The brutal reality transgender women face under Myanmar’s ‘darkness law’

Editors’ Note: This story describes situations that could be upsetting for some readers.

Yangon, Myanmar — A transgender sex worker in Myanmar’s main city of Yangon was waiting for customers on a dark street one night last year when two police officers approached her and demanded she have sex with them for free.

When she refused and tried to run away the officers chased her down and cuffed her hands behind her back. Then, accompanied by a plainclothes colleague, they led her behind a parked truck and forced her to kneel on the concrete as all three men orally raped her.

Just a few weeks earlier she had been serving a month in prison after her arrest under a colonial-era statute known as the “darkness law,” which gives police sweeping powers to arrest anyone they deem to be acting suspiciously.

The law, a section of the Police Act enacted under British rule, carries a maximum sentence of three months and has been used across the country in recent years as part of a crackdown on the country’s LGBT community.

Myanmar’s transition from a military dictatorship to a quasi democracy has emboldened LGBT people to begin openly calling for equality. But as the trans community has become more visible, police have been targeting them with the kind of violence and persecution associated with the dark days of junta rule.

“Since the reform process started there has been a lot more pressure on us,” said another transgender sex worker. She is even harassed by police during the day.

“Yesterday I was waiting at a bus stop when a policeman came up to me and pushed me and told me to go home.”

“I refused but he kept hassling me so I had to go to a teashop to wait for my husband,” she said, using a term favored by some trans women for their male partners; they cannot legally marry in Myanmar.

While many sex workers remain vulnerable to exploitation in Myanmar, trans sex workers and their supporters say widespread hatred towards their community makes them easy targets.

“You’re male, why do you do this job?” one officer shouted at a trans sex worker as he interrogated her at a Yangon police station.

Stories of sexual violence by police seem alarmingly common. An 18-year-old trans woman, told Mashable that she was orally raped after being detained and handcuffed on the street last year.

“Just come with us,” one of the officers had said to her before the assault. When she asked why, she said his plainclothes accomplice punched her in the head.

In some areas of Yangon, arbitrary arrests, beatings, extortion and sex attacks happen on an almost daily basis, according to U Thaw, a volunteer paralegal who represents trans people working in the city’s crime-ridden industrial outskirts.

“At least every few days someone gets arrested and beaten,” he said.

U Thaw works with Colors Rainbow, a rights group that monitors cases of wrongful arrest and abuse against LGBT people. Last year, the group recorded 65 cases of discriminatory arrests under the darkness law in just three of Myanmar’s 325 administrative townships.

Hla Myat Tun, programs manager at Colors Rainbow, said the group also recorded 63 cases of discrimination by police and local authorities. But he suspects this grassroots effort to collect data only covers just a small fraction of the true number of cases around the country.

“We’ve been arresting more sex workers,” said Chit Ko Ko, a Yangon police captain. But he vehemently denied the allegations of abuse made by activists, legal aides and sex workers.

“These are huge lies … we are good public servants,” he said.

The captain’s claim contrasts sharply with the experience of trans sex worker Than Yaw Zin, who says she was slapped and verbally abused by police during her arrest. She spent two weeks awaiting trial at Yangon’s Insein prison late last year before her darkness law case was dropped.

When she arrived at the prison she was given a choice between staying in the “male” part of the prison, or in the “gay” ward, which houses about 50 prisoners from the LGBT community. She chose the latter, and was marched there past jeering prison guards. “Do you want to fuck us?” one of them shouted.

Homophobia and transphobia permeate the political elites, too. Last year the minister for security in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, described the existence of “gay men who assume they are women” as “unacceptable.” In 2013, police in Mandalay arrested, beat and humiliated a group of gay men and transgender women.

The climate of hatred and ignorance has pushed Than Yaw Zin into hiding her identity. “We only wear men’s clothes in public,” she said as she sat with her friend in the yard behind a beauty salon owned by U Thaw.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is set to take power in April after winning November’s historic general election by a landslide. However, change for trans women under the NLD is far from certain, given the party’s reticence on LGBT issues to date.

The party says freeing political prisoners will be one of its first priorities. But none of the LGBT people arrested on the basis of their gender expression or sexuality has yet to be counted among the country’s prisoners of conscience, meaning they risk being left behind.

And even if the NLD commits to preventing arbitrary arrests, the police force will remain under the control of a Home Affairs minister, which is selected by the military, not the elected government.

Activists say one of the first steps towards ending abuses is to repeal another colonial-era law, section 377, which bans “unnatural sexual acts.” The section is rarely used to charge anyone, but Colors Rainbow and others say its mere existence endangers LGBT people.

“Section 377 makes it difficult, if not impossible, for victims of police abuse to seek justice or accountability without putting themselves at risk of additional victimization,” said Laura Haigh, an Amnesty International researcher who covers Myanmar.

The people in U Thaw’s salon, which serves as a meeting point for his transgender friends and clients, expressed cautious optimism about the NLD.

“I think something will change,” said one of U Thaw’s clients. “Suu is friends with Obama. The law allows gays and transgender people in America doesn’t it?”

by Joshua Carroll
Source – Mashable