Challenges faced by the LGBTQIA+ community in Myanmar

July 13th, 2023  •  Author:   Burma News International  •  6 minute read
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Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community march during a protest against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, 19 February 2021. Photo: EPA

Campaign group Progressive Voice wants to point out the challenges faced by Myanmar’s LGBTQIA+ community as various Pride events were celebrated around the world in June.

LGBTQIA+ people in Myanmar harsh and violent challenges, especially since the coup. These can be seen in the arrests and reports of sexual harassment, assaults and torture in Myanmar’s prisons and detention centers.

Despite this violence and the still-existing social stigma that the LGBTQIA+ community is trying to overcome, its ongoing active and public participation in the Spring Revolution reveals a determination to reshape Myanmar in which equality for all is achieved, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The challenges faced by the LGBTQIA+ community reared its head again this past week, when Justin Min Hein, the leader of the LGBTQ Union of Mandalay, was sentenced to ten years in prison for so-called violations of the ‘Anti-Terrorism Act. ’

He had been arrested in September 2022 and was awaiting trial in the Yay Kyi Ai Interrogation Center where he experienced beatings and denial of food and water.

Justin Min Hein has been a strong advocate for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community in Myanmar, bravely speaking out despite constant threats to LGBTQIA+ people since the military’s violent coup attempt.

For example, before his arrest, his organisation, LGBTQ Union Mandalay, had documented and publicized the sexual assault that a particular transgender prisoner was experiencing in Monywa Prison, with Justin speaking out to call for justice and an end to such torture, despite the stifling environment for freedom of expression and the threats faced when criticizing the junta and its security forces.

The sexual torture that Justin spoke out about is a very real threat in Myanmar’s prisons and detention centers.

For example, Sue Sha Shinn Thant, another LGBT activist from Mandalay Region who was arrested late last year and sentenced to over 20 years in prison was sexually assaulted during interrogation. This is a pattern, not an exception. LGBTQIA+ people routinely face sexual and gender-based torture and humiliation at the hands of police, prison guards and the military if they are arrested.

Meanwhile, LGBTQIA+ people continue to face threats and violence outside prison walls. Last month, the Myanmar LGBTQIA Human Rights Watch Forum – a forum created in October 2022 comprising 15 LGBTQIA

organisations and numerous LGBTQIA+ activists in Myanmar – released a report, Rainbow Amid the Storm, that documented the human rights situation of LGBTQIA+ community since the attempted coup.

The report found that members of the LGBTQIA+ community face a “wide range of verbal abuse, physical violence, psychological violence, sexual violence, and economic violence” in various aspects of daily life, including from their own family as well as junta-run security services and authorities.

In addition to calling for accountability for human rights abuses and an end to military impunity, the group also points to long-standing legislation that has plagued the LGBTQIA+ community since before the attempted coup. Specifically, the LGBTQIA Human Rights Watch Forum urges the repeal of Section 377 of the colonial-era Penal Code that criminalizes same-sex relations and the amendment to Section 375 of the Penal Code so that same-sex rape and rape of LGBTQIA+ people are criminalised. Added to this are provisions is the 1945 Police Act which is used to target transgender persons and must be repealed.

It is not just junta violence or colonial-era laws they need to overcome, but broader societal barriers to equality and non-discrimination. This includes traditional beliefs around male power, or pone, the association of the LGBTQIA+ community with HIV and subsequent barriers to access prevention and care services, public mockery, and reduced access to employment, healthcare and education for transgender persons.

Despite all this, the LGBTQIA+ community’s resolve and increased space within the democratic movement, catalyzed by the Spring Revolution, mean that there has been progress over the past two and a half years. The LGBTQIA+ community was a visible part of the mass protests in the early months of the Spring Revolution’s street protests. It remains active throughout the country in the ongoing resistance movement, organising and leading political defiance actions, being part of strike committees, and engaging in the armed resistance movement.

Their bravery in the face of the particular threats they face from authorities has gone some way to changing public attitudes, encouraging more to come out to join the movement, and increasing tolerance and acceptance in society.

As a straight woman from rural central Myanmar told the media outlet, LGBT Nation, “In the rural areas people didn’t like LGBT before. Villagers thought that they were disgusting… that most people in same-sex relationships had AIDS. But when LGBT people joined the revolution, people started accepting them and working together with them. Now, they want to help them and encourage them.”

These are hard-fought gains which the LGBTQIA+ community have achieved through their brave activism amid personal and collective sacrifice and a hugely challenging environment.

The LGBTQIA+ community is leading the way like never before seen in Myanmar history, but Progressive Voice believes that more work does need to be done.

The hard-fought progress made for equality must be recognized, and supported by legislation and a federal constitution, with specific articles to protect people regardless of their gender identity and sexual orientation. In a moment of profound political and social change, these advancements and progressive discourses regarding a community discriminated against for decades must be leveraged in the building of a new nation where equality and non-discrimination are enshrined.

As H.E. U Aung Myo Min, the Human Rights Minister for the National Unity Government and the first openly gay Myanmar minister, told media outlet Frontier Myanmar, “The Spring Revolution has shown that it’s not only a revolution against dictatorship but also a revolution for recognition and mutual understanding among different parts of our society. This is what the rest of the world should know and understand.”

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