RANGOON, Burma — When Moe Yan, a 19-year-old transgender sex worker in Burma, was raped at knifepoint in her friend’s house, she knew there was no point going to the police.
Her community of trans women, who live on the industrial outskirts of the city of Rangoon (Yangon), are an easy target for muggers and rapists, but she and her friends count those who are supposed to uphold the law among the biggest threats to their safety.
“A friend of mine was taken in for questioning by police,” said Moe Yan, as trucks belching exhaust fumes rumbled past the roadside teashop where she sat. “They raped her all night without letting her sleep.”
Two other trans women told The Daily Beast they were detained and raped on the street by police officers and their plainclothes accomplices.
Arbitrary arrests, beatings, extortion and sexual assault are an everyday threat to LGBT women and men in Burma’s major cities. The perpetrators enjoy complete legal impunity, not least because many of them are officers of the law.
“When we report crimes to the police, they tell us we’re wasting their time and talking nonsense,” Moe Yan said. “They say if something did happen, then it must have been another gay,” the implication being that it is the LGBT community’s fault and therefore not a police problem.
Many activists and their allies are hopeful that the first democratic government in decades, led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, will help them to tackle these abuses and begin writing LGBT rights into law. But the signs so far are anything but promising.
“I’m not interested,” said Win Htein, one of Suu Kyi’s closest aides, when asked if the government planned to do anything about LGBT rights abuses. He was answering amid bursts of seemingly uncontrolled laughter. “Burma is not like the West. Gender issues are not important,” he said. (The recording of the phone call can be heard at the end of the documentary Life in the Shadows: Silent Suffering in Myanmar’s LGBT+ Community.)
Win Htein has become well known among foreign journalists in Burma for his cantankerous dismissal of questions about the country’s persecuted Muslims, but at least he has enough respect for the gravity of that issue not to find it hilarious.
Since Burma began opening up after decades of military rule, the LGBT community has become more visible and started calling attention to abuses. For some, greater openness has been met with severe repression, but the backlash has thankfully been far less ferocious than in other countries with anti-gay laws.
Win Htein is in some respects a symbol of disappointment in Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, which brought with it such high hopes for a liberalization of politics, law, and society. But it has to be said that his flippant attitude is an improvement on public statements made by members of the previous government, which was staffed with former military men from the old regime.
“I hate gays very much because they are useless. I call them ‘fake people,’” Hla Swe, a lawmaker in the previous parliament, wrote on Facebook last year.
In the same post, the former lieutenant colonel boasted that he forced gay people to be military porters in the 1980s while serving in Burma’s army, which is notorious for coercing civilians.
Last year the minister for security in the central city of Mandalay vowed to crack down on “gay men who assume they are women” and described their existence as “unacceptable.”
Phyo Phyo, a trans makeup artist from the city, knows all too well what it’s like to be the victim of the authorities’ bigotry. She was among a group of 12 LGBT citizens arrested and subjected to beatings and humiliation in 2013.
“They made us take our clothes off,” she said, “and made some of us walk like we were in a model show.”
She added: “The police noticed that I couldn’t shout or speak in a deep voice like a man. They ordered me to shout ‘Man! Man!’… And when I couldn’t shout like a man they slapped me.”
Phyo Phyo’s case made headlines in local media because it was publicized by activists, but there are likely hundreds more similar cases a year that go unchallenged.
Hla Myat Tun, program coordinator at the LGBT rights group Colors Rainbow, is part of an effort to document these abuses. Last year his group recorded 65 cases of wrongful arrest, and he was just looking at three of Burma’s 325 townships.
He believes the data collected by his modestly sized organization represents only a fraction of the true number of cases around the country. The figures do not, for example, include Mandalay, the second-largest city and the place where Phyo Phyo was arrested.
The vast majority of the arrests are made under a statute known as the “darkness law,” which carries a maximum sentence of three months.
The law, a section of the Police Act enacted under British colonial rule, gives officers the power to arrest anyone they deem to be acting suspiciously, or who is out after dark wearing a disguise. The latter has in some cases been used to target trans women who wear makeup and women’s clothes.
“They can’t arrest us under any other law, so they use the darkness law,” said Moe Yan, the sex worker. She spent 15 days in Rangoon’s infamous Insein Prison after being detained under the darkness law last year.
The prison has a separate area for trans women and openly gay men, and newly arrived LGBT prisoners are given a choice between staying on the “men’s ward” or the “gay ward.”
Burma does have a law against “unnatural sexual acts,” another relic of British rule that is often called the sodomy law. But actually proving that two people have had sex is difficult, so the darkness law is the weapon of choice for authorities targeting the LGBT community.
The law is also a useful tool for police looking to extract bribes because it makes it easy for them to threaten their victims with jail time.
Laura Haigh, Burma researcher for Amnesty International, said she has encountered several cases where LGBT people, including trans sex workers, “had been arrested and then beaten by police during interrogation, often to extort money from them.
“I remember someone described LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex] people as ‘walking cash machines’ when it comes to police extortion,” she added.
Chit Ko Ko, a police captain in Rangoon, told the Daily Beast the allegations of abuse and wrongful arrest made against his force were “huge lies.”
While stalwarts of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, like Win Htein, have little interest in LGBT rights, younger and less senior members tend to be more sympathetic.
“We absolutely should recognize their rights,” said Oo Win Maung, an NLD member of Parliament for Hlaing Thayar, the Rangoon township where Moe Yan was raped. “It’s not just the police who are making trouble for LGBT people,” he added.
Our interview with Moe Yan was cut short when a group of men who appeared to be drunk approached us carrying sticks and machetes. “This is none of your business,” they shouted. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
Moe Yan wasn’t at all fazed. She calmly assured us that she would be safe if we left, declining our offer to take her somewhere else, and waved us off with a smile. Sadly, she’s seen it all before.
— Additional reporting by Connor Macdonald