Burma is no stranger to accusations of human rights violations, and now persecutions of LGBT individuals can be added to that list. Earlier this month several men who were dressed in women’s clothes were attacked by police in Mandalay and were reportedly beaten, stripped and forced to walk naked, reports the Asian Human Rights Commission. The situation was made worse when the police involved forced the men to hop around like frogs and answer invasive questions about their personal lives, among other degrading commands.
Such a violation of a person’s basics rights are appalling, but perhaps not surprising in a country in which the government has been accused of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against an entire community of people who live there. Human Rights Watch made that assertion this spring, in regard to the violence against and apparent lack of assistance for the Rohingya Muslims. Officials have been known to attack and demean members of other ethnic minority groups as well.
But persecution of gay and transgendered individuals is a bad look for a government that continues to affirm its commitment to becoming an open democracy, and to progressing out of the closed-off, backward state it had been for decades under the rule of a military junta. While rights violations of LGBT individuals continue to occur around the world, there is a rising awareness and respect for people of different sexualities. That there seems to be a stigma in Burma, at least among officials, is troubling.
The Bangkok Post wrote:
The Irrawaddy (Myanmar-language edition) on Friday quoted police spokesman Pol Maj Soe Nyein as saying that, “We had to detain the fags because they were disturbing passersby at the moat, by doing and saying whatever they like… homosexuality is not in accordance with law. If people complain, we’ll take action.”
This is particularly disturbing, as an influential law enforcement officer seems to be openly endorsing action against gays and transgender people. That those who have the law on their side feel they can brutalize and degrade people of different sexualities is disturbing at least, and quite dangerous.
But gay rights activists in Burma are fighting back, and have said they will file a lawsuit against the police who detained and attacked the cross-dressing men, according to The Irrawaddy. That publication quoted Aung Myo Min, director of the human rights group Equality Myanmar, as saying “We have to do this because the police mistreated the detainees, which is beyond the limits of their responsibilities”. Aung Myo Min also criticized police brutality against any group or detainee, and called for an end to the abusive behavior.
In this case, police justified their behavior by saying that the public had complained of disturbances by the cross-dressing men, which made it essential for law enforcement to step in.
According to The Irrawaddy, Mandalay police officer Soe Nyein said, “We were just carrying out our duties. Since they are men, we must not let them go into men’s cells with wigs, bras, condoms and women’s attire. So we had to take them all off. We have much evidence to prove this, however, I have nothing to say about being accused of abusing them.”
The detainess have faced varying degrees of punishment, with some being released, and some extorted for more than US$400 in bribe money. Others are likely to be tried under a law that allows a police officer to arrest – without a warrant – any person who covers his or her face or otherwise disguises themselves in public after dark.
What the courts decide to do with this case will indicate whether Burma really is poised for a progressive, tolerant and democratic future, or if the government is still locked in controlling and aggressive methods.
As Aung Myo Min put it, “If the court accepts the case, it will show that there are rules of law in the country.”
LGBT individuals in Burma face many of the same challenges as those in the rest of the world: fears of being different, of being discriminated against, and rejection by their families. These are compounded by a code of law that makes intercourse outside the “natural order” a criminal offense.
In a recent piece from The Myanmar Times, three individuals spoke out about their experiences being gay in Burma, giving voice and hope to those who may still be struggling in silence. By speaking out and condemning legal discrimination and abuse by law enforcement officers, such activists may help change the tide for the LGBT community in their country.