6 Myanmar Frees Political Prisoner 9/08 non-gay background story
Nat Kadaws–Gay Men Married to Spirits
TV Documentary: Unlikely Marriage?
by Jennifer Lee
To Myanmar now, for the first of three special reports from this reclusive country. The official religion in Myanmar is Buddhism, but people there often also worship nats – Guardian spirits of different things such as homes, shops, or rivers to name but a few. To communicate with these ‘Nats’ traditionally you must visit a medium, known as a Nat Kadaw – or wife of a Nat. But as Jennifer Lee discovered, the role of Spirit wife is no longer just being taken up by women.
(Entrance to ancient city of Bagan)
The entrance to Myanmar’s ancient city of Bagan a land of thousand year old temples and shrines many housing relics of Buddhism – the country’s main religion.
(People worshipping at nat shrine at gates to old Bagan)
At the gates of Bagan – more worshippers. But these people aren’t praying to Buddha instead, they’re kneeling before his predecessor a spirit named Ma Myat Hla – protector of Bagan.
(Close-up of Ma Myat Hla and Nga Tin Dee) Long before the people of Myanmar adopted Buddhism, they worshipped guardian spirits or ‘nats,’ as they are called. Nats – such as Ma Myat Hla and her brother Nga Tin Dee – are essentially souls of humans who were much loved or feared and who died violently. Whether to seek favour or avert retribution, the Myanmar people appease them with frequent offerings. The most revered spirits become nats.
Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt, a retired history professor says: ” Nat worship is the secular religion of this country. Buddhism is the spiritual religion. Buddhism looks after your welfare for the life hereafter. Nat worship is the religion, which looks after welfare at present. We have local nats, town nats, and the living quarter nats. We believe there is a guardian nat to look after your house, the gate, everything.” (Row of 37 nats in shrine)
The ubiquitous nats do more than bestow fortune or cause disaster. They can also physically possess humans, forcing them to act rather unscrupulously in public. But those so violated can salvage their dignity – through exorcism…or marriage – that is, marriage to the nat.
(Daw Khin Sint entering nat shrine in her home and then praying)
Daw Khin Sint has been married to a nat for thirty-five years. She is what’s called a ‘nat kadaw’ – literally ‘wife of a nat.’ but Khin Sint didn’t marry out of desperation. She married for status. Being possessed by a nat may be unseemly… but marriage makes it honourable. Nat kadaws have powers to communicate with nats. As such, they are respected.
Daw Khin Sint, a Nat Kadaw says: ”I was born into a family of Nat Kadaws. My mother wanted me to become a Nat Kadaw too. I wanted it also because as a Nat Kadaw, I have mystical powers. I can help people communicate with the nats and I can also tell their fortunes."
(Nats in shrine inside performance hall)
In the beginning, there were only 37 nats, all spirits of high-ranking persons who suffered tragic deaths. Today, the spirit of any human who is widely adored, can become a nat.
Growing in number with the nats are nat kadaws. But women no longer dominate the movement. The majority today are men – gay men seeking an acceptable outlet of _expression.
Soaring from the hinterland of Central Myanmar, Mount Popa – the spiritual home of the nats.
(Reporter climbing stairs to Mount Popa)
The great hill, as it is known, is also a sanctuary for many of the country’s homosexual men.
(Myint Thein Oo making offerings at nat shrine on Mt. Popa)
Myint Thein Oo has been a nat kadaw for 17 years. He makes a living from this tiny shrine on Mount Popa where he helps worshippers make offerings. He says he decided to marry a nat after discovering he might be gay.
U Myint Thein Oo, a gay nat kadaw says: ” I was born a boy. But when I was about six or seven , I started to feel like I wanted to be a girl or a woman. So my parents asked one of the nats to be my guardian. Later, the nat possessed me and I became more and more feminine.”
(Myint Thein Oo putting on make-up)
That feminine side is best seen at nat festivals… musical performances involving elaborate make-up, flamboyant costumes and theatrical dance moves.
(Nat kadaws making offerings and dancing)
These performances, which can take place as often as six times a month, are staged in hopes of luring the nats to earth. Ordinary people can then receive their blessings and gay nat kadaws can indulge their richest fantasies.
Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt says: ”It’s a good excuse for them to cover what they are. They like dancing. They like to behave like women. They like to dance. So the only chance to do is to become like Nat Kadaw. You can dance. There’s a freedom. So for a person who is gay but does not want to admit he is gay, he can just say… He’s a Nat! It possesses him and turn him that way. Yes, that is true.”
(Thein Zaw dancing)
Thein Zaw is also a gay nat kadaw. He says in the last 10 years more men have taken up the profession. Although homosexuality is not forbidden in Myanmar, Thein Zaw says gay men are better tolerated when they are nat kadaws. Marriage to a nat, it seems, can make an honest woman out of a man.
Thein Zaw, a gay nat kadaw says: ” The reason why I chose this profession to feel more freedom as a gay person. As a Nat Gadaw I am not looked down by society nor am I an outcast. I also like dancing and I can earn enough money to support my family.”
Nat worship began as a religion predating even Buddhism. Still widely practiced today, it has also become a calling for Myanmar’s homosexuals. Venerated nats who have long protected the welfare of their worshippers are now protecting too, the dignity of the country’s gays and lesbians.
01 October 2007 – truthout.org
Bloggers Who Risked All to Reveal the Junta’s Brutal Crackdown in Burma
by Kenneth Denby, The Times UK
Young men from Myanmar who helped to inform the rest of the world through their blogs. Internet geeks share a common style, and Ko Latt and his four friends would not be out of place in cyber cafés across the world. They have the skinny arms and the long hair, the dark T-shirts and the jokey nicknames. But few such figures have ever taken the risks that they have in the past few weeks, or achieved so much in a noble and dangerous cause. Since last month Ko Latt, 28, his friends Arca, Eye, Sun and Superman, and scores of others like them have been the third pillar of Burma’s Saffron Revolution. While the veteran democracy activists, and then the Buddhist monks, marched in their tens of thousands against the military regime, it is the country’s amateur bloggers and internet enthusiasts who have brought the images to the outside world. Armed with small digital cameras, they have documented the spectacular growth of the demonstrations from crowds of a few hundred to as many as 100,000. On weblogs they have recorded in words and pictures the regime’s bloody crackdown, in a city where only a handful of foreign journalists work undercover. With downloaded software, they have dodged and weaved around the regime’s increasingly desperate attempts to thwart their work. Now the bloggers, too, have been crushed. Having failed to stop the cyber-dissidents broadcasting to the world, the authorities have simply switched off the internet.
Now Ko Latt and his blogging comrades have abandoned their keyboards and gone underground, sleeping in a different place every night, watching and waiting to see if the democracy movement has been truly crushed or is simply on hold. "When things were hot on the streets, we were not the main worry," Ko Latt says. "But as the situation cools down, they will follow us. They know who we are, they know we are bloggers, and I am afraid."
Who Will Win? Can the World Help?
What can the world do about the situation in Burma? Will it make any difference? Who, if anyone, can really have an influence? Even in normal times it was hard to be a blogger in Burma. With characteristic paranoia, the Government monitored and controlled every aspect of the process, from licensing computers to issuing accounts through government-monitored internet service providers (ISPs). This is what makes political blogging so dangerous here – it is easy for military intelligence to identify a dissident’s name and address through his registered account. Nonetheless, Rangoon and Mandalay, the two biggest cities, have undergone a boom in internet cafés and blogs, although initially they were uncontroversial. "I wanted to say something to other people, about my life and the news, and articles that interest me," says Superman, who has been blogging for a year. "That’s why I like blogging – it’s another life for me on the internet." Then last month came sudden, devastating rises in the price of fuel oil and everyday goods, and the early, relatively small demonstrations that followed soon after. Around this time many of them realised, as Superman says: "Everything is bloggable."
The realities of political oppression made life difficult. A blogger who posted a photograph of a demonstration found herself arrested, questioned and her computer seized. On domestic blogs, they were able to express themselves only indirectly. The blogger nicknamed Sun, for example, posted quotations from a famous Burmese memoir of the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, full of observations about how to live with dignity under a brutal regime. "Everyone knows what it’s really about," a Burmese editor says. "They’re making a comment about what’s happening now, about the cruelty and brutality of our rulers." Even these subtle commentaries attracted great interest. The average number of daily hits went from 100 to more than 1,000 in a few days.
The best material – the digital pictures and videos of marching monks, the charging soldiers and their flailing batons – was sent outside the country.
One exiled blogger in particular – Ko Htike, said to be a student in London – has attracted intense interest and received many photographs and witness accounts that he posts on his site, www.ko-htike.blogspot.com. Pointing cameras at the charging soldiers is a potentially lethal undertaking – last Thursday Kenji Nagai, a Japanese photographer, was shot dead. And then there is the job of sending files down laboriously slow internet connections. Free online software helped – such as SEND6, which compresses huge video and picture files into manageable packets, and Your Freedom, which enables internet users to get around the regime’s blocks and firewalls. The regime responded, first by blocking individual Burmese blogs, then, last Wednesday, by blocking all of them. But the overseas sites were beyond its reach, so on Friday it switched off the internet altogether. Now e-mails can be sent only within Burma; the only pages that web browsers can view are those of the official websites.
The only solution now would be to dial up ISPs overseas but the cost of international calls makes this prohibitive. As Superman puts it: "Now Burma is like the Stone Age." The bloggers held out as long as they could, and if there is ever a monument to the heroes of the Saffron Revolution it should certainly feature a statue of a skinny boy in a T-shirt and thick glasses hunched over a computer and a digital camera.
Link to video and images related to this article: www.ko-htike.blogspot.com
October 6, 2007 – advocate.com
Former Myanmar Political Prisoners Describe Torture, Including Gay Rape
Thet Oo says his military interrogators in Myanmar kicked him in the head until he blacked out, shackled his polio-ridden legs, and then threw him in a tiny, dark cell where he spent much of the next 12 years. ”They treat people like animals,” said the 46-year-old, one of dozens of former political prisoners who have fled across the border to Thailand.He and others recounted this week how they had been imprisoned and tortured by Myanmar’s military regime for their pro-democracy activities.
Oo was a security guard for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi before she was placed under house arrest in 1989. Her party won national elections the next year, but the junta did not recognize the results and began rounding up her supporters. Oo was detained and brought before his interrogators, who reeked of alcohol, and was beaten so badly that he lost most of his hearing. As Myanmar’s security forces cracked down on demonstrators last week, former prisoners said they were sickened by televised images of Buddhist monks and students being chased down, bludgeoned with batons, and loaded onto police trucks. ”I’m so worried for them,” Oo told an Associated Press reporter and television crew traveling through this remote border region in northern Thailand.
Myanmar’s military government has repeatedly denied using torture or abusing its prisoners. A group of political prisoners is collecting evidence, including lists of jailers and torturers, to give to human rights organizations. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, comprised of around 100 former inmates, has already put out one report on torture in Myanmar. It described gay rape, electric shocks to the genitals, partial suffocation by water, burning of flesh with hot wax, and being made to stand for hours in tubs of urine and feces. The government said 10 people were killed and nearly 2,100 arrested in last week’s demonstrations, with 700 later released. Diplomats and dissidents say the death toll is likely much higher and up to 6,000 people were seized, including hundreds of monks who led the protests.
Some were brought to Yangon’s notorious Insein prison. Witnesses said others were held in university buildings and an old horse track for questioning. Those who have been released so far have been too frightened to speak out about their treatment. One man detained for five days, however, said he was not allowed to contact his family, had no bed, and did not get enough to eat. Myanmar’s military seized power in 1962, ending an experiment in democracy and leading the resource-rich nation toward isolation and economic ruin. The current junta has been in power since 1988, when it crushed pro-democracy demonstrations.
Myo Myint, who lost a leg, an arm, and an eye while fighting as a soldier for the Myanmar government, was arrested in 1989 after he quit the army and switched his loyalty to the pro-democracy movement. He says his interrogators stripped him naked and tied him with a leather belt to a seesaw, placing him head down for four hours and pouring water in his face as he fell in and out of consciousness. Another time they put a bag over his head and kicked away his crutch. ”I still have nightmares,” the 45-year-old says. ”I wake up, and my whole body is wet with sweat.”
Oo Tezaniya, a 42-year-old monk who spent eight years and three months in prison for opposing the government, clenched his hands in the folds of his saffron robe as he told how he was seized in the middle of the night in 1988. He was brought to an interrogation center, beaten with guns, and then thrown into a dark cell for a month with two other men and no bathroom. ”There was excrement all over the floor,” he said. Tezaniya’s heart sank this week when he saw pictures of what dissidents said was a monk’s body floating face down in a Yangon river. The junta said in a statement Friday that the body was not of a monk but of a man ”with a piece of saffron robe tied round the neck.”
”I thought the monks might be arrested and defrocked, but not that the troops would open fire,” Tezaniya said sadly. ”I’m surprised, even after all I’ve seen.” (Robin McDowell, AP)
November 14, 2007 – Fridae
Gay in Rangoon
by Dinah Gardner
While the world’s attention has been focused on Burma’s bloody crackdown of human rights protests, judges in Hong Kong were considering whether to award the top prize of a new literary competition to a Burmese gay novel. Dinah Gardner was in Rangoon to bring you this report. Nu Nu Yi’s Smile as they bow narrowly missed winning – last week the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize went to a Chinese book set during the Cultural Revolution – but her novel about a gay transvestite medium is a fascinating insight into Burma’s gay community.
Smile as they bow describes nat-kadaws which literally mean "the spirit’s wives" in Burmese. Nat-kadaws are mediums who allow themselves to be possessed by spirits, called nats, at special festivals. For a price, these men and women dance crazily, act drunk and tell fortunes. One of the nat-kadaws has a female persona, and many gay men assume this role as it legitimises their status as homosexuals inside Burma. “[These men], while not envied, are respected for their roles as shamans and seers,” writes Eli Coleman, Philip Colgan and Louis Gooren in a 1992 paper, “Male cross-gender behaviour in Burma.”
“It’s a melodramatic show,” says “Bowie,” a gay Burmese businessman who operates his own tour guide company in thecountry. ”Some of the gay guys are in their element when they become a nat-kadaw.”
While it’s no Thailand, most observers say Burma has a history of being fairly gay tolerant. Even though the legality of homosexuality appears to be a grey area – the British government and exile groups say gay sex is illegal, although locals say they have never heard of anybody being punished for being gay. “It’s a gay friendly country – gay acts are not targeted,” Bowie says. “But like anything, [the government] can use it against you if they want.”
Gay couples should avoid public displays of affection, he says. “There is no hostility, there is no confrontation, although some people ridicule gays and transsexuals.” But the main pressure for Burma’s gays is from their family. “There is a huge inbuilt respect for parents,” he says, adding that although there is not a major push to get married and have children – as there is in neighbouring China – many gays remain closeted because they do not want to embarrass their parents by being openly gay.
Gay tourists should find the country welcoming, says Gerry of gay-friendly Mandalaytravel.com. While his company doesn’t take clients around gay bars – “we want our guests to visit [Burma] for the culture and the beauty of the countryside and people” – he says the company employs some gay tour guides who are able to talk about gay life in Burma. “I can assure you Myanmar is gay-tolerant,” he adds. [Burma was renamed Myanmar by the military junta in 1989.]
“On the outside the Burmese look very conservative but having been there for many years I can assure you the opposite is true.” There is also a burgeoning gay scene in Rangoon – the former capital. The place to go, says Bowie, is Pioneer, inside the Yuzana Garden Hotel. Pioneer is a scruffy club downtown that plays 90’s techno music. It also caters to Burma’s straight middle class – watch out for businessmen drunk on brandy and young kids on drugs. “You cannot miss the boys snogging on the dance floor on Fridays and Saturdays,” jokes Bowie. “It’s half gay these days.”
Rangoon does not have extensive nightlife choices – the poverty stricken population can barely afford to feed themselves never mind have money left over to party on the weekend. But there is a thin layer of middle class and a small group of mainly hotel bars and clubs offer the best chance outside of Pioneer of meeting other gays. BME, a fairly seedy option in the City Lake View Hotel, around the corner from detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s house on University Avenue – is a popular choice. However, since the protests it has remained closed – the road leading to the hotel is barricaded and guarded by armed troops– the area around Suu Kyi’s house is just too sensitive for public access.
Meanwhile, DJ Bar, is a funkier and more upmarket venue. It also usually has a decent DJ and is popular with the expatriate population. “Any foreign gay men will get a lot of attention in Burma,” laughs Bowie. “They are all looking for someone ‘generous’!” And in a country where the average daily income is less than a US$1, who can blame them?
May 10, 2008 – The New York Times
Myanmar Seizes U.N. Food for Cyclone Victims and Blocks Foreign Experts
by Seth Mydans
Bangkok – The military leaders of Myanmar seized a shipment of United Nations food aid on Friday intended for victims of a devastating cyclone, declaring that they would accept donations of food and medicine but not the foreign aid workers international groups say are in equally short supply there. The ruling junta continued to permit a small number of aid deliveries and promised to allow the first air shipment from the Pentagon on Monday, a significant concession because the United States has been Myanmar’s leading critic, imposing sanctions and lobbying for a United Nations resolution condemning the nation’s generals for human rights violations. But the refusal of the country’s iron-fisted rulers to allow doctors and disaster relief experts to enter in large numbers contributed to the growing concern that starvation and epidemic diseases could end up killing people on the same scale as the winds, waves and flooding that destroyed villages across a wide swath of coastal Myanmar nearly a week ago.
The International Red Cross estimated Friday that the combined efforts of relief agencies and the Myanmar government have distributed aid to only 220,000 of up to 1.9 million people left homeless, injured or subject to disease and hunger after the storm. “There are problems to get the aid inside, and there are problems to get the aid out to the delta area,” the Danish Red Cross director, Anders Ladekarl, told Danish broadcaster DR. “We are simply lacking transportation. There are almost no boats and no helicopters. This is really a nightmare to make this operation run.” As foreign aid groups scurried to deliver relief, the generals who run Myanmar continued to focus on a separate priority: a constitutional referendum scheduled for Saturday. The junta’s plan to go ahead with the vote while restricting aid deliveries drew widespread criticism and concern that soldiers who could be rescuing survivors were likely to be sent to polling places instead.
“It is one of the best examples of the disregard for the people by the military,” said Josef Silverstein an expert on Myanmar at Rutgers University. Fourteen years in the making, the Constitution is formulated to keep power in the hands of military officers, even if they change to civilian clothes. It would guarantee the military 25 percent of the seats in Parliament and control of crucial cabinet posts, along with the right to suspend democratic freedoms at any time. But while the state-run newspaper urged people on Friday to approve the Constitution, little help was reaching them. To date, Myanmar has allowed 11 airborne deliveries of aid, which experts say is a fraction of the relief needed if the scale of the disaster is even close to what the Burmese government has claimed. Much of that has come from the United Nations World Food Program, which said Friday that the aid it had delivered — and intended to distribute to hard-hit regions along the coast — had been seized.
“All the food aid and equipment that we managed to get in has been confiscated,” said Paul Risley, a spokesman for the United Nations World Food Program in Bangkok. After initially saying it would halt deliveries, the agency said later Friday that flights would continue Saturday while the issue is worked out. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the Myanmar authorities to let aid into the country “without hindrance” and said the effect of further delay could be “truly catastrophic.” His spokeswoman, Marie Okabe, said Mr. Ban had been trying for two days without success to get in touch by telephone with Than Shwe, the junta’s senior general. “We have been told that the phone lines are down,” she said.
Myanmar’s military junta said in a statement on Friday that it was willing to receive disaster relief from the outside world but would distribute supplies itself rather than allowing in relief workers. Aid agencies want to coordinate and control their own aid. Already Myanmar has turned away one fully loaded flight because the supplies were accompanied by disaster experts and press. “Myanmar is not in a position to receive rescue and information teams from foreign countries at the moment,” a Foreign Ministry statement said. “But at present Myanmar is giving priority to receiving relief aid and distributing them to the storm-hit regions with its own resources.”
Even so, some agencies and nations were delivering supplies successfully. India sent two ships loaded with relief supplies, and the United Nations Children’s Fund said it was not meeting problems with its deliveries of aid. A spokesman for Unicef, Christopher de Bono, said in an e-mail message that millions of water purification tablets had been delivered Thursday, and that although customs clearance could take two days, “as far as we know there has been no indication of any problems so far.” In a telephone call from Myanmar, an official of the International Red Cross, Michael Annear, said delivery work was proceeding normally in cooperation with other agencies and local businesses.
Doctors Without Borders, which had been running large H.I.V. and malaria programs in Myanmar, has about 80 staff members in the Delta region and is sending more in, said Frank Smithuis, the group’s head of mission. He said the group was distributing food and medicine from the stores it already had in place. In the worst-affected areas, he said, 95 percent of the people had lost their homes and everything they owned, and were in desperate need of food, water and shelter. Dr. Smithuis said his group was dispatching teams of six — a doctor, a nurse, a medical assistant, two water and sanitation workers and a food distributor who would hire local people to help distribute food. The teams are seeing many people injured by the storm who have infected wounds that need to be drained and treated with antibiotics, he said.
“It sounds like we have everything under control, and that’s not true,” Mr. Smithuis said. “The area is wide, and there’s a lot of people. We don’t see other players, we don’t see other help.” Most relief workers on the ground are local people and would be less likely to encounter the suspicion with which authorities view foreigners.
Save the Children reported that its staff members in the Irrawaddy delta region had come across many rotting bodies where the waters had receded. In the Pyinkaya area southwest of there, they said, people were dying of hunger and thirst. Mr. Risley of the World Food Program said he had never seen delays like those being encountered in Myanmar. In Indonesia after the tsunami in 2004, he said, an air bridge of daily flights was established within 48 hours. “The frustration caused by what appears to be a paperwork delay is unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts,” he said. “It’s astonishing.”
He said his agency alone had submitted 10 visa applications for relief workers but that none had been approved before consulates shut down for the weekend. “We strongly urge the government of Myanmar to process these visa applications as quickly as possible, including working over the weekend,” he said.
John Holmes, the United Nations chief aid coordinator, appealed to countries for $187 million in emergency aid on Friday. But Bettina Luescher, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program, turned aside repeated questions about.
September 23, 2008 – The New York Times
Myanmar Frees Political Prisoner
Yangon (Reuters) – Myanmar’s longest-serving political prisoner, journalist Win Tin, was freed on Tuesday after 19 years in jail and immediately vowed to continue his struggle against 46 years of unbroken military rule. "I will keep fighting until the emergence of democracy in this country," he told reporters outside a friend’s house in the former Burma’s main city, Yangon. He was still wearing his light-blue prison clothes. The ailing 79-year old was arrested in July 1989 and sentenced to jail for giving shelter to a girl thought to have received an illegal abortion.
While inside, he received additional punishment for agitating against the military government and distributing propaganda, bringing his total sentence to 20 years. He was released on the same day that 9,002 prisoners were set free, but said he had complained to prison officials about being lumped in as part of a nationwide amnesty for mainly ordinary criminals getting out on good behaviour. In protest, he refused to pick up his personal belongings or change into his civilian clothes.
"I did not accept their terms for the amnesty. I refused to be one of 9,002," he said, adding that no conditions had been attached to his release. Far from it. They should have released me five years ago. They owe me a few years," he said. He also played down worries about his health, cited as another reason for his release. "I am quite OK. I am quite all right," he said.
Many human rights groups had feared his health was in severe decline, and a year ago, Win Tin himself was musing about dying behind bars. "Will death be my release? As long as democracy and human rights are not within reach, I decline my release. I am prepared to stay," he wrote in a short poem handed to visiting United Nations human rights envoy Paulo Sergio Pinheiro. Amnesty International said it was "elated" by news of his release, but that it was important not to forget that more than 2,100 people remain behind bars in Myanmar on account of their political or religious beliefs.
London-based Amnesty researcher Benjamin Zawacki said the generals may have decided to release Win Tin for fear that his death in custody could have stoked unrest only a year after major anti-junta protests led by the revered Buddhist monkhood. "Maybe they thought it was better, on balance, to have Win Tin on the outside in case he passes away rather than have him die on their watch, so to speak," Zawacki said. Win Tin was one of Myanmar’s most high-profile political prisoners after opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been in prison or under house arrest for 13 of the last 19 years, and her deputy Tin Oo.
Suu Kyi managed to wring small concessions out of the junta earlier this month by refusing deliveries of fresh food to the Yangon home where she has been under arrest for five years. The refusal prompted speculation she was on a hunger strike.
October 20th, 2009 – asiapacific.anu.edu.au
Going to Pagan: Gay slang in Burma
by Violet Cho and Dave Gilbert, Guest Contributors
Gay people in Burma are resisting homophobia and marginalisation through the creative use of new communication codes. In doing so, they are making a significant contribution to linguistic diversity in Burma and raising the visibility of their community in important ways. ‘It is important to publicise these codes created by gay people to show that we are creative and have a special ability to make new terms quickly, that are actively used in speech’ said Aung Myo Min, the founder of the Committee for Lesbigay Rights in Burma.
In this article, the term ‘gay’ is used because it is a popular self-identifier in urban, web-accessible areas, as is the term ‘homo’, both loan words from English. The term denotes some men who have sex with men, who can be varying degrees of feminine or masculine. There are two broad categories of communication codes used among gay Burmese people. The first translates as ‘hidden language’, designed to disguise meaning from the straight world. It is only used when gay people talk amongst themselves.
The second category translates as ‘slang’, which is more open and has been adopted by parts of straight Burma, even being used by some celebrities. Gay slang is subverting contemporary Burmese in subtle ways and demonstrates the growing visibility of gay Burmese, despite ongoing homophobia. Examples of vocabulary in this article fall into this category. Burmese gay communication codes are participatory. It involves giving new meaning to old words, and also changing basic words like ‘to eat’ so they are unrecognisable by those outside the community.
The language plays a key role in creating a sense of community amongst gay Burmese men, who are marginalised in Burmese society. The language is therefore important as a way of building a proud and defiant community. The ‘hidden language’ has various practical uses. It allows people to gossip in public without repercussions, which is important for creating a sense of in-group solidarity. It also works as a defence against homophobia, which is common in Burma and comes in the form of physical violence, verbal abuse and other forms of social stigma.
Homosexuality has ambiguous legal status in the country. Under Section 377 of the colonial-era Penal Code of 1882-88, which is part of the inheritance of British colonial rule, ‘carnal intercourse against nature’ is punishable with imprisonment of up to ten years. While this law is not usually enforced, it renders gay men all the more vulnerable to police harassment. Pagan yauk bu la? (Have you been to Pagan?) England la? (England?) In gay slang, geographical terms are also subverted. ‘Having been to Pagan’ means ‘being gay’, deriving from a bridge in Yangon that doubles as a popular gay hang out. ‘Being England’ means ‘going first’ as the receptive partner in gay male sexual intercourse.
The history of gay Burmese slang is uncertain but it is at least as old as when cake was introduced to the country. This is known because ‘cake’, used as an adjective, is the word for large-sized male genitals, introduced into gay slang when cake was a new popular phenomenon in the country. Terminology for gay-identifying men has been a problem in Burmese and remains an ongoing debate. A chauk and gandu, the most common words for gay men in conventional Burmese, are derogatory but are still used by some gay men in remote places. A chauk literally means ‘dry’, but the reason for adopting it is unclear. One common explanation is that it is used to suggest that gay men do not have semen, that it is dry. People use the term as an insult. Aung Myo Min coined the phrase layn thu chit thu, which translates as ‘those who love the same gender’. Others simply use the identifying term mummy.
Demand for new words and terminology adopted reflects the changing culture of the gay community, as well as cultural shifts in Burma generally. One recent introduction to the language is the term cake moe poe thin tan (baking training), which means group sex. As group sex is new to Burmese gay culture, a term for it has only recently been needed. Some words given new meaning derive from moments in popular culture. If someone says they love to read Shwe Thwe Magazine, previously popular amongst children, it means they like teenage boys. If someone says they read Tayza Magazine, previously popular amongst young adults, it means they like men from that older age group. Both of these magazines are beyond their heyday, but their linguistic meaning continues, as these words entered the language when the magazines were at their popular peak and young gay people honour this history.
One practice under contention is that a senior gay person sets the protocol for codes to be used in a conversation. When a younger gay person speaks to an older person, they have to follow the same codes as used by their senior. Introducing new codes in a particular conversation is seen as a sign of disrespect. Seniority comes from age and is enhanced by signs of status, such as wealth, popularity and networks. This practice is now being questioned, largely with the help of online social networking technology. In one popular gay Burmese web forum, there has been lively debate, with users arguing that the language should be democratised so younger men can speak as equals with their seniors.
According to Yuri Geller, the initiator of the social networking site, this debate is important for the community. “People really want to practice this language in a democratic way and there are many people who want to get rid of these hierarchies. I think respecting elders is something that comes from Burmese culture, which is good to maintain, but it doesn’t mean that we need to practice this with our slang”. As Burma’s gay communities continue to grow and better network, gay Burmese cultures and identities will no doubt keep evolving. Hidden language and slang will likely remain a key part of this process.
May 8th, 2010 – New Mandala
Confronting Karen homophobia in Burma
by Violet Cho and Dave Gilbert, Guest Contributors
Prominent gay Karen singer Saw Yuri Galler is publicly challenging Karen Christian leaders over suspected homophobia. Yuri has accused the Yangon-based Karen music group Klo and Kweh, of which he is a member, of banning him from performing at a series of concerts in Thailand as part of their international fundraising tour. Yuri, named after the Israeli spoon-bender, repeatedly contacted Klo and Kweh leaders for answers but got no reply. Close colleagues of the music group then informed him that he was being excluded because of his sexuality.
In response, Yuri appealed for help, starting a thread on the Karen Human Rights Group Facebook page:
“Almost two generations of our people have been denied their basic rights while being brought up in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. Our Karen young people do not get access to higher education and proper social benefits. We fight for it and we have been fighting and we will continue to fight for what our Karen people deserve. And as a Karen gay, I am going to fight for my rights to be protected and respected.”
He received a mixed reaction, with some comments indicative of fundamentalist Christian views on sexuality, such as this from Kathryn Nyo:
We won’t encourage or allow Karen people in homosexuality. All homosexual behaviour is sinful, regardless of the nature of the relationship. Homosexuality is a chosen, unnatural, abnormal, changeable, and perverted lifestyle, which is hated by God (sic).
Accusations of discrimination against Klo and Kweh then reached public prominence through an April 29 article in Irrawaddy Magazine’s Burmese language section. The piece quoted popular Burmese author Nu Nu Ye Inwa, who spoke out in support of Yuri. She told the Irrawaddy that it would be good for homosexuals if society accepts them as women, because they have a feminine heart, think like women, and cannot be changed.
Nu Nu Ye has been connected to gay issues because her 2008 novel Smile as they Bow, shortlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize, dealt with issues of gender and sexuality. The Irrawaddy article also led to a new discussion where arguments for and against homophobic discrimination are being played out.
Yuri, an active Christian, believes he can reconcile his ethnicity, sexuality and religion without contradiction. He blames the homophobia directed against him on particular conservative interpretations of the bible that need to be challenged, and he sees this as part of a broader fight that Karen people need to be confronted with as part of their struggle:
To make Karen understand sexual diversity and to make the community tolerant of different sexualities will take a long time. Conservative Christianity is powerful and entrenched in Karen society, so it will be very hard to change. Now I just want to stand up and start fighting for my rights and the rights of other Karen gays. I know so many Karen gays who are in the closet. This is because people do not trust themselves. If I didn’t believe myself and listen to my heart I would have stayed in the closet.
Yuri also hopes that his outspokenness can help other gay Karen come out. He has already received emails of support from some closeted Karen friends and members of a social networking site. It’s a painful fight though. Yuri’s public challenge to Klo and Kweh has resulted in his mother being expelled from her church in Yangon. She was previously a member of the church committee.
Klo and Kweh is headed by Dr. Yaha Lay Lay La, a Yangon-based pastor and a Professor of Theology at the Karen Baptist Theological Seminary. He received a Doctor of Ministry at the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in the USA. Dr. Yaha Lay Lay La, when contacted for this post, declined to respond to Yuri’s accusation, only saying that “as a spiritual person, I’m not going to comment but I believe that God will reveal the truth.”
Klo and Kweh were founded in 2001 with the aim to maintain, use and promote Karen culture through music. They mix traditional S’gaw Karen music with modern genres and have a strong following in Burma and the diaspora. Yuri has been a member of Klo and Kweh since their establishment. He was previously a performer on the government-run network MRTV-3.
Homophobia has remained publically unchallenged in Burmese Karen society until now. Ethnic identity is part of the Karen struggle for self-determination. However, battles over what it means to be ‘Karen’ has silenced gender and sexual minorities. We hope that Yuri’s challenge can support, in some way, the opening up of Karen identity so it can be a more inclusive term for diverse and multi-layered identities.
June 3, 2010 – IPS News
Homosexuality in Burma – HIV Infection on the Rise Among MSM
by Mon Mon Myat
Rangoon – The only son in his family, Maung Maung Oo was forced to marry when he was 24 years old. By then he had been carrying on a sexual relationship with a man for four years – which he continued even after his marriage. For the next 14 years, Oo led a double life. But in 2005, he finally decided to be true to himself: He left his wife and three children for his male partner. "My wife was so shocked when she learned of my affair with a man," says Oo. "But I can’t change how I feel though I have the body of a man."
Oo, however, is still living a life in the shadows. Although he and his partner are now living together, their relationship remains a secret to most people. "My partner does not want people to know we are living together as a couple," Oo explains. "He wants to pretend that we are brothers." According to Ko Aye, who conducted a pioneering study on men who have sex with men (MSM) in Burma in 2003, stigma remains against people like Oo in this South-east Asian country of 48 million people. Yet while he says there is "not a very serious or strong reaction" against MSM, many MSM themselves apparently think there is a need to keep their "true identity" secret.
This has complicated efforts to limit, if not stop, the spread of HIV among MSM in the country. According to official data, HIV prevalence among MSM in Burma was 29.3 percent as of 2008, or 42 times higher than the national adult prevalence rate. Men who have sex with men include both those who may not identify themselves as homosexual, and those who do and include those in sex work as well. Estimates by the Department of Health and the World Health Organisation put the MSM population in Burma, as of 2007, at 280,000. Aye says that the stigma against MSM in general stems from "religious principle or traditional beliefs." This has led to people like well known make- up artist Soe Soe to believe that having relationships with men could not possibly be called "fortunate."
"We end up in this kind of life because of karma in the past," Soe Soe told IPS. "This is not what we choose to be." It is a viewpoint that persists despite Aye’s observation of an improvement in the public attitude toward MSM. Thanks to the "development of information technology," Aye says, "people usually accept it" nowadays. "For example," he says, "students may know a teacher is gay, but they accept him as a teacher." There are also several prominent members of the entertainment and fashion sectors who are gay, whether they are out in the open or not, but enjoy public acclaim and respect.
Yet, for sure, it has not helped to reassure many that the government continues to portray homosexuality as "evil" or at the very least deserving of public scorn. Just in February, the prominent `Bi-Weekly Eleven Journal‘ ran an article quoting supposed medical experts as saying that homosexuality could lead to mental illness and sexual crimes. Section 377 of the Penal Code also prohibits homosexuality, with penalties ranging from 10 years to life, plus fines. (A travel advisory by the British government says that in June 2007, an "EU national" was sentenced to seven years in prison in Burma for "committing homosexual acts.")
As a result, many MSM would rather keep their sexual preferences – and obviously their sexual lives – tightly under wraps. Chances are, too, they are reticent in seeking treatment even if they suspect that they already have HIV. Soe Soe, for instance, says that he does not even "dare to join an MSM network." In truth, despite the official condemnation of homosexuality, there are dozens of local MSM networks in major cities such as Rangoon and Mandalay, with local community-based organisations providing these with information and counselling services.
One of these networks is called `Golden Queen’, which has as members 45 MSM, including several who are living with HIV. Unlike Soe Soe, Myo Tun, a sex worker who has an entirely male clientele, apparently thought nothing of becoming one of Golden Queen’s members. He says, "Whether society accepts us or not, we have already ended up in this life." "We need to raise awareness among our fellow (MSM) as we are at high risk for HIV infection," he adds. "We often face problems of condom tearing. That could spread HIV easily."
Maung Maung Oo now knows this all too well. Two years ago, he discovered that an illness his partner was suffering from was actually one that comes with having AIDS. Not long after, he found out that he himself had it as well. Unlike many other MSM in Burma, however, Oo and his partner did not hesitate in seeking treatment. They have since been regularly receiving anti- retroviral treatment from an international nongovernment organisation. Every six months, they also have their blood checked to monitor the number of white blood cells that fight infection and that helps indicate the stage of the disease in their system.
Oo says that when he first found out that his lover had HIV, "it was like a flame in my heart." "If he dies," he says, "I think I’d also die soon after from depression." And yet Oo says that he has found his life more meaningful than it was when he was still with his wife and children. "I believe there is real love between us," he says of his relationship with his partner. "Without that, how can we keep this relationship for 23 years?"
21 February 2011 – Mizzima
Burmese, Thai activists March for gay, lesbian rights
by Kyaw Kha
Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – About 500 Burmese and Thai homosexual activists staged a protest against discrimination against gays and lesbians in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Sunday. The demonstration, organised by Thai and Burmese human rights organisations, HIV care organisations and homosexual rights advocacy groups included gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people who demonstrated in the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar area. Homosexual activists have staged protest demonstrations in Chiang Mai since 2007.
Khun Narumon Parawat, the deputy mayor of Chiang Mai, opened the demonstration, and Christian priests and Buddhist monks delivered speeches against discrimination. A Burmese lesbian who participated in the demonstration told Mizzima, ‘We hope people will understand that we are also human beings, and that we have rights too’.
Aung Myo Min, the director of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, said that there was widespread discrimination against homosexuals in Burma, and people there also did not have the right to freedom of expression’. ‘In Burma, five people are not allowed to gather to stage a protest, so the situation in Burma is different. And the junta has an extreme fear of the word “rights”, so they will never allow the public to protest’, he said.
Activists said that the Burmese community has become more understanding of the rights of homosexuals in recent years. In the past, The All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) classified homosexuality as a crime. In 1997, the ABSDF revoked that classification. Similarly, the Burmese Women’s Union now allows all women, including lesbians, to apply for membership. On February 21, 2009, a ‘Redshirt’ rally in Chiang Mai bitterly opposed the homosexual demonstration and threatened demonstrators, saying they lowered the dignity of Chiang Mai. Gay demonstrators had to be protected by Thai authorities. In response to that anti-homosexual protest, Burmese activists cooperated with Thai activists to stage this week’s demonstration.
April 16, 2011 – AFP
Myanmar gays seek Thai-style acceptance
Bby Rob Bryan (AFP) –
Yangon — Tin Soe was just four when he realised he was different to other boys in his neighbourhood, but growing up in conservative and army-ruled Myanmar, he struggled to be accepted as gay by his relatives. "My granddad’s sister said that if I became a monk my sexuality would change. So I was a monk for three months, but my sexuality never changed," the 30-year-old said, asking for his real name to be withheld. A repressive mix of totalitarian politics, religious views and reserved social mores has kept many gay people in the closet in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
Gay men have developed their own language as a "gaylingual" code to both signify and conceal their sexuality, said Tin Soe, who now works on HIV/AIDs prevention in Yangon. "We want to be secret and we don’t want to let other people know what we are saying. We twist the pronunciation." It’s a world away from neighbouring Thailand, where a lively gay and transsexual scene is a largely accepted part of society, which — like Myanmar — is mainly Buddhist.
"More Burmese are travelling to Thailand and see things there," said a 34-year-old working in Myanmar’s tourism industry. "But here gays are still looked down on, in a certain category." Homosexuality is often linked to local religious beliefs about karma in Myanmar, Tin Soe said. Many believe "we’re gay because we did something in a past life, that in a past life I committed adultery or raped a woman. But I don’t believe in that," he explained.
"It’s not like Iran where they are killed, but gays are a strange story in this country." Traditionally, the only area where non-heterosexuality has been openly embraced is the realm of "nat" or spirit worship, a form of animism that is intertwined with Myanmar’s Buddhist beliefs. Flamboyant and effeminate spirit mediums take centre stage at popular "nat" festivals throughout the year, but their acceptance here has also served to reinforce certain stereotypes of gay people in Myanmar.
Same-sex relations are technically criminalised by a colonial penal code, and while this is no longer strictly enforced, activists say it is still used by authorities to discriminate and extort. "They use it as an excuse to make money and harass people but they don’t bring the cases to court," said Aung Myo Min, an openly gay Myanmar exile and director of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, based in Thailand. He said there were numerous instances of sexual violence and humiliation of gay people in public. "Many cases are not reported because the victims keep silent out of shame and fear of repercussions."
In a country under army control for nearly five decades, broaching any kind of anti-discrimination or human rights issue is hugely sensitive. "The man who starts to ask for rights in the gay community will be sent to prison," said another Yangon-based HIV/AIDS activist in his fifties. The Internet offers a forum for gay men to meet, deemed safer than public cruising: Tin Soe met his boyfriend on Facebook, for example, but he said many were afraid to put their photos on gay websites. In light of such discretion, raising public health awareness isn’t easy.
In some areas, such as the big cities of Yangon and Mandalay, as many as 29 percent of men having sex with men are HIV positive, according to a 2010 report by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. "We have a lot of activists in this country but we can’t campaign very openly. We will have a workshop in a hotel but without big posters and loudspeakers. We do it low profile," said Tin Soe. While lesbianism is also largely hidden in Myanmar, Aung Myo Min said it was more acceptable to the militarised and macho culture, in which many fail to differentiate between homosexual and transgender people. "The woman who wants to be a man is excusable," he said.
A 52-year-old in Yangon said things had improved since his teenage years, when "people would use sling shots against us," but he warned there was still a long road ahead to a truly tolerant Myanmar. "We want to be like Thailand, where gay people have equal chances," he said.