BANGKOK (NYTIMES) – Mr Mechai Viravaidya twice saw Thailand in desperate trouble – first from a ruinous 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 very much practised in the early 1970s, when the country’s population was growing at an unsustainable pace and the average family had seven children.
So Mr Mechai decided to tackle the subject that no one else would touch, spearheading a nationwide campaign to publicise and demystify contraceptives.
“It wasn’t a job for intelligent people, smart people, respectable people, aristocratic people,” he said in a June interview.
Mr Mechai, now 81, is in fact all of these, the foreign-educated son of two doctors, the husband of a former private secretary to the king and, over the years, a government minister, organisational leader and senator.
But he is also uninhibited, unpretentious and always willing to put on a show to persuade people.
His goal with the family-planning campaign, he said, was to make condoms just one more item shoppers picked up in the market, along with soap, toothpaste and dried fish. To pull that off, he knew it would help to lend condoms positive associations, something that made people smile.
“If I can accomplish that 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 organisation he founded nearly 50 years ago to fight poverty in Thailand, with family planning a linchpin.
He toured the country, village to village, with an endless array of gimmicks and publicity stunts that linked condoms with fun. Filling them up with water past the point of breaking was a staple performance.
“Who can blow up the biggest condom?” he would call out to the crowds. “Who can make it burst!” He opened what he called family-planning “supermarkets” at bus stations to distribute contraceptives and persuaded Buddhist monks to bless condoms, distributing videos of the ceremonies.
To educate younger Thais, he produced a safe-sex English alphabet that included letters like B for birth control, C for condom and V for vasectomy.
In addition to the spectacle, the campaign had serious infrastructure behind it. He mobilised and trained a network of 350,000 teachers and 12,000 village community leaders.
And he did not limit his family-planning efforts only to condoms. In Bangkok, he offered mass free vasectomies on a parade ground near the palace to celebrate the king’s birthday.