Shadows in the night-time glow of Yangon’s magnificent, gold leaf-encrusted Sule Pagoda, several men stroll the Sule Bridge. One is Kyaw Zayar Swe, dressed in jeans with two shining studs in his right ear rather than the traditional longyi. He makes small talk with an old customer.
A tourist next to the two, taking photos of the graceful spire of the pagoda, probably has no idea he is standing in Yangon’s same-sex market, the surrounding shadows filled by either male sex workers or their customers.
This part of the spectral world of male-to-male sex in Myanmar, a country with a stiff moral code that universally frowns on sex for sale, but especially by males. In Myanmar, the Suppression of Prostitution Act only applies to women. Male sex workers are criminalized by section 377 of the Penal Code, which is usually called the “homosexuality law.” The male sex workers dare punishment with life-long exile or 10 years’ imprisonment because of their “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” and they equally dare the scourge of HIV in a country where medical sources to combat the virus are woefully inadequate.
Myanmar has the highest recorded rate of HIV prevalence in Southeast Asia for men who have sex with men, referred to as MSM, at 26.6 percent, even higher than Bangkok at 24.4 percent according to the UK-based NGO AVERT, which has been working on HIV education for three decades.
Stigma and discrimination continue to contribute to the low levels of access to HIV services, with just 50-75 percent of men who have sex with men reporting having an HIV test in 2015,” the NGO said. “Consequently, in 2016, just over half (52 percent) of those living with HIV knew their status.”
Even so, around 5,000 Yangon men take the risk. Most are not gay but service gay clients, driven into the profession by poverty, lack of education and far too often by the need to feed their wives and children. They hide in Bogyoke market, Chinatown and Sule Road, where the neon lights pour into their searching eyes.
It has been 20 years since the 38-year-old Kyaw Zayar Swe accidentally got into this shadowy world. He describes himself as the king of the male sex trade in Yangon. The eldest of three children, he dropped out of school at 15 to work to support the family. But as with millions of other Myanmar families, money was an endless headache. After he married at 18 and had his first son, the last straw came; he lost his job as a clerk.
Looking for a new job, Kyaw Zayar Swe said in in an interview that he met the owner of a jewelry store who asked him for sex. He was shocked and ran away. Three months later, he still couldn’t find a job and went back to the businessman. Promising to help the man find sex workers, he became a regular at the same-sex markets.
He had never done sex work — until one day an American tourist offered him more than US$200 for a night of sex. Thinking of his sick mother and one-year-old son, he says, this time he did not say no. He asked his first customer to get him drunk. Only then could he, a straight man, have sex with another man, he said.
“I was really unhappy. But after I received money from him, I was happy,” he recalled. He earned US$1,000, a flood of money he couldn’t have imagined, just for four nights. He bought food, medicine and gave the rest money to his wife. As for the source, he told her he had become a tour guide.
That lie started a double life. Every day at 8 am, Kyaw Zayar Swe took an hour-long train trip to downtown to look for customers. Back home in the evening, his wife helped him learn English from radio and books.
“The hidden situation was so difficult, hidden from the family, friends and the public. I was always afraid that people would know about my real life,” he said. Living in fear and shame, he says, he took refuge in alcohol and drugs.
The wall he carefully maintained between these two sides suddenly fell when he was arrested at 20. His wife learned his secret while pregnant with their second son. But there was no blame.
During his three years in prison, Kyaw Zayar Swe’s foreign customers living in Yangon helped his family, with customers transferring money from Germany, Australia and other countries. Till today, he still appreciates their kindness and considers them as friends. He called one of them his “hero.”
After Kyaw Zayar Swe was released, he was hired by the police to report on sex workers. But he left the job after a few months because he felt he was betraying his identity. The odyssey changed his mind. “Before I thought sex work was shameful. Day by day I understood myself. It’s just a work. I’m not dependent on anyone,” he said.
In 2003, Kyaw Zayar Swe learned about HIV from an NGO. Not until then did he learn how to use a condom. Luckily he had not contracted HIV during five years of unprotected sex. Nevertheless, his friends were not as lucky. Seventy percent of his friends got HIV, he says, and many died. “Even though the government and international NGOs are providing HIV testing and treatment support, they never go there because of stigma and discrimination,” Kyaw Zayar Swe said.
Sex workers’ hidden identities also bring challenges to people who want to help them. “Sex workers suffer from widespread discrimination. So we experience a lot of difficulties within the community to give health education,” said Than Naing Oo, program Manager of Targeted Outreach Program (TOP), which is a HIV prevention program of Population Services International (PSI).
According to UNAIDS data in 2016, 11.6 percent of men who have sex with men in Myanmar were HIV positive. Male sex workers were most at risk to be injected with HIV.
To encourage other sex workers, Kyaw Zayar Swe decided not to hide any more. In 2013, he published his story in a local magazine and encouraged other sex workers. “If I become brave to speak out, they’ll also be brave. If people cannot open reality and difficulties, how can they solve the problems?” he asked.
“Kyaw Zayar Swe is a role model,” said Lynn, who asked that his full name not be used. Lynn became a sex worker also at 18 when his parents passed away.
Now Kyaw Zayar Swe is a leader of a NGO helping sex workers. At the same time he never stops being a sex worker, but not for money any more. “My relationships with the customers are really hard to stop. Because they always take care of me,” he said: “not only me, but also my family.”
Deng Yang is a Masters’ degree graduate from the Hong Kong University Journalism and Media Studies Center. This was written as part of a two-part series for Asia Sentinel
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