Myanmar’s Ruling Party Fears Legalizing Gay Sex Would Cost Them Re-election

The country's leader spoke out in the past about decriminalizing homosexuality, but has taken no action.

It many ways Myanmar seems poised to become the latest country to overturn its British colonial-era anti-gay sex law, which criminalizes homosexuality with up to 10 years in prison. If it did, it would be following in the paths of India, Trinidad and Tobago, and Belize, all of which have repealed their anti-sodomy laws in recent years.

Singapore might also be on the precipice of doing away with its anti-gay sex law, as its high court is hearing legal challenges to it this week.

Yet Myanmar remains one of the more than 70 countries where homosexuality is illegal, and there appears to be little movement from the government to address the problem. The nation’s leader, Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (below), spoke out in support of decriminalizing homosexuality while in the opposition but has since failed to take up the issue.

Aung San Suu Kyi
THET AUNG/AFP via Getty Images

Myo Nyunt, a spokesperson for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, said the party had “no intention” of overturning the law, telling Al Jazeera it had to be “very careful” leading up to next year’s election, suggesting it could cost them too many votes.

“The opposition might use it to attack us,” he said. “They have formerly accused the NLD of being a non-religious party and of giving special favors to groups who want…freedoms just like the Western societies.”

“I think it’s just not on her list of priorities,” said Michelle Yesudas, a human rights lawyer and a researcher who worked on a new study, “In the Shadows,” outlining the difficult and dangerous situation facing the LGBTQ community in Myanmar. “But at the same time, there’s no reason to stop reminding her.”

The report, commissioned by the Denmark-Myanmar Programme on Rule of Law and Human Rights, describes how police use the vague wording of so-called “Shadow Laws” to target the LGBTQ community, along with Penal Code Article 377 criminalizing gay sex acts.

LGBTQ Myanmar
YE AUNG THU / AFP) YE AUNG THU/AFP via Getty Images
Members of the Myanmar’s LGBTQ community celebrate Yangon Pride festival in Yangon on January 26, 2019.

An anti-mask component of the “Shadow Laws” has been used to go after members of the transgender community who wear makeup, and a provision against carrying weapons has been read so loosely as to include beauticians carrying scissors to and from work.

Included in the report is the story of a gay man named Khin Maung Htun recounts being arrested when he was standing near a fight and police arrived on the scene. A policeman recognized him and told his fellow officers, “He’s gay, so arrest him too.” He reports being abused by police and asked why he was gay, and said that while the men arrested for fighting were allowed to call their families to bail them out he was told he would have to wait much longer because of his sexual orientation.

LGBTQ advocates in Malaysia are also pushing for their country to do away with its anti-sodomy law, which punishes gay sex with imprisonment and caning. Campaigners in both Malaysia and Myanmar are watching the situation in Singapore closely, hopeful it could spur change in their countries as well.

Journalist, editor, and artist.