A softly spoken TV presenter with a mop of honey-colored hair welcomes the audience, before reading a news story about a transgender day of remembrance in front of a crude brightly colored background. Don’t let the low-budget appearance belie the significance of this broadcast. The show is a monthly program, broadcast on the internet since November last year, about LGBT rights in Burma, a country where any kind of political self-expression was brutally repressed until very recently.
The TV show, Colors Rainbow TV, is broadcast from Thailand, but the group behind the show are planning celebrations for International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) on May 17 in Rangoon and seven other cities in Burma, something that would have been unimaginable just a couple of years ago.
Since the leader of the pro-democratic National League for Democracy (NLD) Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010, Burma has seen shoots of hope after years of strict political repression. President Thein Sein has legalized public protest, has relaxed (but not totally liberated) state restrictions on the press and released hundreds of political prisoners.
Colors Rainbow was started by Knoo Know Lahkang, a human rights trainer. He left Burma in 2002 and since then has worked for the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, which runs human rights training in Thailand for Burmese people. They're training covers women’s rights, child’s rights and LGBT rights. ‘For ordinary people life in Burma is very hard,’ says Lahkang in an interview with Gay Star News. ‘So for LGBT people it’s even more hard.’
Burma still upholds the colonial section 377 law that India abolished in 2009, but is still held in Malaysia and Singapore. The law criminalises ‘unnatural’ sex and is used to criminalise homosexuality. Another law, 3D, that Lahkang describes as a ‘very crazy law’, means that you can get arrested for acting suspiciously, meaning you can be arrested for anything.
‘Many transgender people have been arrested with that law, says Lahkang. ‘Just two months ago, a group of transgenders were enjoying a traditional festival in Rangoon when they got arrested and were put in [notorious] Insein Prison for two months. They just got out and they’re really angry and mad at the police because they didn’t do anything wrong.’
Lahkang says that since the ‘Burmese spring’ more gay men have come out. ‘It [gay men] is more visible in public,’ he says. ‘But harassment and arrests by the police are still on-going.’
There’s always been a visible transgender community in Burma. ‘But similar to the rest of Asia, there’s a lot of stigma,’ says Lahkang. ‘When you come out to your family they often kick you out, so there are many transgender people living on the streets and working as very cheap sex workers.’
What about life for lesbians in Burma? ‘Compared with the gay and the transgender groups lesbians are still very quiet,’ says Lahkang. ‘There’s a lot of international NGOs that work for the transgender community and in HIV/AIDS prevention, but there aren’t any for lesbians.’
Lahkang says that in Burmese culture lesbians can receive more respect than gay men. ‘There is the concept in Burmese community that men are more valuable than women so when a woman acts like a tomboy, the Burmese community sees that as good,’ he says. ‘But when a man acts like a woman, people think that’s really bad.’
Although there is this perception, Lahkang says he hears in his human rights training sessions about ‘a lot of problems’ faced by lesbian women in Burma. ‘There’s a lot of misinformation about lesbian sex between two women,’ he says, and that ‘corrective rape’ does exist in Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman who has campaigned for democracy in Burma for over 20 years, despite being under house arrest for 15 years, is standing in a by-election this April. Has she said anything to suggest she will protect LGBT rights if she get into power?
‘So far her party, the LND hasn’t spoken about the LGBT issue,‘ says Lahkang. ‘But they have been talking a lot about human rights and how they won’t accept any discrimination to any group, so that sounds like a good sign for us.
‘We are planning to cooperate with the other democratic political groups for the rights of LGBT people in Burma. I hope they will warmly accept us.’
Lahkang is full of plans for the nascent LGBT rights movement in Burma.
‘We have plans to lobby parliament and for a community campaign at the grassroots level with LGBT people,’ he says with enthusiasm as bright and colorful as his TV show. ‘I want to tell the international community, especially those working in LGBT rights, please support us and let the world know what we are doing – help us, contact us and cooperate with us.’