A new report from ICJ (international Commission of Jurists), an advocacy group looking for equal justice to all, asks Myanmar to change its laws penalizing homosexuality. Such a move would also be greatly beneficial to the country’s image bu showing that the country is embracing diversity as much as neighbouring Thailand where LGBTQ travellers are coming en mass, attracted by the image of tolerance of the Kingdom.
Myanmar’s criminal laws are outdated and fail to respect and protect human rights, especially the rights of LGBTQ people and rights enshrined in binding international human rights treaties. This is the key finding of the new report ‘In the Shadows: Systemic Injustice Based on Sexual Orientation and Identity/Expression in Myanmar’.
The Denmark-Myanmar Programme on Rule of Law and Human Rights, implemented by the ICJ in partnership with Danish Institute for Human Rights commissioned the report, which was also endorsed by three leading local LGBTQ and human rights organizations and one network : LGBT Rights Network, Colors Rainbow, Kings N Queens, and Equality Myanmar.
The report highlights emblematic cases and recurring human rights violations against LGBTQ people in Myanmar. Research for the report included interviews with 70 respondents from across several states to ascertain their experiences and impressions of the criminal justice system. All testimonies are anonymous and all identities are pseudonyms.
The report highlights the outdated laws that continue to affect the lives of LGBTQ people, including Section 377 of the Penal Code which criminalizes consensual same-sex conduct. Even though not commonly enforced, the fact that this law remains in place since the colonial era legitimizes prejudice, discrimination and extortion against LGBTQ people. India’s Supreme Court decided only last year that criminalization of consensual same-sex relationships under Section 377 is a violation of the Indian Constitution and is in breach of India’s obligation under international law. That is the reason why Myanmar should follow this trend and repeal Section 377 as soon as possible.
Other criminal provisions that play a large part in justifying abuse against LGBTQ people are the “Shadow Laws” or “Darkness Laws” – the colloquial name of colonial era legislation that can restrict citizens’ ability to be in public after dark without an accepted justification. These provisions – from which the report’s title is drawn – are primary examples of criminal laws that are misused against LGBTQ people and result in ongoing stigmatization, human rights violations and overall injustice. Research from the report documents how these criminal laws have been used to enter LGBTQ people’s homes, accuse them of ‘committing unnatural sex’, take them into police custody, and to subject them to abuse.
The report further details the discriminatory attitudes of law enforcement officers, which contribute to LGBTQ people being targeted and subjected to unjust and unfair treatment within the criminal justice system. The mistreatment takes many forms, from arbitrary accusations and ensuing detentions, physical, sexual and verbal assaults, and coerced concealment of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Given the biased, discriminatory and at times violent behavior towards them, LGBTQ people have come to mistrust law enforcement agencies and avoid the justice system wherever possible.
‘In the Shadows’ identifies the problematic attitudes of certain key players in Myanmar’s criminal justice system with respect to Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity/Expression issues. Core concerns include the discriminatory treatment and the barriers to justice LGBTQ people face, from their role in public life, or as a detainee, witness or suspect in court.
The report concludes with a set of recommendations that seek to make existing law and policy more protective of LGBTQ peoples’ rights. This includes the repeal of Section 377 of the Penal Code, at least insofar as it criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct, the reform of the ‘Shadow Laws’, and cessation of all discriminatory arrests and detentions.
Human rights and LGBTQ rights activist and contributor to the report, U Aung Myo Min, sums up the importance of ‘In the Shadows’: “The stories in this report highlight the suffering, intimidation, and threats faced by LGBTIQ in Myanmar today. These injustices must be stopped, and we all have a moral imperative to be part of the solution.”
The idea of stopping discrimination of LGBTQ communities could also bring benefits to the country’s image, especially among foreign travellers. In neighbouring Thailand, a rather open and tolerant behaviour towards homosexuality is reflected into Bangkok vibrant art, culture and nightlife scene where a large number of players belong to the LGBTQ community. A lot of travellers are coming to Bangkok due to that open attitude towards sexual minorities.
The same positive image happens now in Taiwan -Taipei Pride is becoming a top event there, attracting people from all across Asia- but also -in some ways-in Cambodia.
Yangon is organising its own Pride linked as well to &PROUD festival which is the official LGBTQ event. &PROUD organises every month art+culture events for LGBTQs in Myanmar, including &PROUD Film Festival, &PROUD Photo, workshops, as well as parties.
In 2018, the pride festival was hosted for the first time in a public park and attracted thousands of people. Could Yangon become in the future one of the most vibrant cities of Southeast Asia thanks to sexual tolerance?