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LGBT Community in Myanmar Says 'Enoug...
By Pablo L. Orosa
09 Mar 2015

At sundown, only the golden dome of the Shwedagon Pagoda shines in the Yangon's sky. Now the bustle of the afternoon has disappeared and the People's Park, one of the most crowded places in the city, remains in silence. In the west corner, at least fifty candles cry out against tortures, harassment, police abuses and discrimination. Hidden for 50 years, Burma's LGTB community is now clamoring for their rights. 

“Some weeks ago, a friend of mine was walking in the lane, here in Yangon, when a group of men started to insult him because of his sexuality. Right after, they attacked and beat him”. Incidents like this, reported by Zae Ya, a spokesperson of activist group Colors Rainbow, are quite frequent in Burma. Despite the improvement achieved since the dissolution of the Military Junta in 2011, lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people are still facing bullying and violence in their daily life. “Sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) minorities do suffer from social prejudices and discrimination”, says Lynette Chua, an expert on LGTB issues and professor of Law at the National University of Singapore.

In Burma, homosexuality is not illegal, although it is de facto outlawed under Section 377 of the Penal Code 1860, which defines the ‘unnatural offence’ of carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal and punishes it by imprisonment for up to ten years. In theory, this offense could be applied to all genders, but in fact it is interpreted by the police as criminalizing male consensual homosexual conduct as well as other “unnatural” sex forms.

This law was inherited from the British colonial era and is based on the Indian Penal Code. In roughly 80 countries, at least half of which were British colonies, this repressive law is still in force. Unlike other Southeast Asia countries, such as Cambodia or Laos, where the age of consent sex for both heterosexual and homosexual sex is 15, in Burma same sex behavior is criminalized. Even if homosexual relations cannot be proved, LGTB people may be sued for public nuisance (Section 268 of the Penal Code), negligently spreading sexual disease (Section 269) and detained under local Acts for suspicious activities. On December 29, about 30 transgender people were arrested in Kandawgyi area. “There are a lot of people in prison due to their sexuality”, declares Hla Myat, program officer at Colors Rainbow. “They can punish LGTB community using the legal system”, adds Zae Ya.

Police abuses: torture and arbitrary arrests 

On 7 July 2013, a gathering of around 20 men, some of them Police officers, “assaulted” a group of gay and transgender people in the area of Sedona Hotel, in Mandalay, “pushing, hitting, handcuffing and pulling off their garments in public”. Once in custody, “police continued to abuse the group of 11 detainees, hitting and kicking them constantly, stripping them naked in the public areas of the Mandalay Regional Police headquarters, photographing them, forcing them to hop like frogs, forcing them to clean shoes and tables, to walk up and down as if on a catwalk, uttering obscenities at them, and otherwise physically and psychologically demeaning them”, the Asian Human Rights Commission reported.

Cases of alleged arbitrary arrest, detention and torture of people on the grounds of sexual orientation have become chronic in Burma, particularly in the Mandalay area. “Big cities, especially Yangon, are more open-minded, but in rural areas the situation for LGTB people is more difficult”, explains Zae Ya.

In a 2014 statement, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) warned that “police reportedly use the law to intimidate and extort bribes” from transgender and homosexual people: “inside police detention and prison, there are reports of humiliating treatment such as MSM (men who have sex with men) and transgender persons being forced to strip naked and dance, beaten with a rod (Nan-Bat-Dote), ridiculed while they are naked, pressured to have sex and burnt with cigarettes”. Paying bribes is often the best way to escape from this.

Lifetime social stigma

There are at least fifty people this night in the People´s Park, most of them under 30´s. They chat in a lively way. Tin Cu Chu, who wears a pink shirt from which hang sunglasses, appears with a candle. Then everybody falls silent. After two minutes, two voices begin to speak. It´s Burmese language, but the message is clear: it´s high time to claim our rights. The candles are to shed light on these hidden people.

Behind all abuses and discrimination faced by LGTB community there are social reasons. Although most people have no problem with them, - “there is no problem if there is no public announcement about relationship”, says Hla Myat-, some society groups are becoming more and more intolerant regarding sexual orientations. Religion is playing a big role in that. Theravada Buddhism, the main religious branch in Burma, enhances gender roles. In Mandalay, for example, religious authorities advised that homosexual men are not authorised on the upper level of the place of worship, where only men are allowed. “There is a populist belief in Buddhism in Myanmar that one is reborn a SOGI minority and thus has to endure suffering in this lifetime, because one has committed sexual transgressions, for example adultery, in one's past life”, illustrates Chua.

These theological assumptions have imbued Burmese culture, inciting social disturbances. At home, some fathers believe that bringing up a homosexual child hurts the family´s dignity and force his marriage. Intolerance starts at school too. “LGTB students usually suffer discrimination from their colleagues, even from their teachers who say to them ‘you are not natural, you are not normal. You have to change your behavior because it is not in accordance with our culture’”, notes Zae Ya. Due to bullying and mistreatment, the majority of these children quit the school before graduating, which puts them in a weak position to earn a living. “Most of them don´t have a chance to get a good job”, adds the Burmese activist. 

In its study, UNDP reports that many transgender and gay men have limited work opportunities  “because of stigma and discrimination and stereotyping”. In many cases there are constraints on expressing their sexual orientation and gender identity in workplaces. For many of them, above all among transgender people, sex work is the only way-out. However, working in the streets leads to more problems with the Police -it has been reported that some policemen extort money from them and some require sex to be provided under threat of arrest- and the high risk of contract HIV.

According to official data, HIV prevalence among MSM in Burma was 29.3 percent as of 2008, 42 times higher than the national adult prevalence rate. Since then, as a result of a successful national health program, HIV prevalence has fallen to 7.8% in 2011. In 2013, the rate grows to 10.4%. Social disturbances and law enforcement are discouraging programme beneficiaries from accessing basic HIV services, UNDP recognizes in its report. 

2015, the year of the change

When last November a same-sex couple celebrated their tenth anniversary publicly, a controversial debate shook the Burmese society. It was the first time that a gay couple did this in the country. Moreover, in 2014 the first LGTB film festival took place in Yangon, and some nightclubs in the city organized special parties for lesbians and gays. “Some years ago things like these would have been impossible”, says Zae Ya.

The democratic winds will be verified in 2015, with the elections. “We can change positively our country. We can get more rights”, insists the Colors Rainbow spokesperson. However, it is not clear what is going to happen. Perhaps, the candles will blow out. Perhaps, more must be lit.