2022-‘Captain Condom’ Turned the Tide in Thailand’s War on AIDS and Overpopulation


BANGKOK — Mechai Viravaidya twice noticed Thailand in determined hassle — first from a ruinous inhabitants explosion after which from the AIDS epidemic — and he responded to each crises the identical method: with condoms and his personal appreciable charisma.

Contraception was one thing Thais neither talked about nor very a lot practiced within the early Nineteen Seventies, when the nation’s inhabitants was rising at an unsustainable tempo and the typical household had 5 kids.

So Mr. Mechai determined to deal with the topic that nobody else would contact, spearheading a nationwide marketing campaign to publicize and demystify contraceptives.

“It wasn’t a job for clever folks, good folks, respectable folks, aristocratic folks,” he stated in a June interview.

Mr. Mechai, now 81, is the truth is all of those, the foreign-educated son of two medical doctors, the husband of a former personal secretary to the king and, through the years, a authorities minister, organizational chief and senator.

However he’s additionally uninhibited, unpretentious and all the time prepared to placed on a present to influence folks.

His objective with the family-planning marketing campaign, he stated, was to make condoms only one extra merchandise customers picked up out there, together with cleaning soap, toothpaste and dried fish. To drag that off, he knew it might assist to lend condoms constructive associations, one thing that made folks smile.

“If I can accomplish that by blowing up condoms or filling them with water,” he stated, “then nice, I’ll do it.”

Mr. Mechai was talking not removed from the Bangkok places of work of the Inhabitants and Group Improvement Affiliation, the group he based almost 50 years in the past to struggle poverty in Thailand, with household planning a linchpin.

He toured the nation, village to village, with an limitless array of gimmicks and publicity stunts that linked condoms with enjoyable. Filling them up with water previous the purpose of breaking was a staple efficiency.

“Who can blow up the largest condom?” he would name out to the crowds. “Who could make it burst!”

He opened what he known as family-planning “supermarkets” at bus stations to distribute contraceptives and persuaded Buddhist monks to bless condoms, distributing movies of the ceremonies. To teach youthful Thais, he produced a safe-sex English alphabet that included letters like B for contraception, C for condom and V for vasectomy.

Along with the spectacle, the marketing campaign had severe infrastructure behind it. He mobilized and educated a community of 350,000 lecturers and 12,000 village neighborhood leaders.

And he didn’t restrict his family-planning efforts solely to condoms. In Bangkok, he supplied mass free vasectomies on a parade floor close to the palace to have fun the king’s birthday.

Some discovered his strategies offensive, or at the very least insufficiently decorous. A newspaper columnist, attempting to formulate an insult, instructed that individuals begin calling condoms “mechais.”

The concept caught on, and Mr. Mechai framed a duplicate of the article to hold on his wall.

All of it added as much as extra publicity, the primary weapon in his arsenal, and the outcomes of his marketing campaign had been dramatic. Thailand’s inhabitants progress price fell from greater than 3 p.c in 1974 to 0.6 p.c in 2005, and the typical variety of kids per household shrank from 5 to fewer than two.

The World Financial institution known as Mr. Mechai’s marketing campaign “one of the crucial profitable and efficient household planning applications on this planet.”

In 1970, each Thailand and the Philippines had equal populations of 36 million.

“Now we now have about 70 million and so they have 107 million,” Mr. Mechai stated within the interview, truly understating the Philippines inhabitants, which is over 110 million. He added that if Thailand hadn’t addressed its inhabitants subject it, too, can be sending hundreds of thousands of its residents overseas to seek out work.

“If we hadn’t stepped in it might have been to the deep detriment of the financial system of Thailand and the standard of life,” he stated.

When the AIDS pandemic started to overwhelm Thailand within the late Eighties, Mr. Mechai employed the identical knack for publicity, persuasiveness and showmanship in combating the illness.

As along with his first condom marketing campaign, he initially struck out on his personal as the federal government refused to again a safe-sex marketing campaign, fearing it might harm the profitable sex-tourism business.

So Mr. Mechai turned as an alternative to the navy, a strong establishment past the attain of civilian authorities, which agreed to air common safe-sex bulletins on its 300 radio stations and 5 tv stations.

Then in 1991, a brand new prime minister, Anand Panyarachun, embraced AIDS prevention, making Mr. Mechai his minister of data and tourism. Each authorities ministry was now known as on to play a task in AIDS schooling.

“We had condoms out all over the place on the streets — all over the place, all over the place,” Mr. Mechai stated in a TED Talk recounting his method. “In taxis, you get condoms, and in addition, in visitors, the policemen offer you condoms.”

And Mr. Mechai — regardless of or maybe due to his M.B.A. from Harvard — took it upon himself to turn out to be the recognizable image that he stated each profitable advertising program wants, dubbing himself “Captain Condom” and going to varsities and evening golf equipment to advertise protected intercourse.

The World Well being Group known as Thailand’s method to the AIDS disaster “the quickest response to the issue that we now have ever seen.” The United Nations stated Mr. Mechai’s program had achieved a 90 p.c decline in new infections, and the World Financial institution estimated that it had saved 7.7 million lives between 1991 and 2012.

Mr. Mechai was born in Bangkok in 1941, to a Scottish mom, Isabella MacKinnon Robertson, and a Thai father, Samak Viravaidya, each medical doctors, who had met as college students on the College of Edinburgh Medical College.

Raised talking Thai and English, he went to highschool and faculty in Australia, incomes a bachelor’s diploma in commerce in 1964 from the College of Melbourne.

His consolation amongst each Thais and Westerners, Mr. Mechai stated, has enhanced his capability to pitch his applications — and foyer for financing — in several cultures, efficiently courting substantial grants from foundations, growth organizations and international governments.

Returning to Thailand in 1966, Mr. Mechai thought at first of turning into a physician like his dad and mom. “I helped my father sew up a finger that had been lower off, holding on to a rubber tourniquet,” he stated, “and I spotted, that’s not for me.”

Attracted by the big selection of points it addressed, he joined the federal government’s Nationwide Financial and Social Improvement Board, the place he served for eight years as an economist.

On the similar time he discovered different retailers for his energies, writing a newspaper column, internet hosting a night radio present and instructing a part-time college English course.

His penchant for efficiency additionally led him to performing, and he appeared in a preferred, sentimental TV drama, “Star-Crossed Lovers,” enjoying a Japanese military officer who falls in love with a Thai faculty pupil throughout World Warfare II.

In 1971 he married a childhood good friend, Thanpuying Putrie, with whom he has one daughter. His spouse is a cousin of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the daddy of the present king, and he or she served for years as his deputy principal personal secretary. Mr. Mechai delights in saying that his mom was the physician who delivered his future spouse.

In his position as a authorities economist, he toured the nation and noticed firsthand the poverty, and the social and financial dislocations that he later devoted his life to addressing.

“There have been kids all over the place,” he stated of Thai villages. “This was the good drawback. And I spotted I used to be fallacious in pondering the federal government may do all the things. So I made a decision to exit alone.”

In 1974 he left authorities to discovered the Inhabitants and Group Improvement Affiliation. It flourished and branched out to handle a variety of social and financial points, from rural growth to environmental safety.

Within the years that adopted, his profession path took him out and in of presidency roles, together with as cupboard spokesman, deputy business minister and three phrases as a member of the Senate between 1987 and 2006.

Along with his work on household planning and protected intercourse, creating Thailand’s rural financial system has been a decades-long focus of his activism. Within the Nineteen Nineties, he based the Village Improvement Venture, which goals to foster entrepreneurship and create income-generating actions in rural Thailand.

It has arrange small factories within the countryside to lure staff again house from sweatshops in Bangkok, a part of an effort to fight the city migration that has debilitated rural economies.

His stated his best pleasure now could be the Mechai Bamboo College in northeastern Thailand, set as much as “re-engineer rural schooling” by turning the college right into a lifelong studying heart and an lively contributor to life in its neighborhood.

A boarding faculty with a pupil physique of 180 that makes a degree of together with undocumented and disabled college students, it extends the idea of schooling right into a set of life expertise, in accordance with Mr. Mechai.

“The varsity goals to foster good residents who’re trustworthy, prepared to share, and really settle for and observe gender equality,” Mr. Mechai stated.

Its outreach applications supply help to older villagers, give dietary recommendation to pregnant ladies and help in small-scale agriculture.

Mr. Mechai stated greater than 100 small rural faculties have begun to observe his lead in turning into extra concerned of their communities.

Although now at an age when most individuals are slowing down, Mr. Mechai has no plans to cease addressing what he stated had been his life’s most important issues: “to fight financial and social inequality by lowering births, lowering deaths from AIDS and lowering poverty, monetary dependence and ignorance.”


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