Burma’s Abused, Intimidated LGBT People Long for Acceptance in New Era

By Reuters 16 November 2016

RANGOON — When police in Burma’s biggest city Rangoon arrested Chew Su Khin, a young transgender woman, for the third time in a year, they removed her hair extensions and set them on fire, stripped her naked and took pictures for their amusement.

“They made me remove all my clothes and perform sexual acts with other prisoners while they filmed it on their phones with the threat of more violence,” the slight 20-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Rangoon’s Bahan Township.

She had to pay a fine of 35,000 kyat (US$27) to be released the next day.

Before that, Chew Su Khin was detained under the so-called “shadow law,” which allows police to arrest after sunset anyone they believe is acting suspiciously.

She was kept in a male jail cell where she was raped by fellow prisoners as guards looked on.

Campaigners say lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people routinely face abuse, violence, intimidation and harassment from police officers who extort money and sexual favors from them in a country where homosexuality is banned.

The police deny harassing LGBT people. But activists say police officers use Article 377 of the Penal Code, a relic of British colonial law, which forbids “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” to persecute LGBT people.

The law, which carries a 10-year prison sentence for convicted offenders, is however rarely enforced.

When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), swept to power after a landslide election win last November, pledging to fight for human rights and democratic change, many activists hoped the victory would enable LGBT people to come out of the shadows.

But a year on, many have been disappointed by a lack of progress in the socially conservative Southeast Asian country.


U Win Htein, an ally of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, said earlier this year he was “not interested” in tackling LGBT rights abuses, and that gender issues imported from the West were not important in Burma.

Before the historic 2015 election, Myint Kyu, the border and security affairs minister in Mandalay’s regional government, said homosexuality was “unacceptable” and threatened to detain and “educate” gay men.

Leading local LGBT rights group, Colours Rainbow, estimates that police intimidation led to 65 cases of wrongful arrests of LGBT people in three of Burma’s 325 townships last year.

But the real figure is likely to be much higher because many victims do not report police mistreatment, fearing further arrests, the group’s program coordinator, Hla Myat Tun, said.

In many cases, LGBT people are sexually assaulted, or beaten up by a group of police, he said.

“Some of them were even raped by police officers in the police compound, at the back of the police station building under the banana trees,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Rangoon police refuted allegations of abuse against them.

“Whether you are male, female, homosexual or transgender, we act according to the law,” a spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Despite the scale of abuse, justice is seldom pursued, campaigners say.

A report this year by Colours Rainbow, Equality Myanmar—one of the first organizations to provide legal assistance to the LGBT community—and USAID found that “all too often, reporting a case of abuse ends up worsening the suffering of a victim.”