LGBT rights: ‘A struggle within the struggle’

Aung Myo Min is a human rights activist and former Aall Burma Students’ Democratic Front member, which he left because the student army couldn’t accept his homosexuality. Today he fights for the recognition of LGBT people rights and is also the founder of Equality Myanmar. He was at the the &PROUD Film Festival last week, during which the short documentary “This Kind of Love”, about his life, was screened.

Did you leave ABSDF because of the pressure put on gay people?
I was not comfortable working in that kind of environment. I didn’t feel I could work there anymore, because of what happened to my partner, who received lots of pressure from the military leaders. I don’t hate them, I understand their cause and struggle. I am part of the same history.

Is homophobia a global issue, even among activists?
Yes, because it is deeply rooted in our culture, interpretation of religion and social norms. Homosexuality is seen as a kind of sin, as if we did something wrong in a previous life and that’s why we suffer now. This kind of religious teachings make the people misunderstand the life and identity of LGBT people. LGBT people always have to struggle within the struggle. We advocate for human rights but at the same time we have to highlight the cause of specific groups like LGBT.

For the sake of LGBT rights, are you worried by the rise of nationalist Buddhist movement such as Ma Ba Tha?
I was one of the leading members against this. I showed my support to the women’s groups attacked by Ma Ba Tha. My name was everywhere and they said I was an enemy of the religion. I got so many threats on social medias. That’s the kind of repercussion you get when you stand for equality of human rights. I was worried they would target LGBT people if they thought they could control the mindset of the people, if they were successful using religion as a strategy for power. But we saw in the elections that the people in Burma don’t want any more military and they are not stupid. They don’t listen to the misinformation of these extremists. The situation is not as bad as I had expected before.

Since 2011, did you see progress for LGBT rights in Myanmar?
Of course, if you compare to 1988, when I left, there was no network, no way to talk about it. Many people would stay in the closet. Now the young people dare enough to show themselves. They can discuss it, through social medias. It’s easier in urban areas, but in remote areas, particularly ethnic areas, many LGBT people don’t reveal their homosexuality and they get traumatised, living in a body they don’t like. Hiding yourself every single minute of your day.; it’s a massive waste of human resources. People unable to express their sexual orientation, repressed from inside, cannot give their full potential to contribute to society, to their family, to the whole nation.

Gay men and transgender seem more visible than lesbians. What is the perception of the public of lesbians in Myanmar?
The acceptance between lesbians and gay men is quite different. Gay men and transgender have more in the spotlight. It is partly because the HIV epidemic drew attention to them. Sadly the lesbians are neglected. In general, gay men, even though they are transgender and want to become a woman, they have a man’s behaviour. So they are more outspoken, more active. Because of the deep gender roles in our culture, women are never outspoken. One of my objectives is capacity building for the lesbians’ organisations.

How did your experience in ABSDF influence you?
I was never a guerrilla fighter. Because I know myself, I’m not good at killing. My mind never fitted in the fighting environment. I read a lot in the jungle and I found out about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for the first time in my life at 22, at the library in the middle of the jungle. I said okay, that’s exactly what I want for myself and for my country. And there are many ways to protect and promote these ideas. Including empowering the people, in peaceful ways. I choose this as my own weapon to fight the injustice of the military dictatorship.

Is there any progress in your attempt to advocate for the amendment of section 377 of the penal code [criminalising homosexuality]?
In the previous government, we had some sympathetic people. But they didn’t want to take a leading role to repel the law. They are afraid to lose popularity. So we said let’s put this article 377 into the repressive laws package. These laws will be easier to destroy together rather than one by one. We will have to keep pushing for that. Even among the politicians and decision makers, homosexuality is still seen as a kind of alien issue, imported from Western countries. And 377 is not even our own law – it was brought by the British.

Do you think the National League for Democracy and the change of government can help with this?
I don’t know, I haven’t talked to them. But we have to talk.

Will the NLD be able to change the constitution and really make a difference?
I have no doubt the NLD wants to change the constitution. But they are not in the executive sector yet. Many people in the government staff belong to the previous government; they are old and out of date. They don’t want the change, because they see it as a kind of threat for their lives. The NLD will have to face many challenges. They will have to negotiate, for the proper process of transfer of power. I hope they will do the best for the sake of the people, the future of the country, and not for them and only the party.

by Carole Oudot and Matthieu Baudey
Source – Myanmar Times