At around 9pm on 7 July, Say Say took a motorbike across the perpendicular blocks of central Mandalay with two male acquaintances. She was heading towards the sprawling moat that encloses the building that was Burma’s – a.k.a. Myanmar’s – last palace before British forces sacked the city in 1885 and sent the king into exile. The palace was largely destroyed during the Second World War and then controversially rebuilt with forced labour in the 1990s.
Say Say had plans to meet a friend along the wide footpath of the outer moat, a breezy place to hang out, walk around, gossip and cruise. The moat is an in-place among Mandalay’s queer networks, an in-place where groups of gay and transgendered people and their lovers get together nightly.
But that night was different. Say Say’s motorbike was followed and cornered by plain-clothes police, one of whom pulled Say Say off and handcuffed her wrists tightly. Her two acquaintances were pulled off the bike by their necks.
At the police station, Say Say was photographed and forced to strip naked in the public section of the station. She was sexually abused by police officers and interrogated. Her simple story was that she was meeting a friend at the moat. The police officers questioned her on the minutiae of same-sex sex. At the end of the interrogation, one police officer tried to cajole Say Say into staying and sleeping with officers in the staff quarters.
Say Say was one of eleven gay and transgendered people arrested that night, in an operation that, one police spokesperson explained, was saving the public from moral deviance. None of the detainees were told the reason they were taken into custody, but all the arrests involved public humiliation. Those detained reported homophobic abuse in police custody, such as having their breasts squeezed (hormone therapy is widely available in Burma) and being made to parade like models on a catwalk. Some reported being made to jump like frogs. All have since been released, but only after they received ‘education’ by police, agreed to avoid the moat, refrain from cross-dressing and, unsurprisingly, paid a bribe.
All eleven were presumably arrested under a draconian law popularly known as ‘hiding in the shadows’, which gives police power to arrest anyone in a dark place in public unable to explain their whereabouts. The maximum sentence is three months and it is the most common law the state uses against gay and transgendered citizens.
Since 2011, when President Thein Sein (a former general) started instituting reforms, Burma has seen dizzying political liberalisation. Almost overnight ordinary people on the street started talking openly about politics, dissident views were heard in public and fear dissipated. There was also a mass release of political prisoners, including the most prominent opposition figures; Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was brought into the fold and entered the fledgling parliament. And the mediascape has been transformed by the dismantling of the country’s notorious censorship policies.
So what does the experience of Say Say and her friends say about Burma’s transition to democracy?
First, change so far has meant more political freedom for the majority – but the transition has involved the continued problematic treatment of certain minorities, whose rights have not been adequately upheld.
In June 2012, for instance, communal violence broke out in the west of the country between Rakhine Buddhists and a Muslim Rohingya minority. It has been widely reported how Burma’s past and present policies have contributed to and are complicit in the treatment of the Rohginya, which Human Rights Watch recently labelled ‘ethnic cleansing’.
There’s also the nationally popular, ultra-conservative (some say neo-Nazi) Buddhist movement that has been targeting Muslims across the country. They preach hate, and call for the boycott of Muslim shops and a law to ban Muslim men marrying Buddhist women. The movement, esoterically called ‘969’, has reported links to very powerful political figures.
One Yangon-based gay rights leader recently told me about a concern he has: that if they are too successful, and significantly raise the profile of gay rights, there could be a conservative backlash. Such a backlash could make gay and transgendered people the next target of networks like 969, putting them in a far more dangerous position than they are at present. If that were the case, there are few signs that the government would – or even could – provide protection.
Second, the liberalisation in the country has been of a decidedly political nature while moral regulation has continued and in some cases worsened. In September 2011 when opposition websites were unblocked, moral forms of web censorship targeting pornography and edgier gay websites seemingly increased. Despite a rapid increase in the number of new journals, the only one with a sex positive message on queer relations was banned after issue one. In this sense, gay and transgendered people congregating at night are a moral ‘problem’, and the state responds as protector of public morality, rather than guarantor of individual freedom. Meanwhile in Mandalay, homophobic arrests continue.
The supposedly moral nature of the crackdown also gives a clue as to why this can happen now, amidst all the positive reports of political freedom. Little has been done yet to address police power and a culture of impunity. Police corruption and the use of torture remain widespread. Simply put, the police can no longer go after opposition politicians, journalists and activists as they did before. Those now easiest to target are society’s most vulnerable.
Gay and transgendered Burmese are fighting back, though. For Say Say, her friends, and Burma’s embryonic gay rights movement, the arrests in Mandalay are a crucial test of new political freedoms. The arrests have brought considerable attention to their cause and some sympathetic coverage in local media. Activists are now preparing to file a complaint against Mandalay police at the new Myanmar National Human Rights Commission. The risk to them, and to other minorities, however, is how far to push and how to strategically achieve the rights and freedoms to which they’re entitled, even if those rights may be politically unpopular to the majority.