From Malaysia to Myanmar: In misery and in comfort
Andi Suraidah (she/her), Legal Dignity
As a Malaysian with a colonial legacy of criminalising consenting same-sex sexual relationships and plural gender identities, Muslims who are of diverse SOGIESC bear the double burden of being criminalised under a pseudo-dual legal system, despite that this system has been constitutionally challenged. While the federal law criminalises homosexual conduct and imposes a higher sentence of death penalty and fine, shariah laws similarly penalise SOGIESC- related offences to the utmost extent permitted by Malaysia's shariah courts – maximum imprisonment, fine, and/or caning.
Recently, Nur Sajat, a Malaysian cosmetics business transwoman with a huge social media following, was arrested by the Thai Immigration Department in response to a Malaysian government request. The incident occurred against a context of increased restrictions on religious freedom and rising anti-LGBT attitudes. According to news reports, Sajat was arrested and charged with a violation of the Selangor Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment for insulting the religion of Islam, merely for crossdressing. Harassment directed against Sajat was not an isolated instance. She was forced to flee the country due to the State's continual persecution and harassment!
Punitive legislation legitimises violence and discrimination against the LGBTIQ community, while also increasing social stigma. We look to our neighbours, Brunei, Singapore, and Myanmar, who share a colonial heritage with us and face the weight of arbitrary crime, danger, and much more. Legislative structures and social mindsets antagonistic to LGBTQ equality continue to be infiltrated by discriminatory legislation. Notably, none of the four nations has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
In the recent unsuccessful attempt to remove the sodomy law in Singapore, the Singapore High Court judge was quoted in saying, Section 377A "serves the purpose of safeguarding public morality by showing societal moral disapproval of male homosexual acts”. The values and beliefs of the majority were also cited as to why the law should not be removed.
Brunei criminalises homosexuality under their Sharia law and is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Post 2013, the amendment to its laws was made where a person found guilty under the law can be stoned to death. While lesbian sex carries a different penalty of 40 strokes of the cane and/or a maximum of 10 years in jail. Despite the announcement made in 2019 by the government on the capital punishment moratorium is extended to its Syariah laws, LGBT individuals still live in fear.
Aceh in Indonesia, which has an autonomous regional government, approved a law in 2009 that calls for up to 8.5 years in prison and 100 cane lashes for premarital sex or homosexuality. The law applies to both male and female homosexual conduct. The region encourages vigilante public policing, creating an environment of fear and persecution for LGBT people.
In 2018, two Malaysian women were sentenced to six strokes of caning in one of the conservative states in east coast peninsular Malaysia after admitting, without counsel advice, to having sex in violation of strict Syariah regulations that restrict sexual relations between women.
While homosexuality is not illegal in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Timor Leste, and Indonesia, except for Aceh and South Sumatra provinces, they face other institutional challenges, on top of persistent prejudice and domestic and public violence. In Laos and Vietnam, for example, authoritarian governments have stifled institutional reforms. Despite the legislation in Vietnam now permits same-sex marriages, Clause 2, Article 8 of its Law of Marriage and Family does not recognise or protect such couples. The reform has had little practical effect. If such marriages are not recognised by the state, they will be unprotected by law in terms of personal and property rights.
What about other discriminatory laws?
Other punitive laws are also utilised throughout Southeast Asia that arbitrarily implemented and disproportionately affect LGBTQ persons. Anti-crossdressing laws, for example, have been used in Malaysia and Myanmar. In countries where being an LGBTQ person is an offence and subject to the harsh punishments of laws, people succumb to bullies, harassment and blackmail, for fear of their safety, being outed or being humiliated by the authorities.
The fundamental question we must ask ourselves as ASEAN citizens are these: Are we capable of more than reimagining history? What can we do to make our own environments safer and to continue the critical work we are doing collectively? What level of international solidarity do we require?
As an activist with a legal background, Legal Dignity exists to create a safe environment for sexual minority individuals to access the Malaysian legal system meaningfully, having witnessed the genuine barriers of such access in my professional work.
Despite the dangers to their own lives and liberties, the LGBTQ community continue to demand their rights and reality against governments, authorities, and the general public.
Their lived experiences in different contexts empower them to speak up, to shape, to define, and impact what it means to be an LGBTQ person in the twenty-first century.
We also have seen LGBTQ individuals respond to violations of other people's rights by organising and mobilising in solidarity with other marginalised groups. For LGBTQ activists, the road to an ASEAN that promotes equality and justice for individuals from diverse SOGIESC continues to be long and uphill battle. However, I have no doubt that activists like us, groups like us, are a source of hope to the region and the world, and that we now represent the LGBTQ+ individuals who belong here and are here to stay!
Setiakawan Selamanya (Solidarity Forever)
Thank you for listening.