As the killers no doubt hoped, in one blood-soaked frenzy, they also paralyzed—for now at least—the small but vibrant gay rights community in the predominantly Muslim country.
Mannan had worked for the U.S. government in Bangladesh for nine years, first as a protocol officer at the embassy and then for its international aid agency.
He was also the driving force behind the emergence in Bangladesh of a gay rights community centered around Roopbaan, the newspaper he founded in 2014 and co-edited.
“His killing was the prelude to the darkest days for the LGBTI movement in Bangladesh,” said the campaigner, who now lives in exile and asked not to be named because of fears for his own life.
“We’d been gaining such momentum and visibility. But after this incident, everything collapsed immediately. The other leaders have all left the country or gone underground. The whole volunteer community just disappeared overnight. There was a sense of insecurity and panic.”
He was speaking alongside activists from Indonesia—where Muslim radicals have launched their own crackdown on LGBTQ people—and Thailand and Burma as 700 participants gathered for the biennial world conference of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).
In Bangladesh, any same-sex sexual activity is illegal and can be punished with fines and up to life imprisonment. Prosecutions are however rare.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia, but Islamist parties have this year proposed bills that would criminalize LGBTQ “behavior” amid the growing mood of intolerance.
Just this weekend, Islamist hardliners broke into a Jakarta apartment where they claimed that a gay sex party was taking place. Thirteen men were subsequently arrested by police but released without charge, prompting fury from rights campaigners that it was innocent men at the party who were detained and not the vigilantes.
The ILGA panel, held at the British embassy and supported by Stonewall U.K., was organized by APCOM, a Bangkok-based coalition of campaign groups from across the region.
“Asia and the Pacific have seen recent successes, and some major steps backwards, on LGBTI rights,” said Midnight Poonkasetwattana, executive director of APCOM. “We are here to celebrate the gains and mourn the losses.”
Most sobering have been the developments in Bangladesh since the murder of Mannan and a friend who was with him at the time of the attack.
To a hushed room, the activist described the terrible moments after Mannan opened the door to what he thought was a delivery courier, only for several men armed with machetes to burst into the apartment.
“His 90-year-old mother heard the noise and came out of her room and tried to save her son,” he said. “But they hacked Mannan and his friend to death there in front of his own mother.”
The two men were murdered amid a spree of killings with the same shocking modus operandi of secular bloggers and academics by Islamist radicals.
Mannan had been the target of a series of anonymous death threats and intimidation by government security officials after police ordered him not to hold a “rainbow rally” to mark the Bengali new year earlier in the month.
“I was so proud of what we achieved,” said his friend. “It all started with Roopbaan in 2014 and from that we held a queer film festival, a trans fashion show, and the rainbow rally.
“Now there is nothing but deafening silence from the LGBTI community in Bangladesh. I don’t know how we can start again. We are in disarray. I feel hopeless in one way, as I don’t know what we can do now, but also hopeful because of what we achieved.”
Speaking later to The Daily Beast, he added: “I do not want us to be seen as victims. Two people died, but their lives must not be lost in vain. I do have the hope and belief that some time there will be another edition of Roopbaan, another film festival, another rally.”
There were words of support and encouragement from Dede Oetomo, an Indonesian professor who has witnessed the waves of progress and setbacks during three decades of involvement in the gay rights and pro-democracy struggle.
“As we’re coming of age for the movement in parts of Asia, Bangladesh is facing harsh times,” he said. “But I say we simply can’t and must not give up, we have to continue to push back.”
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation, where most people adhere to a moderate though deeply conservative religion—but Islamist radicals have been gaining increasing influence.
Nonetheless, said the country’s best-known gay rights advocate, there had been steady progress. But all that changed earlier this year after a senior Indonesian minister declared that LGBTQ people had no place in the country’s universities. “The backlash snowballed from there,” said Oetomo, who chairs APCOM’s regional advisory group.
By contrast, Thailand is often regarded as an embracing “utopia” for LGBTQ people. Not always so, said Nada Chaiyajit, a trans Thai activist.
Some trans people certainly do have a high profile in Thai society—but often working in makeup, hairdressing, and entertainment, she noted.
Chaiyajit, by contrast, wants to pursue her studies in law overseas at the University of Cambridge. “That is my big dream,” she said. But that dream is endangered because to receive a degree certificate from her university in Thailand, she must apply as a male, with a photo matching her identity papers.
“I have to be Mr. Nada with the male gender box ticked,” she said. “If I fail in my studies because of my knowledge of the law or even the standard of my English, I would understand. But this is because of my sexual characteristics, my gender identity.”
She concluded: “Thailand’s reputation as a paradise for LGBTI people shapes mindsets local and globally, but it’s an illusion for some of us.”
Other fears were expressed that global political developments this year were depriving gay rights advocates in the developing world of powerful voices of support and advocacy in the West.
Notably, there was concern that the incoming U.S. administration under President-elect Donald Trump would not place the same priority on supporting LGBTQ rights worldwide as Barack Obama’s White House and State Department.
APCOM’s Poonkasetwattana noted some impressive achievements across the region—from the tiny island state of Palau decriminalizing same-sex acts, to marriage equality debates in Taiwan and Vietnam, and legal recognition of trans identity in some South Asian countries.
There was another cause for celebration after the UN Human Rights Council narrowly defeated an attempt by African nations to suspend the appointment of Vitit Muntarbhorn, a Thai professor, as the world body’s first independent expert for investigating violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The British Foreign Office lobbied hard through its embassies to win support to defeat the African amendment. Margaret Tongue, the deputy ambassador in Bangkok, toasted Muntarbhorn’s appointment as she hosted APCOM’s 10th birthday celebration and ILGA’s opening reception at the embassy.
The British government is committed to building an international consensus “to challenge the view that promoting LGBTI rights is a Western agenda,” she said. “We believe that societies thrive when people are free and that civil society should be celebrated not sidelined.”