BANGKOK, Thailand -- The Black Lives Matter (BLM) call to action has
come to this Buddhist-majority society which is grappling with
discrimination against dark-skinned Thais, while some foreign black
people say they personally suffer racism here but not as brutally as
in the US and elsewhere.

In Bangkok, "I've been denied entry to bars, asked to pay at
restaurants before even getting the food, denied service in shops,"
Zipporah Gene said in an interview.

"I am British but of Nigerian and Egyptian heritage. My previous
hometowns include London, Cairo, and Kingston, Jamaica," said Ms. Gene
who has worked in Thailand for about a decade in media-related jobs.

Thais often call her 'kohn pew dam' which translates as 'person with
black skin.'

"While it’s not necessarily derogatory, it focuses on my skin color --
a lot -- which I‘ve always found quite weird.

"I could always tell when it was derogatory because some people would
scream it at my face, they’d have a hostile tone, or just spit after
they’d say it. It’s been a while since I’ve had that."

Villagers are more polite and call her "pew dam suay" or "black skin pretty".

In recent years, the situation has greatly improved, Ms. Gene said,
because Thai society has become more international.

"When I first arrived in 2010, I was called Obama, as in jest,"
African-American Bernard Basley, a retired TV director, said in an

"Instead, I took it as a compliment and they stopped that particular practice.

"As I travel in the city’s more affluent areas, I can see the mental
wheels turning, [Thais] trying to understand how I happen to be there.
I think they just chalk it up to being American," Mr. Basley said
reflecting on 10 years in Bangkok.

"As for the BLM statement, it's not really germane here.  We don’t
have police murdering people on a daily basis."

A new generation of Thais are also more aware of racial issues in this
Southeast Asian country which includes ethnic Malay-Thais,
Chinese-Thais, and Thais whose ancestors came from India, the Middle
East, Europe and the Americas.

"For me, the most disturbing aspect is probably the arbitrary racially
motivated arrests of Africans -- who are not all scammers or involved
in illegal dealings -- that are specifically singled out," said
Bangkok Post columnist Yvonne Bohwongprasert.

"If they do appear in Thai media, it is mostly as either a butt of a
joke or about their arrests by Thai immigration for overstaying their
visa or scamming offences," Ms. Yvonne wrote.

Many Thais equate darker skin with low-paid menial work, such as rice
farmers toiling under harsh sunlight.

Lighter skin is widely perceived as a symbol of success enjoyed by
indoor white-collar workers. They often shade their faces while
walking in the street, shopping or commuting.

When Thais judge each other based on skin color, it includes class
discrimination, not purely racism which is more likely to appear
against foreigners -- including occasionally against white people.

"The anti-racist protests and riots in the United States across 70
cities as a result of the police killing of black man George Floyd on
May 25 have got some in Thailand reflecting upon their own society,"
wrote Thai columnist Pravit Rojanaphruk.

Thai "black people, whenever they appear on Thai TV, slapstick comedy
shows and soaps [soap operas], are almost always portrayed as
uncultured or even primitive," Mr. Pravit said.

Those scripts -- sometimes including Thais wearing blackface and a big
frizzy wig -- give audiences "the perceptions of black people being
barbaric, naive and thus inferior."

In the future, "having an active, black American ambassador to
Thailand can help. It can showcase black leadership in Thailand," Mr.
Pravit suggested.

Public rallies are illegal in Thailand under the military-dominated
elected government, so most BLM discussion is online and in local news

When Thais recently went online supporting the hashtag
#blacklivesmatter, some Thais perceived that activity as hypocritical
or imbalanced.

"Why speak out on injustice in the United States, but not in your own
country?" wrote columnist Voranai Vanijaka.

Several years ago, complaints convinced supermarkets in Thailand to
stop selling "Black Man" mops, brooms and scrub brushes which
displayed a grinning black man dressed in a suit as its logo. The
brand changed to "Be Man."

"Darkie" toothpaste was also popular, illustrated by a black man
wearing a top hat. After criticism, it became "Darlie" and the logo
rendered less distinct.

In 2013, Dunkin' Donuts publicly apologized and retracted printed
advertisements portraying a Thai woman in blackface enjoying their new
"charcoal donuts."

On Twitter, @Thai_Talk commentator "kaewmala," a Thai woman with more
than 27,000 followers, said:

"At the most simplistic level, white equates good and beautiful, and
black the opposite. This remains deeply ingrained in the Thai psyche."

Until it was outlawed in 1905, Thais owned Thais and others as slaves.

"More than 1/3 of the Thai population were slaves," the Thai
government said in a published statement.

"There was the endless continuity of offspring slaves. They all were
slaves for the rest of their lives. Traditionally children of slaves
also became slaves."