“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.
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.
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.