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Education for equality in Burma

Gay Star News interviews Aung Myo Min who is helping to build the LGBT rights movement in Burma
Aung Myo Min, founder and executive director of Human Rights Education Institute Burma

Aung Myo Min, founder and executive director of Human Rights Education Institute Burma, believes the first steps towards equality are educating minority groups about human rights. It is a belief that has proved successful for building the nascent LGBT rights movement in Burma.

Gay Star News interview Aung Myo Min about the political situation now and how the Burmese LGBT rights movement is developing.

Last year you held the first public events for LGBT rights in Burma for IDAHO (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia) on 17 May. Did you do any more events after that?

We did a Transgender Day of Remembrance in Burma in six cities at the simultaneously. We plan to have another one this year, and another IDAHO in May in more cities than last time.

Are transgender people as visible in Burma as they are in Thailand?

Last year was my first visit back to Burma after 24 years. What I noticed is that more LGBT are open and more visible on the streets. There's a little bit more acceptance than before.

When I was there 24 years ago transgender women were street performers. Now they've moved from the streets to the stage. And you see transgender women walk openly on the streets without any care.

But our research about Section 377 [the law that criminalizes gay sex] and related violence against LGBT people shows that there's still discrimination and violence - from the state and in domestic sphere from families and friends. The authorities use Section 377 to harass and blackmail gay men on the street.

What's the political situation like in Burma now?

The situation is changing. We can feel the wind of change but we cannot see it yet.

I would say there are things happening - like the establishment of a national human rights commission, but it has no independence and no clear mandate to protect the rights of the people. They just receive complaints from the people, but action rarely comes.

There's a new law that says we have freedom of the media and assembly, according to the constitution, but every new law is still subject to old laws. For example we have an Emergency Act that says anyone can be arrested at any time. So there's a big gap between the new laws and old laws.

The Freedom of Assembly law has passed. So everyone can take action if they want to practice their freedom of expression. But they need to get permission from the police to assemble, otherwise they are not allowed and can get arrested. So some people got arrested.

For LGBT people Section 377 still exists so we can not form NGOs or civil society groups.

How does that affect LGBT activism in Burma?

Actually the current NGO registration law has a lot of restrictions. You must get permission from township level to ministry level. And everyone in the organization must be free from politics. And with Section 377 still enforced, how could LGBT people say I want to form an activist group?

But bravely enough, after we had a two-day workshop to discuss our research, we formed an LGBT rights working group. So we have different strategies about how we can work within the law and advocate for different groups. We can see that LGBT activism in Burma is growing.

One lesbian group called Linlet, meaning light, has been set-up. In order to show they are good citizens they have set up a medical consultancy to provide eye care to poor people.

Some parents of gay people have set up a PFLAG [Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays] Burma in Mandalay. They got the idea from Vietnam when then went to attend the ASEAN LGBT caucus in Cambodia. It's small but it's very encouraging.

What have you got planned for 2013?

This year we will strengthen our rainbow power in Burma. We host ASEAN in 2014 and as is customary we will have forums along side and we want to have a lot of focus on LGBT rights, like they did in Cambodia last year.

IDAHO will be the big event for this year. We are targeting some different places. And we will have an LGBT conference next December. And we are going to continue with our research.

What were your key findings from your research the impact of Section 377 on LGBT people in Burma?

First Section 377 makes LGBT more vulnerable to harassment from law enforcement authorities. The law itself is not enforced, but LGBT are harassed by police referencing this law, and other laws.

For example the Prostitution Act. If a transgender woman is caught on the street with other women who are suspected as being sex workers, she is charged for prostitution. And we have a funny law that says anyone caught after darkness can be arrested. And this law is often used to target gay men who are at cruising areas.

LGBT are blackmailed so if they give the police money they are let off, if they don't then they are detained and are subjected to sexual humiliation and violence.

We have a case and at a temple festival a group of LGBT people were arrested and charged with Section 377. It didn't make it to the court but police made them get naked in public and forced them to dance to a funny song. So this is the type of humiliation that people are subjected to beyond the law. Police use extraordinary punishment beyond the mandate of the law.

LGBT people in Burma look like they are always happy, but actually they have trauma, psychological trauma from being harassed by the police and in their communities.

Are you still making your Rainbow TV show broadcast on the web about LGBT issues?

That's still happening. And we got a lot of appreciation from the audience. We realized that internet speeds are so slow in Burma so we've made CDs that include all the programs that people can watch anytime and that they can copy and share around. 

The last TV show was about the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

And you run training for activists too?

Yes, every year Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (in Burma we call it Equality Myanmar for political reasons) run 24 training sessions.

We target LGBT as one of the sectors. Every year we have two training programs for LGBT activists in Rangoon, 20 people each time. And from the training people become activists.

Now we are able to broaden the training so it is not just LGBT people learning about LGBT rights. This year we will bring together different minorities - women, religion, sexual orientation - so they can learn about protecting each others' rights. So we can join together to fight for equality.

I don't think the LGBT issue should be separated. It should be integrated with the rest of human rights struggles. We need to empower all minorities. 

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