Since the 1 February 2021 coup, thousands of protestors including LGBTQ+ people in different cities across Myanmar have been calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and a return to civilian democracy. Myanmar’s military have responded by arresting more than 17,710 people according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
Zenith, a 22-year-old gay man, is one of them. He was arrested on 7 May 2021 alongside other protestors, accused of being one of the leaders of anti-coup protests. When the police checked his phone, which was confiscated at the time of his arrest, they found photos and videos taken with his male partner.
"The police called me ‘fucking gay.’ They said, ‘you gays are everywhere’. Police insulted my sexual identity,” Zenith said.
Zenith was detained at Tarmwe police station, notorious for arresting LGBTQ+ people accused of loitering, then beating them up. Behind the police station, there is a private cell for interrogation. That’s where Zenith was taken, singled out from the group he was arrested with.
"A soldier held my left hand. Another soldier held my right hand. One held my hair from behind. They slapped me a lot. When they kicked me and I fell, they stamped on my face with their feet. I thought, I'm gone.”
The next day Zenith was sent to Shwe Pyitha Interrogation Center where people are routinely detained and tortured for resisting the coup. There, he was handcuffed and forced to kneel for an hour. At midnight, the soldiers handcuffed him from behind, blindfolded him and took him into a room for interrogation.
"They burned my thighs with a cigarette,” Zenith said. “They told me that the death of a gay like me is not important. They slapped me and said that no one would be sad if I died.”
With the junta singling out members of the LGBTQ+ community, many people across Myanmar face serious human rights violations. The National Unity Government (NUG) said in a report on 17 May 2022 that 17 LGBTQ+ people were killed and at least 85 people were detained since February 2021. Although this list is the only official information available, experts believe that many more have been tortured and killed as a result of the junta’s violence against gay people.
The NUG report noted that gay and transgender people who have been arrested have experienced different forms of sexual harassment while in police custody, or when being held in detention by regime forces, because of their visible identity.
“LGBTQ+ people protesting from early on were arrested like everyone else. But LGBTQ+ people are more persecuted,” said Aung Myo Min. Aung Myo Min is the first openly gay male minister of the parallel government in the country. He has received seven international awards for work in human and LGBTQ+ rights. He said that they are being subjected to hate-based persecution in our community.
The case for torture
Nawarat Aung Aung is a transgender, activist who posts videos of himself dancing in drag on Facebook every night. When the army staged the coup, Nawarat started publishing anti-coup content on Facebook and speaking out about the coup on Facebook Live.
On the evening of 18 May, he was arrested by a large number of soldiers. He was held at gunpoint, blindfolded, and taken to a military compound for interrogation. He was tortured for almost 36 hours.
“Being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I was targeted more than others. It wasn’t just one policeman but a whole group,” he said.
"They looked at me naked. I look like a man, but I have breasts. They poked my breasts with iron rods. They hit my nipples with a stick and burned me with cigarettes. They made me kneel down with my arms in the air while they got drunk. It was like they were being entertained. They drank and tortured me all night.”
Torture methods are used by the military and police in interrogation centres across the country to obtain information and forced confessions. According to Outright International, which deals with human rights abuses and violations of LGBTQ+ people, bullying by the police and military for being LGBTQ+ have tripled since the coup.
Criticism of gay people
Ko Myat, a 33-year-old gay man, was arrested during a protest and spent a number of weeks in a prison. He says the police knew he was gay from his mannerisms and the way he looked. He was sexually abused and tortured alongside his friend; a male school teacher named Ko Aye Win who at the time of his arrest was dressed in feminine clothes. His friend, Ko Myat says, is still being held in the detention centre.
“The policeman hit me three times in the face and punched me in the ribs. They beat my friend saying ‘Did you want to be gay? You gays are useless’. They beat me up and said ‘your parents raised you and you dare to live like this.’ Because of the beatings, my friend could not walk when he was transferred from the police station to Insein Prison,” said Ko Myat.
Ko Myat and his friends are sending food weekly to the inmates including LGBTQ+ people who were arrested and charged for taking part in the anti-coup protests. Ko Myat said that it is not easy to do this in the long run. For these LGBTQ+ people, only a few people are willing to help.
Striving for change
In Myanmar, which was ruled by the military from 1962 to 2011 and again from 2021 until today, discriminatory laws and policies against people from the LGBTQ+ community are rife. Discrimination against these same people is deeply rooted in Myanmar culture, as most Buddhists believe that their sexuality is the result of past moral transgressions. But things have got worse since the 2021 coup. Nawarat has been detained many times under the so-called “shadow law”, which allows police to arrest after sunset anyone they believe is acting suspiciously.
“Being gay is seen as being in hell”, says Facebook activist Nawarat. “Looking down on LGBTQ+ people exists even now. Despite awareness-raising of the issues, those views cannot be changed.”
There is no law to protect the rights of the LGBT and instead, they are still being discriminated against and laughed at in society. When the political situation changed and there is some freedom in Myanmar in 2010, LGBT rights are rights people started asking for loudly. However, this has not been achieved so far.
Not discriminating against LGBTQ+ people and amending the law that threatens those people are the biggest issues. The LGBTQ+ organizations have requested every government to amend Article 377 which discriminates against the LGBT. But these calls have been ignored.
“In order to be able to propose these things through the parliament, we are trying through the legal staff to have the legal action,” said Daw Zarli Aye, an LGBT+ advocate. “But when we talk about LGBTQ+ people, they have kind of become silent.”
“Not only with this LGBT, but there is also still lacking. We are still trying very hard to have the very basic facts of fundamental human rights. So that LGBT rights, we cannot just achieve it. Have to try a lot more,” said a former senior official in the National League for Democracy-led government.
“They don't see gay people as human. If a man loves another man, they look down on them,” said Ko Myat. “Among them, the authorities are the worst. They beat them and ask for money.”
A retired police officer, who worked for 20 years at East District police station said that he and his colleagues used to single out gay and trans people for extortion. “They’re easy to bully,” he said.
“When the police officers need something to do, they grab a gay person. That’s what the situation was like in the past, but it’s even worse for a gay person who is being arrested for politics. Nobody gets in trouble for beating up a gay person,” he said under condition of anonymity.
“Gay people are already fighting for social justice,” says Daw Zarli Aye. “Now they have to fight for democracy too.”
The Spring Revolution is not only against the military dictatorship but many ideas that are ingrained in our social community. It is a revolution that breaks old traditions. Aung Myo Min said that LGBTQ+ people who participated in the revolution changed the stereotype that LGBTQ+ people are only interested in sex.
“Some people's views have changed. This is what we have been fighting for 20 years, and the demand for equality has been polished by the Spring Revolution. We need to continue to strive for change,” he said.
Thet Thet, a gay person who was arrested and charged under Section 505 of the Penal Code for “defamation of the military,” spent 720 days in Insein prison. She described her lesbian friends who prefer to wear t-shirts, trousers and longyi, a form of dress usually worn by Myanmar men.
“Since it’s a women’s dormitory, lesbians arrived here. Their difficulty is having to wear Htamain, which is a traditional sarong, and not allowing them to wear longyi style. They kicked their genitalia saying women don’t behave like women. Those things happened at Insein Prison and also at interrogation centres.”
Detainees allege they were psychologically tortured with death and rape threats to force confessions or extract information about anti-coup activities. Zenith, another gay former detainee, said he was also repeatedly pressed for details of his sex life.
"They did it to kill me. I fell because of the beating and put the gun in my mouth. The soldiers said that just bend a finger and believe me, no one feels sorry for a gay like you. The guys who touched my ass told me that we can do what we want even rape me. And they held my breasts and my sex organ. At that moment, I don’t think I’m human anymore and not worth even a dog," Zenith said.