Coming out of the darkness: Myanmar’s LGBT community emerges from decades of abuse

Photo: Q! Film Festival/Facebook

Police in Myanmar are accused of regularly arresting and abusing members of one of the country’s vulnerable communities, but a social revolution of open-minded and liberal attitudes in the next generation could yet be their saviour. Is the country ready?

By Tan Zhi Xin

Just a short while ago transgender woman, Chew Su Khin, was arrested again for the third time in this year. The police removed her hair extensions and set them on fire, after which she was stripped naked and had her picture taken. She had to pay a fine of 35,000 kyats (US$27) to be released the next day.

“They made me remove all my clothes and perform sexual acts with other prisoners while they filmed it on their phones with the threat of more violence,” she explained as she recovered in Yangon’s Bahan township, Myanmar.

Homosexuality in her country is prohibited, and punishable by a prison sentence of between ten years and life under Section 377 of the penal code. This law might not frequently be invoked, but its mere existence reminds citizens, and the world, that homosexuality in frowned upon in her country’s society.

Homophobia, not homosexuality

In highly conservative Myanmar, homosexuality challenges the traditional concept of what constitutes ‘normal’. At the same time, there is a lack of general public knowledge on human rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights and culture due to decades of military rule and isolation from the outside world. Together, this ignorance and mindset produce a sense of homophobia.

This climate means that this vulnerable community has to face various forms of everyday discrimination. Not only were they described as being “disgraceful” and accused of fuelling crime by Member of Parliament, Tin Tin Mar, they are also not treated fairly by employers.

For instance, in the field of hard labour, transgender men have to do the same job as male workers but receive only the salary that women are paid. Bosses rationalise this by insisting that they are paid according to the gender assigned to them at birth.

And however obvious their disadvantage may be, LGBT people cannot go to the relevant authorities to lodge a complaint or seek justice. They are often turned away without explanation.

Then there is the risk of arrest, abuse, and humiliation. In 2013, a group of transgender women was arrested in Mandalay and stripped in public before being taken to a police station. There, they were not only physically assaulted, but also mentally and psychologically abused.

According to the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), they were forced to perform humiliating acts like parading naked – as if they were on the cat walk – while being photographed; made to hop like frogs, and ordered to clean the shoes of the police.

The darkness law

The statute regularly used against the community is the ‘darkness law’. This carries a maximum sentence of three months and confers upon the police sweeping powers to arrest anybody they deem to be acting ‘suspiciously’ or found in a ‘suspicious’ place after dark.

Unlike Section 377, this law is the preferred weapon of choice for authorities targeting those in Myanmar with alternative lifestyles because it is easier to prove than the anti-homosexuality laws. Using Section 377 requires proof two persons of the same gender are guilty of having carnal intercourse or sodomy.

But more importantly, the darkness law allows the police to extort money from LGBT persons as they can easily threaten them with jail terms. This makes the group the ‘walking ATM’ of the police who just need to meet their quotas. The case of Chew Su Khin is a classic but one of the many cases in Myanmar. She was fortunate to be able to get her story out there, but many others have to swallow the trampling of their dignity.

Social revolution and bottom-up initiatives

Despite the apparent gloomy outlook and intense discrimination faced by LGBT people, the reality is changing, albeit very slowly.

On the one hand, the gradual restructuring of Myanmar has not only opened the floodgates for Western liberal values and thought, but also created a civil society space for the Myanmar people. This, in turn, is creating a social revolution where a generation of liberal and outspoken young people sees their traditionally conservative culture as outmoded.

Against this backdrop, the LGBT community is beginning to flourish, bringing the establishment of Colors Rainbow, a rights umbrella organisation in 2007 and the first-ever Burmese gay pride festival in 2012. These would not have seemed possible just a decade ago.

On the other hand, the government remains very much silent on their stance towards LGBT issues. And U Win Htein, an ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, has admitted that he was “not interested in tackling LGBT rights abuses”. But is this simply because Myanmar is still a nascent democracy?

Homosexuality is an age-old issue. But it is also an issue that requires a mature government that is ready to face it. Myanmar is not there yet. Although LGBT rights are gathering importance, the democratic transition has destabilised the entire country’s rights system.

As such, the top priority of the ruling government is building the economy and address the longstanding religious-ethnic issues that are tearing the country apart. If the  government tries to attend to everything at the same time, the result can only be disastrous.

Nonetheless, things are changing. While there have not been concrete top-down reforms taken to improve the situation of those with alternative lifestyles, the truth is that Myanmar is soon approaching a tipping point. The bottom-up initiatives have been relatively unhindered by the government, and some younger political elites are also increasingly sympathetic.

In a sense, Myanmar is undergoing a social revolution, whereby people are becoming more open-minded and inclusive. But there is still a long way until the end point, and this process is going to be a long and difficult one.