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Gay People In Myanmar Can't Live Openly. Here's Why

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 17/10/2015 Dominique Mosbergen

This is the seventh part of a 10-part series on LGBT rights in Southeast Asia, which uncovers the challenges facing the LGBT community in the region and highlights the courageous work of activists there.

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When a group of transgender women was arrested by police officers in the city of Mandalay, Myanmar, in 2013, they were allegedly forced to strip in public, before being taken to a nearby police station where they were “repeatedly punched and kicked.”

“They were then forced to parade naked as if on a catwalk, while being photographed, as well as made to hop like frogs, clean the shoes of the police and answer demeaning questions about their sex lives,” The Telegraph reported .

A police spokesman said at the time that the cops had been performing a “public service” by preventing the group from congregating.

Hla Myat Tun, a human rights activist with the Burmese LGBT group Colors Rainbow, tells The Huffington Post that such “state-sponsored discrimination” is a grave concern for the LGBT community in Myanmar, where homosexuality is criminalized.

Earlier this year, Myint Kyu, a politician in Mandalay, came under fire from human rights groups for “making misinformed, discriminatory, and potentially inflammatory statements about gay and transgender people.” 

During an August parliamentary debate, Kyu, who is the city’s border and security affairs minister was quoted as saying that the government was “constantly taking action to have the gays detained at police stations” before “educating” them.

Like Malaysia, Myanmar -- also a former British colony -- still has Section 377 of the penal code on its books. The law criminalizes “carnal intercourse,” which includes same-sex intercourse. It is punishable by 10 years to life in prison. (Myanmar's famous politician and human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi has called for the repeal of Section 377 in the past.)

Under the rule of an oppressive military junta from 1962 to 2011, Myanmar was long considered to be a “pariah state,” until widespread reforms prompted an increase of political freedom within the country and a partial thawing of relations with the outside world. 

Tun says that although the LGBT community has had “greater visibility” since these reforms were put in place, it still isn't treated with respect.

“[LGBT persons] dare not live openly … in the society,” she says. “They are seen as a group of morally wrong people fighting for sexual freedom.”

LGBT people are often targets for abuse and discrimination in Myanmar. According to Civil Rights Defenders, the legal limitations make it “difficult for LGBT persons to live openly and without fear of persecution.”

Limited public awareness about LGBT issues is another major problem facing the community, Tun says, as is a dearth of activists.

In a 2013 interview with the Myanmar Times, a 28-year-old gay man named Phyo described the invisibility of LGBT people in Burmese culture.

“When I was growing up, we didn’t know about homosexuals,” he said. 

His only exposure to the LGBT community was “when he saw them being treated badly in the community.”

I felt unsafe because of that,” Phyo said. “Sometimes I would cry alone.”

A 2014 Guardian report discussed how hostility against homosexuality was undermining the fight against HIV/AIDS in Myanmar -- which, according to the World Health Organization, has one of Asia's highest HIV prevalence rates.

Stigma is keeping gay men hidden, making them “hard to reach in the most extreme sense,” Eamonn Murphy, a UNAIDS country representative, told the news outlet.

Myanmar's National AIDS Programme said at the time that fewer than 30 percent of the estimated 240,000 gay men in Myanmar had received HIV prevention services. 

Political reforms have been slowing in Myanmar since 2014, according to Human Rights Watch. In some cases, “reversals of basic freedoms and democratic progress” have been observed, the group said this year. 

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