Being LGBTI* in Myanmar’s Transition to Democracy

Myanmar is headed for its second general election on November 8 since its transition from military regime. The country has been struggling for democracy for 32 years, however the country is still facing many challenges such as broken economy, civil war, slow development of human rights protection and so forth.

LGBTI* advocacy trip to NPT
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LGBTI* activists went to Nay Pyi Taw to introduce SOGIESC towards relevant stakeholders at Pyithu Hluttaw for drafting anti-discrimination law

For LGBTI* community, this coming 2020 election will be something special of their lives as a few parties have started mentioning to tackle LGBTI* issues. Specifically four parties – such as National League for Democracy (NLD), Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), People Pioneer Party (PPP) and Myanmar National Congress Party [abbreviation?]– out of over 90 parties in Myanmar promised rights and protection for the gender minorities. In NLD’s election manifesto, the elimination of discrimination against LGBT people is included under the section for youth. The SNLD, the largest ethnic party, also committed to restrain the discrimination against people with different gender and sexual orientations under the topic of Fundamental Rights & Ethnic Minority Rights in its policy. Myanmar’s first openly gay MP candidate from PPP declared that he would fight against police abuse of LGBT people if he wins a seat in the election. Besides, Myanmar National Congress Party vowed to strive to enact laws that recognize same-sex marriages in the parliament if the party wins the election.  So, these are good signs on welcoming for the LGBTI* community, and it’s undeniable that the LGBTI* community have more chance to amplify the voices under civilian government.

Despite these positive signals, there are still many challenges faced by LGBTI* people. Entrenched homophobic social attitudes, human rights abuses and discrimination of the LGBTI* community are still widespread in the country. Through elections, the citizens including LGBTI* people can hope for freedom, justice and dignity. According to his 2015 election experience, Saw Zin Maung Soe, from C.A.N. Myanmar, a LGBTI* advocacy group, mentioned that since people are not much familiar with democratic culture and LGBTI*. Even the electoral management body didn’t know how to treat LGBTI* people, and many LGBTI* people themselves also do not know how to participate in electoral process actively like other citizens. Since LGBTI* are also citizen, they face the same challenge as others Trans people face more challenges than Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual group. Paing Soe San, a transman LGBTI* activist recalled his voting experience during the last election: At the polling station, he heard intentional whispering that “what those faggots were doing there and voting for”. Sue Sha Shinn Thant, a long-term election observer and transwoman said, “Last time, people looked at me as an alien when I went to give pre-vote at township administrative office. During the Election Day, I was strictly checked by security; frankly saying, they even patted me down and unnecessarily touched my body parts while entering some polling station, and I was not even allowed to enter in some polling station because my appearance is different on the ID card.” Many transgender are facing issues with their ID cards, as some of them had earlier run away from home and did not have the chance to apply for the National Registration Certificate (NRC) card. Also, some of them are facing issues with their physical appearance, which can also become a problem when they vote.

pink pinky
Pink pinky campaign denotes legal protection and decriminalization on same-sex relation

When it comes to politics, LGBTI* issue is not much considered to include in political topics. Besides, LGBTI* rights are not taken into consideration by the politicians as an issue to tackle. This also leads to underrepresentation in political participation. “There can be two main reasons why the politicians reluctant to tackle LGBTI* issues. The first one is because of the entrenched homophobic attitude, and the second reason is that they knows about the right of LGBTI* and they know they must do something for this, but they don’t how to start”, said Su Sha Shin Thant. She also went on to say, “There is another interest group which knows about LGBTI* issue and they don’t support for legal reform for us because of their interest: may be money or position. These people are from three pillars: Legislature, Executive, Judiciary, and they know that legislation is changing in many part of world , but they just don’t want to do it.” Police officers  use the Police Act against trans-women to prop up their case numbers, in order increase figures of the crime cases they must have addressed every month.  Paing Soe San said, “Maybe they are not familiar with LGBTI* rights or they would like to listen more to majorities in their constituency.” Saw Zin Maung Soe said, “Country’s politics favors a winner-take-all system, and politicians struggle to get the votes from majorities, so the issues of minority groups are left out to handle. That’s how some of the MPs explained to us when we met with them. I think for the groups with political interests, we also need to show that if they don’t want to do stand for us, and we are not going to give the vote them. One other thing we need to consider is that this competition is not within 100%, it’s within 75%, and LGBTI* are considered as from 75% group. Since we believe in this democratic transition, we suppressed our feeling on demanding our basic rights, but we don’t feel that’s nice without saying a single word for us in 5 years period of time.” Therefore, the message he tried to give is that LGBT are also involved in making decision to fill the seats of 75%.  According to Myanmar constitution, 25% of parliamentary seats are allotted for representatives from military holding veto power over any proposal, and the rest 75% of MPs are directly elected by voters.

Along with the election campaigns, there are questions on whether the political parties will do as they say after they get their seats. Sue Sha Shinn Thant mentioned, “We have been advocating on human rights and laws of restrictions like section 377 affecting on LGBTI* community to government officials since 2012, for eight years since quasi-civilian government. We also went to meet with relevant candidates and relevant stakeholders for advocacy in 2015. Frankly saying, the advocacy was not successful, and we don’t feel satisfied for this advocacy process because sometime we even got rejected and we were told not to touch the things in penal code yet. Why? Myanmar could fight for independence from British colony, but the outdated colonial laws could still exist.” Saw Zin Maung Soe said, “All the issues are important in the same way, they cannot say which one has more priority. When one is being prioritized, there could be certain impacts on another community, and candidates are responsible for it. So, no one should be left behind, which is also in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Also, there should be an opportunity for LGBTI* people to participate in politics like laying down policies in the parties for the inclusion of minority groups”. In Myanmar, women participation in parliamentary seats is still underrepresented with 13 percent, so for LGBTI* to get a quota in political sector is still a long way to go.

According to 2015 NLD election statement, some reforms on the laws and policy, for example: (PoVAW) Prevention and Protection of Violence Against Women Bill, and recognizing the term LGBT in youth policy and Child right Child law, etc., were seen as positive initiatives and steps in the right direction. Therefore, after the 2020 elections, as citizens, we must observe whether new MPs and new government keep their promise, at the same time pushing them to take actions. As a country with democratic system, the citizens are the ones who have the rights to demand for the accountability of the government’s commitments.