at a parade ground near the palace to celebrate the king’s birthday.

Some found his methods offensive, or at least insufficiently decorative. One newspaper columnist, trying to come up with an insult, suggested people start calling condoms “mechais.”

The idea caught on and Mr. Mechai framed a copy of the article to hang on his wall.

All this added to more publicity, the main weapon in his arsenal, and the results of his campaign were dramatic. Thailand’s population growth rate fell from more than 3 percent in 1974 to 0.6 percent in 2005, and the average number of children per family shrank from seven to fewer than two.

The World Bank called Mr. Mechai’s campaign “one of the most successful and effective family planning programs in the world.”

In 1970, both Thailand and the Philippines had an equivalent population of 36 million.

“Now we have about 70 million and they have 107 million,” Mr. Mechai said in the interview, effectively underestimating the Philippines’ population of more than 110 million. He added that if Thailand had not addressed its population issue, it would also be sending millions of its citizens abroad to find work.

“If we had not intervened, it would have been to the detriment of Thailand’s economy and quality of life,” he said.

When the AIDS pandemic began to engulf Thailand in the late 1980s, Mr. Mechai used the same skill in publicity, persuasion and showmanship to fight the disease.

As with his first condom campaign, he initially struck out on his own as the government refused to back a safe-sex campaign, fearing it would damage the lucrative sex tourism industry.

So Mr. Mechai turned instead to the military, a powerful institution that the civilian government could not, which agreed to regularly broadcast safe-sex announcements on its 300 radio stations and five television stations.

Then, in 1991, a new prime minister, Anand Panyarachun, embraced AIDS prevention, making Mr. Mechai minister of information and tourism. Every government department was now called upon to play a role in AIDS education.

“We had condoms all over the streets – everywhere, everywhere,” Mr Mechai said. a TED talk recounting his approach. “In taxis, you get condoms, and also, in traffic, the police give you condoms.”

And Mr. Mechai—despite, or perhaps because of, his Harvard MBA—took it upon himself to become the recognizable icon he said every successful marketing program needed, dubbing himself “Captain Condom” and going to schools and nightclubs to promote the safe sex.

The World Health Organization has called Thailand’s approach to the AIDS crisis “the fastest response to the problem we have ever seen”. The United Nations said Mr Mechai’s program had seen a 90 percent reduction in new infections, and the World Bank estimated it had saved 7.7 million lives between 1991 and 2012.

Mr Mechai was born in Bangkok in 1941, to a Scottish mother, Isabella MacKinnon Robertson, and a Thai father, Samak Viravaidya, both doctors, who had met as students at the University of Edinburgh Medical School.

Raised speaking Thai and English, he went to high school and college in Australia, earning a degree in commerce in 1964 from the University of Melbourne.

His comfort with both Thais and Westerners, Mr Mechai said, enhanced his ability to present his programs – and lobby for funding – in different cultures, successfully courting major grants from foundations, development agencies and foreign governments.

Returning to Thailand in 1966, Mr. Mechai initially thought of becoming a doctor like his parents. “I helped my father sew up a cut finger, holding a rubber tourniquet,” he said, “and I realized this is not for me.”

Attracted by the wide range of issues he faced, he joined the government’s National Council for Economic and Social Development, where he served for eight years as an economist.

At the same time he found other outlets for his energies, writing a newspaper column, hosting an evening radio show, and teaching a part-time university English course.

His penchant for acting also led him to acting and he appeared in a popular, emotional TV drama, “Star-Crossed Lovers,” playing a Japanese army officer who falls in love with a Thai student during World War II.

In 1971 she married a childhood friend, Thanpuying Putrie, with whom she has a daughter. His wife is a cousin of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, father of the current king, and served for years as his deputy principal private secretary. Mr. Mechai is happy to say that his mother was the doctor who delivered his future wife.

In his role as government economist, he toured the country and saw firsthand the poverty and social and economic upheavals that he later devoted his life to tackling.

“There were children everywhere,” he said of the Thai villages. “That was the big problem. And I realized that I was wrong to think that the government could do everything. So I decided to go out alone.”

In 1974 he left the government to found the Population and Community Development Association. It has flourished and branched out to address a range of social and economic issues, from rural development to environmental protection.

In the years that followed, his career took him in and out of government roles, including cabinet spokesman, deputy industry minister and three terms as a member of the Senate between 1987 and 2006.

In addition to his work on family planning and safe sex, the development of Thailand’s rural economy has been a focus of his activism for decades. In the 1990s, he founded the Village Development Project, which aims to promote entrepreneurship and create income-generating activities in rural Thailand.

It has set up small factories in the countryside to lure workers back home from sweatshops in Bangkok, part of an effort to combat urban migration that has sapped rural economies.

He said his greatest pride now is the Mechai Bamboo School in northeastern Thailand, created to “reengineer rural education” by turning the school into a center for lifelong learning and an active contributor to life in his community.

A boarding school with a student population of 180 that makes sense to include undocumented and special needs students expands the concept of education to a set of life skills, according to Mr. Mechai.

“The school aims to cultivate good citizens who are honest, willing to share and truly accept and practice gender equality,” said Mr Mechai.

Its programs offer assistance to elderly villagers, provide nutritional advice to pregnant women and assist in small-scale farming.

Mr Mechai said more than 100 small rural schools have started to follow his example to become more involved in their communities.

Although now at an age when most people are slowing down, Mr. Mechai has no plans to stop working on what he said were the main concerns of his life: “to fight economic and social inequality by reducing births, reducing AIDS deaths and reducing poverty, economic dependence and ignorance’.

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