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Of Unnatural Offences: LGBT Rights in Myanmar

by Natalie Stuart 

The Myanmar Penal Code of 1860 states;

Of Unnatural Offences

377. Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with transportation for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.

Policies written in colonies during the occupation are inherently structured on the cultural and political norms of the coloniser. Within this environment intercourse against ‘the order of nature’ or ‘unnatural sex’ is usually interpreted by authorities to mean sodomy or same-sex activities that cannot result in procreation. The lineage of such ideologies can be traced back to ideas of religious sinful practice in Europe. Countries previously held by Britain including Myanmar, India, Malaysia and Singapore still hold these colonial-era laws in place.

In Myanmar today this law is rarely enforced but because of its existence, LGBT people are seen as criminals and are frequent victims of discrimination, violence, oppression and in some cases extortion.

Hla Myat Tun from Colors Rainbow, an LGBT advocacy organisation stated of Myanmar police, “They see them as a walking ATM. If they need to fill their quota, they arrest transgender sex workers, or gay guys. They harass them, they arrest them, even gang-rape them in the police compound” (The Guardian).

Aung Myo Min created Colors Rainbow in 2007 after having realised that Myanmar’s “main human rights violation was ignorance”. The organisation trains volunteer paralegals to document occurrences of homophobic and transphobic activities. By recording this information and through further research they aim to educate the wider public and to propose a new anti-discrimination law that they hope the new liberal government, the National League of Democracy (NLD) will adopt.

At a time when Myanmar is leaving behind its authoritarian past and navigating the discriminatory laws put in place by the British, it is essential that minorities including the LGBT community are aware of their legal and human rights so that their voice may find a place in the rewriting of Myanmar social and political life.

These messages are being spread effectively through film. This year, Myanmar held their second &PROUD LGBT Film Festival, which premiered a biographical documentary about Aung Myo Min titled Di Lo A Chit Myo (This Kind of Love), among other short films.

Similarly, EngageMedia is holding multiple screenings around Myanmar aiming to educate audiences of the experiences of a wider range of minority groups. Among the films is Turning Tables production That’s The Way I Am, a film exploring a homosexual man’s experience in coming out and the fear that characterised his childhood.