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Richard Gere Speaks Out Against War In Thailand

Richard Gere Speaks Out Against War In Thailand


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- U.S. film star Richard Gere opened an international AIDS Film Festival by condemning America's "insane war in Iraq" and refusing a suggestion that he become the next president of the United States.

"I lost a very close friend" to AIDS, Mr. Gere said in a speech on Monday (July 12) inside a packed movie theater before the festival's first film screened.

"I had lived with this friend for, how long? I think it was late '80s, probably '87, when he first called me" to reveal the results of a health check-up, Mr. Gere said.

"He was in tears, he could barely get it out, and he said, 'Richard, I got my test back. I'm positive.'

"I went to see him in his hotel. And we just cried for hours together."

Mr. Gere said his friend had enough money, friends and medical support, to survive more than a decade until dying about 18 months ago.

"He didn't want anyone to know" he suffered from AIDS even though he lived in "Los Angeles and the entertainment community", Mr. Gere said.

"I don't want anyone else to die like that," Mr. Gere added, without revealing his friend's name.

"It [AIDS] has gone too long, way too long. I was also thinking today of the 300 billion dollars, plus, that we have wasted on an insane war in Iraq," Mr. Gere said, drawing yelps of agreement and rapturous applause from an audience which included diplomats, foreign and local businessmen, media, artists, Thai government officials and others.

Thailand, a staunch U.S. ally, dispatched more than 420 troops to Iraq in September 2003, but said all its forces will be withdrawn in September 2004.

Mr. Gere's experience with AIDS victims, meanwhile, changed his life more than his study of Tibetan Buddhism, he said.

"In the deepest sense of what these tragedies can be, they bring for me -- even in a more intense way than I ever could have learned in the practice of Buddhism -- how interconnected we are.

"There is no separation. We are totally brothers and sisters. And that [realization] is the way we are finally going to kill this thing off."

He invited the audience to raise their hands when he asked: "Who here has lost a close friend to this disease?"

Upon seeing a widespread response, he asked, "Can we just take maybe 30 seconds just to think about them? Come, just close your eyes and just think about them."

After a silent, meditative period, Mr. Gere said softly, "Now imagine all the other people you don't know, who have died, and send that same love back to them, in the whole world. Close your eyes please," he invited, drawing a mixed response from the awe-struck audience.

"Thank you. That was nice."

Thailand's outspoken anti-AIDS activist, Senator Mechai Veravaidya -- known as "Mr. Condom" for his joyful public distribution of condoms throughout the country -- was the next speaker and expressed a rapport with Mr. Gere.

"We thank you most sincerely, and the Thai people love you. You must come back, and we hope you'll be the next president of the United States," Senator Mechai said, attracting bursts of laughter and cheers.

Mr. Gere immediately bounded onto the stage and, grinning broadly, announced: "I am not running, and I will not accept."

Politics aside, a gay Indonesian dance troupe then performed a display of three men wearing traditional masks and black, red and gold costumes.

The dancing masked men pretended to copulate and kiss each other, and then kissed other hand-held masks, to symbolize the easy spread of HIV among lovers.

The 2004 AIDS Film Festival's opening was sponsored by General Motors and the Asia Society along with health groups active in treating AIDS.

The film festival was part of the 15th International AIDS Conference which runs from July 11-16.

*****

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is www.geocities.com/glossograph/

-ENDS-


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