PP* was waiting for her friends in the busy city of Mandalay on a hot, humid evening in July 2013, when she was snatched from behind by plainclothes police officers and bundled into an unmarked vehicle. The 27-year-old makeup artist, who is transgender, was one of 12 gay and transgender people arrested that night and taken to a local police station, where they were stripped, photographed and forced to sashay down the corridor as if in a fashion show, she tells me. While an officer beat one woman’s breasts with a baton, PP said she was bullied for having a soft voice: “Shout like a man,” the officers ordered. When she couldn’t shout loudly enough or deeply enough an officer allegedly hit her three times in the face. Homophobia and transphobia are endemic in Myanmar, and they’re particularly difficult to challenge because stigma and discrimination are written into the law; in fact, many LGBT people told me they perceive the police force as their greatest threat. Myanmar — like neighbouring India, and Malaysia and Singapore — still has a colonial era law criminalising ‘unnatural sex’, usually interpreted by the authorities to mean sodomy. Hla Myat Tun, a representative from the LGBT rights organisation Colors Rainbow, explained that in practice this law is rarely enforced, but because it exists, LGBT people are seen as criminals. He says the police abuse them whenever they need money, explaining that some police officers have reportedly been extorting cash bribes from LGBT people, or arbitrarily arresting them to meet quotas.
For the past couple of years, Colors Rainbow have been training voluntary paralegals to methodically document homophobic and transphobic incidents, including arbitrary arrests. Much of their work takes place in Hlaing Thayar, an impoverished suburb of Yangon, notorious for violent crime and gang activity. Many gay and transgender people move to Hlaing Thayar because it’s cheap to live in, and because it’s known as a place to buy and sell sex. UT*, a gay paralegal in his forties, who runs a salon in the area, explained that discrimination and stereotyping force many gay and transgender people into sex work. Essentially, he said, gay men and transgender women only have two career options in Myanmar: makeup artist or sex worker. Establishing oneself as a makeup artist requires money or a supportive family (because the profession usually requires paid-for training) – both of which many people don’t have, leaving them with no choice but to turn to sex work to support themselves. M*, a young transgender woman who I met in a teashop in Hlaing Thayar, echoed UT’s words. “Even if we apply for jobs, people won’t hire us,” she said, bitterly, “or they pay us too little for us to survive, so finally we have to become sex workers on the streets.”
M said she had been arrested many times, assaulted, sexually assaulted, and bullied in custody. She told me she had been raped by police officers and by customers, and she had been robbed. After thirty minutes, my interview in the teashop with her ended abruptly when half a dozen drunk men arrived, some armed with machetes. “Leave now you fuckers, this is none of your business,” they shouted, brandishing their weapons. UT said he believed they were former police officers, and had anticipated them interrupting at some point. As well as actively abusing gay and transgender people in Hlaing Thayar, staff at Colors Rainbow allege that the police also regularly fail to investigate crimes committed against LGBT people. Recently, Nat Nat Nwe, a paralegal working with the organisation, documented the brutal murder of a transgender woman, whose body is believed to have been found in a ditch behind a public toilet in Hlaing Thayar. Several people who live and work in the area corroborated the details she told me, but when my translator telephoned the local police station they denied any knowledge of the incident. “The police won’t investigate the case,” Nat Nat speculated, “because they think it’s a good thing when gay people die.”
There is such a stigma attached to being LGBT in Myanmar that parents often refuse to accept their children’s sexuality or gender identity. TT*, a shy 25-year-old from Yangon, said she was forcibly sectioned when she told her parents she wanted to leave an abusive husband they had pressured her to marry, for a woman she had been to school with. “They said my behaviour had changed so much, I must be on drugs,” she told me, explaining that they used this as an excuse to have her locked in a mental institution for a fortnight. She now lives with her girlfriend, but says her parents won’t accept her sexuality, and won’t help her financially; they want her to become destitute so that she has to leave her girlfriend and return home.
Similarly, sitting in UT’s salon during a power cut, MK*, a transgender woman in her early thirties, explained that she was too afraid to ever tell her parents about her gender identity. Instead, she lived as a man while they were alive, and only transitioned after both her parents were killed in a cyclone in 2008. In the wake of the tragedy she left her village, the land her family owned, and what remained of their possessions, and travelled to Yangon to live as a woman in Hlaing Thayar. “If my parents were still alive and saw the way I live now, they would kill me,” she said, adding that now UT is like her father.
A key aim of Colors Rainbow’s work, Hla Myat Tun explained, is to make LGBT people aware of the rights they do have. It is far less easy for other people — be that police officers, employers, family members, or just violent, homophobic and transphobic individuals — to abuse or exploit LGBT people who know what they are legally entitled to, and where to seek help if they believe their rights have been violated. But without changes to the law, there are limits to what awareness and advocacy alone can achieve. In November, Myanmar elected a new, civilian government, after decades of military rule. Called the National League for Democracy, it is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winning, pro-democracy icon, who champions human rights. Given this, Colors Rainbow hope that the party might soon bring in legislation to protect people from discrimination based on their sexuality or gender identity. However, the NLD came to power in April, and so far no elected member of parliament has even mentioned LGBT rights in public. In light of this, I asked a colleague to call a senior aide to Aung San Suu Kyi, and asked him if the NLD had any plans to improve the situation. On explanation of the issue, he burst out laughing. “I am not interested,” he said. “Burma is not like in the west; gender issues are not important here”. He continued: “We cannot give priority to that particular issue. We have thousands and thousands of problems, and that gender issue is not important.” For the time being at least, it seems that Myanmar’s LGBT community are going to have to continue standing up for themselves. Because, beyond the incredible work Colors Rainbow do, little is being done to challenge transphobia and homophobia in the country. *Initials have been used to protect the identity of people involved in this story
This article was first published June 2, 2016