It’s been a privilege to be part of America’s ever-growing Embrace magazine the past couple of years. As International Editor I’ve been able to tackle a host of resonant subjects dear to me, from pertinence in Poland to Codebreakers at Bletchley, Little Richard to Midlands Madness and even The Dame Bowie in drag.
A year on from the shock coup in Myanmar, Embrace’s Business Issue features a piece I’ve written on how LGBT+ people have been increasingly visible in the vital fight for freedom in the fragile former Burma, calling for an end to the military rule and liberty for Nobel Peace Prize laureate President Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s now also available to read at stevepafford.com for the first time.
Myanmar, a Southeast Asian nation of 54 million that neighbours Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, China and India, went into reverse gear in February when a cabal of army generals staged a military coup and overthrew the government. With the intention of “restoring eternal peace” to a fragile territory riven by seven decades of ethnic conflict, they plunged the state into renewed political turmoil only a decade after the end of 49 years of strict military rule that saw the country abolish its old British colonial name of Burma and heralded the election of Aung San Suu Kyi as its most prominent politician.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to give her the honorific name (literally meaning “aunt” of the nation) bestowed on her by her people, rose to prominence in the ‘8888 Uprising’ of 8 August 1988, going on to serve as State Counsellor, the country’s equivalent of a prime minister. She, President Win Myint and other senior figures from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) were arrested on 1 February 2021 in an early morning raid after the military, known locally as the Tatmadaw, alleged the country’s November 2020 general election results were “fraudulent”.
Charges are also filed against President Win Myint for violating protocols to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Hours before Myanmar’s new parliament was set to meet for its first session, the junta declared a state of emergency while seizing the power in the country for a year. It hands over all executive, legislative and judicial powers to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who ordered social media applications owned by Twitter and the Facebook group to be blocked, including its Messenger and WhatsApp services, for the sake of “stability”. A blackout of the entire internet soon followed.
The coup has triggered nationwide protests, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets to demand the release of Suu Kyi and the restoration of civilian rule. In Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, people continue to bang pots and pans and sound car horns in protest. Doctors and student groups wear red ribbons as part of a call for civil disobedience campaigns. Security forces have cracked down, opening fire on unarmed protesters and killing at dozens of people. Many more have been wounded and more than a 1,000 people detained.
The US, UK, Canada and the EU have all announced selected sanctions on the country’s generals, while red China has expressed concern, saying that “the current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see”. Over the past few weeks, tens of thousands of people across the country have taken to the streets in protest at the military coup which brutally seized power from their elected officials.
Now, members of Myanmar’s small but increasingly visible gay community have joined in the protests. Local photographer Kyaw Htet captured photos of LGBT+ people who were walking among the protestors. Htet shared the photos with captions that read “Queers For Democracy” and “Gays For Democracy.” Three drag artists were featured in the pictures with a Pride flag and signs that read “Power To The People” and “We want our leader. Free Daw Aung San Suu Kyi”.
Journalist and filmmaker Ali Fowle also shared images on Twitter which showed a quadrumvirate of incensed individuals boldly wearing Pride flags on their backs. Their defiance is all the more admirable when you consider that same-sex relations are punishable by up to 10 years in Myanmar, with trans people also criminalised.
Sadly, it’s a situation not uncommon across the Asian continent.
Outraged over ongoing discrimination, last year Myo Min Tun decided to stand as the first openly gay election candidate in the country. His decision to enter the political fray came after transgender friends told how they had suffered police harassment. The officers allegedly forced them to remove their bras and kneel in humiliating positions before touching them inappropriately, Myo told AFP. “This was a violation of their rights,” he said. “And I realised there’s no one in parliament to talk about this.” So he decided to run for a regional assembly seat on home turf in Mandalay for the People’s Pioneer Party, which was founded by a former NLD MP who was kicked out for criticising the party.
“I’m doing this to be a pioneer for all LGBT people so they know we can be anyone we want.” From florist to wedding planner and HIV prevention worker, the 40-year-old says he has been lucky not to suffer discrimination in his varied career in Myanmar’s second city. Perhaps space is finally opening up for the gay community in this archly conservative country. Yangon’s 2020 Pride party attracted more than 10,000 people, with many painting their faces in rainbow flag colours as a measure of how the oppressed are fighting back. Just like the rest of the civil population need to, in order to defeat tyranny.