Myanmar: First openly gay candidate kindles hopes for LGBT+ rights

Myanmar’s first openly gay candidate Myo Min Htun campaigns in a market in Mandalay, Myanmar – Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation/STRINGER

Myo Min Htun, who is bidding to be elected as Myanmar’s first openly gay lawmaker next month, knows what discrimination feels like, in a country where same-sex relations can be punished with 10 years in jail.

Rejected at job interviews, and repeatedly mocked in the street over his sexuality, Myo Min Htun said he would fight for change and LGBT+ equality, if elected on November 8 to the regional parliament in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city.

“I want to be a voice for LGBT+ people … I want to show people here that we LGBT+ people can run for office too,” Myo Min Htun, 39, who works as a florist and wedding planner, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“People here know me … so I have nothing to hide about my sexual identity. I think we need to be honest with voters,” he said by phone from Mandalay, where he grew up.

Myo Min Htun’s candidacy has raised hopes among members of the country’s LGBT+ community, many of whom still keep their sexual identity under wraps, due to British colonial-era legislation that criminalises [homosexuality].

Other former British colonies, such as Malaysia and Singapore, have similar laws, but while the bans are rarely enforced, activists say they legitimise stigma.

On top of overcoming prejudice, Myo Min Htun will have to beat Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party – led by Nobel peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is running for re-election in a national vote also being held on November 8.

The NLD, which won a landslide at 2015 polls that ended half-a-century of military and military-backed rule, is expected to win again, though by a lesser margin.

Mandalay is an NLD stronghold, and Myo Min Htun will have his work cut out as a newcomer for the People’s Pioneer Party, a party aimed at young professionals, launched a year ago by jewellery magnate and politician, Thet Thet Khine.

‘DEHUMANISING’

In a small sign of change, Pride festivals in Myanmar have drawn increasing crowds, since the first was held in 2012, but Myo Min Htun said the government had done too little to advance LGBT+ rights.

“Authorities here don’t listen to us, so we need change and protection for LGBT people in this country,” he said, adding that police still subject LGBT+ people to harassment and abuse.

Ma Thandar, a national NLD lawmaker, said Suu Kyi’s government had been open towards LGBT+ people, inviting representatives to collaborate on issues from tackling prejudice in films to combating HIV/AIDS.

The NLD’s manifesto declares the party to be against discrimination based on sexual orientation, and a similar clause was included in a National Youth Policy blueprint in 2018.

“This is a first in Myanmar’s history,” Ma Thandar said.

Even if Myo Min Htun’s chances of being elected to office appear slim, LGBT+ rights campaigners said his candidacy alone was a milestone that could increase pressure for Section 377 – the so-called [anti-gay] ban – to be scrapped.

“We need more pro-LGBT+ rights lawmakers,” said Aung Myo Min, the director of Equality Myanmar, a campaign group.

“We hope to see the rainbow in parliament. We cannot do it all alone, we need more representation.”

-Wai Moe; Editing by Beh Lih Yi and Helen Popper – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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