Gay and Undocumented, Burmese Refugees Struggle in Thailand
Being themselves can turn into a nightmare
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.
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.
Purple Romero (email@example.com) is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel from the Philippines. Her reporting for this story was supported by a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP).