Gay and Undocumented, Burmese Refugees Struggle in Thailand

Fellows 2017

By Purple Romero

August 02, 2017

Also published by Asia Sentinel

“Queer migrants” or LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex) refugees from Myanmar – called as such because they had to leave their countries and go somewhere else to be able to live safely as themselves – have looked at Thailand as the ideal destination, with its louche, gay-friendly lifestyle.

But in too many cases, in the refugee camps scattered along the border, being themselves can turn into a nightmare.

It was the perilous combination of Myanmar’s military regime, traditional religious beliefs and laws against LGBTQI that drove Burmese queer migrants to the neighboring country, where they seemed to enjoy visibility and even a sense of freedom, if not boundless equality.

Silence in Mae La

“It’s like heaven,” Uri, a former flight attendant from Myanmar, said of Thailand. Uri, now 41, left for Thailand in 2006 because he said human rights in the country of his birth were not observed “at all” and he couldn’t express himself as a gay man due to the extremely conservative environment.

Uri

But throw in the issue of undocumented migration and the closed world where the refugees came from, Thailand stops “being like heaven.”

Uri entered Thailand legally and thus had the chance to integrate himself into the country’s more open society. But others who fled Myanmar and escaped by crossing the border without any documents whatsoever have been confined to live in the camps, where patriarchal culture and religious beliefs dominate.

Sans the exposure to more tolerant, diverse environs, refugee camps perpetuate the homophobic attitudes that prevail back home. That was what Aye Min, a Burmese lesbian refugee, unfortunately came to learn.

As intense fighting between the army and rebels pervaded Karen state, Aye Min left in 2006 and stayed in Mae La, the biggest among Thailand’s nine refugee camps.

Aye Min

She had a friend there, a mirror image of herself: they both sported short hair and wore loose shirts and longyis, wrap skirts commonly worn in Myanmar. Six months after she last saw her friend, however, she was surprised to see her don traditional female Burmese clothes. Aye Min later learned her friend was allegedly raped by Muslim men and was forced to wear dresses.

“I asked her, what happened to you? Why are you wearing a dress?” Aye Min said in Burmese. “She told me she was raped. I heard men talking in a mosque that they raped someone, it turned out to be her.”

Sexual violence not uncommon

It was not the only case of sexual violence against the LGBTQI that reportedly happened in Mae La. Uri, who later found work in an international NGO in Mae Sot (the district where Mae La is located) recounted what happened to two gay refugees he knew.

“One was 13 years old, he was gay and Muslim. Since he is a Muslim, he cannot be out, but the refugee community is very close, so everyone knows everyone.  He went out one time, just to pick some vegetables. Then he was raped by two Muslims there. He’s just a child, you know?”

Uri said the boy tried to ask for help from passersby – five or six men came, but instead of helping him, they allegedly raped him too.

Another refugee, a 25-year-old Christian, was grabbed by men while he was on the way to market one evening.  “They took off his shirt, pants, let him stand naked in the middle of the market. Then they threw stones at him.”

The plight of Burmese LGBTQI refugees is not well-known, or well-documented.  The incidents which Aye Min and Uri recounted allegedly happened between 2008 and 2014, but within those six years, no reports of harassment or violence against LGBTQI were filed formally with the authorities.

Aye Min said she tried to seek the help of an international NGO at a time when the harassment was confined to having objects shaped like the male genitalia placed at the window of her hut in Mae La. To her disappointment, she was told to shrug it off. “They told me this usually happens, so just deal with it,” she said.

Worse, when her friend was raped, she couldn’t even consider going to the community leader because he was also allegedly involved in it.

Rainbow Mae Sot

In Uri’s case, when he learned what happened to the gay refugees, he and some of his LGBTQI friends in Mae Sot tried to provide them and others protection by establishing Rainbow Mae Sot, an informal group of Burmese and Thai LGBTQI.

Rainbow Mae Sot came onto the radar when Moses (not his real name) gave what is perhaps the only recorded account of the situation inside the refugee camp for Burmese LGBTQI when his story was reported in 2013 by Reuters and by Forced Migration.

The group aimed to set up a safe house inside the camp and to open a salon so gay refugees could have a source of income and in a way, be economically empowered.

An NGO worker who asked not to be named because he was not authorized by his organization to speak said they tried to look for a place where the salon could operate, but no one wanted to offer space once they found it would be run by LGBTQI.  “For Muslims, there are no gays. Christians [on the other hand], will say it’s against God. People will just say it’s anti-God,” he said.

He said people would rather not risk having their places burned down or have stones thrown at them, so no space was rented out and the salon never came into fruition. “There was just no way.”

As for the safe house, Uri – who, in a twist of fate, has now renounced homosexuality after becoming a Christian preacher – said the group’s members left one by one before it got established.

“It never happened.”

Secret human rights training

But even as initiatives like Rainbow Mae Sot faltered, Mae Sot proved to be just where Burmese people go to who craved to learn about LGBTQI rights and just human rights in general.

Around the same time when Rainbow Mae Sot ceased in 2014, Rays of Rainbow, an NGO focused on LGBTQI rights, was preparing its launch in Myanmar. The founders of this organization and its affiliate Colors Rainbow, however, first learned about LGBTQI rights in Mae Sot, in 2007. 

Learning – or even merely speaking about human rights then – was already risky for Burmese migrants. Nay Lin Htike, Equality Myanmar’s program coordinator for human rights education, said the danger came in two ways – one, if the Burmese military government got wind that they were holding discussions or activities to learn about human rights, they may go after them; second, since at that time they only had work permits but no visas, their mobility was very limited. They couldn’t just go to any other town or province in Thailand other than what is stated in their work permit.

“I work in Ranong. Since we have no visas then, only work permit, I cannot travel to another district. I have to cross the river to enter Mae Sot,” he said.

It took Htike three days – on what would normally be just a 14-hour trip – to reach Mae Sot undetected. He had to go home to Mawlamyine, his native town in Myanmar, take a bus to Myawaddy and then cross the border by taking a boat in the River Moei.

Once in Mae Sot, Htike had no idea who was going to pick him up. “No photos were provided. We just didn’t trust anyone,” he said. He was just asked to wait for a motorcyclist who would take him to the training venue.

When Htike finally reached the venue of the month-long human rights training, he and his colleagues were asked to use other names for their protection. But even as they used a different identity, the Thai police learned where they were and swooped down on their apartment one day. “Two of the other participants were almost arrested. We had to pay them [police] so they will let them go,” he said.

Full circle

Htike said living in hiding was worth it, however. In the training, he learned that LGBTQI people have rights just like other heterosexual men or women. It debunked the religious karma that was attached to homosexuality, a belief that was propagated in communities in Myanmar by religious leaders.

“Because of the misinterpretation of the religious leaders, they say that LGBTs are sinful, because they did a mistake in their past life, that is why currently they are suffering from the past mistake,” he said.

After the one-month training, Htike, who wasn’t out before, returned to Ranong and became more comfortable in coming to terms with his sexuality. He quit his job in an NGO there and formed Rays of Rainbow, which was composed of Burmese LGBTQI migrants. They tried to dispel homophobic beliefs by staging plays.

It has been a tough battle to fight, however, as Htike said Burmese LGBTQI migrants experienced harassment not only from the Thai police, who would extort money from them if they were undocumented, but also from their fellow Burmese, who would sexually abuse them, particularly the transwomen.

“We faced two types of discrimination: one is by being Burmese, we are discriminated by the Thai people. Second, because we’re LGBT, we’re discriminated by the Burmese community, Burmese migrants,” he said.

And just like what happened to LGBTQI Burmese refugees in Mae La, Htike said the transwomen who were harassed in Ranong by the Thai police or Burmese fishermen did not dare file any case because they do not want to risk deportation.

But as Thailand has become a less safe refuge for undocumented Burmese LGBTQI migrants, rights advocates such as Htike see promising changes in Myanmar following the country’s gradual transition to democracy, which started with the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in 2010.

Rays of Rainbow, which had 30 members, moved to Myanmar in 2015. It was a liberating return for Htike, who, as a Burmese gay man, found his voice in Thailand and is now back where he was born, to help those like him find theirs.  The queer migrant has come home.