Gay Man with HIV Charged Under Myanmar Sodomy Law
YANGON, Myanmar — The LGBTI community in Myanmar has demand fair media coverage of a gay man with HIV who is charged under the controversial Penal Code 377 for allegedly committing sexual abuse against one of his employees.The accused, Aung Myo Htut, aka Addy Chen, is an outspoken LGBTI rights advocates and commonly known to be HIV-positive. Chen, who also owns a restaurant in Yangon, allegedly asked one of his waiters to give him a massage and sexually assaulted him in March.
Chen was arrested on the same day the man who accused him of sexual assault filed a case against him at a local police station. Chen was charged under Section 377 of the national penal code, which makes same-sex sexual acts illegal, regardless if they were consensual or not.
Chen faces of a sentence of between 10 years to life in prison if convicted.
The media’s portrayal of LGBTI people in Myanmar is unfavorable, adding to deeply rooted social stigma and stereotypes against sexual minorities and people living with HIV/AIDS. LGBTI rights advocates in the country say the portrayal of Chen’s case in the mainstream media is biased against the accused and is very damaging to the LGBTI population as a whole.
“We do not see any media ethics here,” says Yaya Aye Myat, a well-known transgender activist. “Many media reports Addy Chen’s case as if he was already convicted. That makes the public outrageous. In fact, a person is not guilty until proven by the court of law and until then, the person is entitled to the benefits of doubt.”
The Irrawaddy, an influential newspaper in Myanmar, first published a sensational video of Chen’s accuser’s testimony and it went viral among the country’s netizens. The video shows a one-sided story in which Chen’s accuser claims Chen coerced him into performing oral sex on him and later engaging in unprotected receptive anal sex.
Chen’s accuser emotionally said he is just a poor rural boy trying to earn a living in the city to support his siblings. He added Chen ruined his life because he may have been infected with HIV after having unprotected sex.
The restaurant manager, who helped Chen’s accuser to file the case against Chen and is also one of the key witnesses against him, also appeared in the video that has had 1.9 million views and 24,000 shares on the Irrawaddy’s Facebook page.
Other Burmese language media outlets followed up in Chen’s case after the video went viral.
Many people find the allegations against Chen outrageous and are demanding harsh punishment for him, even though a court has not found him guilty. Chen’s accuser in the video showed HIV-preventative drugs he has been taking as suggested by a doctor, but tabloid media has mistakenly described them as antiretroviral drugs, assuming he is already HIV-positive.
Chen’s family deactivated his Facebook page within a week of his arrest because of an overwhelming number of hate messages, derogatory comments and even death threats that he received.
Nay Oo Lwin, a gay rights advocate in Myanmar, says the LGBTI community is against sexual assault, regardless of whether the perpetrator is gay or straight. Lwin added he wants to see a fair trial in Chen’s case.
“We respect the rule of law but we don’t want to be repressed by the laws,” he said. “I feel that the media reports on Addy Chen’s case and discussions on social media are attacking the gay community and intensifying the stereotypes.”
Although the mainstream media reports unanimously describe Chen as guilty, the recent court testimony suggests the opposite.
During a hearing that took place on Oct. 4, the court physician said he didn’t find semen or any tears and lacerations on the anuses of both Chen and his accuser, in contrast to his earlier testimony in which he said Chen had penetrative anal sex with him for 20 minutes. There were also inconsistencies in testimonies by the plaintiff and witnesses.
Media reports also did not report the fact the restaurant manager and witnesses who testified owed a significant amount of money to Chen. They are now postponing payment of these debts due to the trial.
“Addy trusted the manager girl and loaned her lots of money,” said Chen’s relative, Myo Min Latt. “All six witnesses summoned by the plaintiff are debtors to Addy Chen. We have documents that Addy loaned them money. They also admitted to owing money to Addy during the court hearing.”
The defendant’s attorney says she believes her client never abused any of his staff except for asking his accuser to give him a massage. She said the alleged victim has exploited the fact that Chen is a gay man living with HIV to frame him as an abuser.
Despite this evidence, the trials continue.
Chen’s request for bail was denied for the third time on Oct. 30.
Chen’s family says his health is now deteriorating in prison. They say he only has limited access to medicine and medical facilities that people with HIV need.
“He has been detained in prison for eight months so far,” says Latt. “He is already very depressed by the media portrayal of him as gay rapist. He is now getting frequently ill. The trials are going on although the court physician had testified of not finding any signs of abuses on the victim. In the last hearing, the plaintiff attorney requested to add an additional witness to extend the trial. I think they are deliberately delaying the final verdict.”
Myat says the court’s decision to deny Chen’s request for bail will impact the entire LGBTI community.
“There are cases, charged under Section 375 of Penal Code for accused of minor rape and the alleged perpetrators were released on bail, given their age or health condition,” she said. “But not for this particular case. So, who will hold accountable, if the accused in this case does not survive all the trials and found to be not guilty in the end?”
A referendum on whether to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Taiwan failed on Nov. 24, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association)
The most LGBT-friendly country in Asia has rejected marriage equality. Amnesty International says the Nov. 24 referendum results are a bitter blow to the Taiwanese LGBT community that wishes their island nation would be the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. What’s more, for the rest of the dreamers in Asia it’s a painful reminder that realizing genuine marriage equality at home could take another generation.Even though Taiwan is deemed the most progressive country in Asia and a haven for LGBT activism, two initiatives to add same-sex marriage in the Civil Code and gender equality education in schools were both rejected. A pre-election survey that suggested as many as 77 percent of Taiwanese opposed legalizing same-sex marriage is a clear indication that acceptance on LGBT rights is not nationwide, even in Taiwan.
As I grew up in one of the most conservative countries in Asia, I am not surprised to see these results because I know acceptance on LGBT rights in Asian countries is always limited to certain niches. Often, media-distorted views of seemingly widespread acceptance are giving false hopes.
Asian countries present a broad spectrum of LGBT rights conditions, from harsh punishments to discrimination to growing acceptances. As of today, same-sex relationships are illegal in at least 20 Asian countries and are punishable to death penalty in seven of them. For the rest of Asia, LGBT individuals find themselves lucky to struggle with relatively mild miseries, such as family acceptance or workplace discrimination.
As I have traveled as a reporter across Asia, I found a common unspoken consensus among the non-LGBT populace in Asia. Since we are “abnormal” or “deviant” of norms, we shall be allowed to grow only within certain niches. In other words, either as an individual or as a community, if we have grown to the point that the majority feels intimidated, it has the right to say, “too much.” More or less, this reflects the attitudes of the majority in Asian countries. You won’t see them in the media but people act on it when they cast their votes.
On the other hand, the irony is same-sex marriage has become the ultimate symbol of accepting secularism and diversity, so support for LGBT rights has been politicized. From the late-Cambodian King Sihanouk to the Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte, it’s not hard to see why these Asian leaders showed support for LGBT rights but never actually acted to risk public support. Support of gay rights is a symbolic gesture to show their Western counterparts how secular and liberal they have become. In Taiwan, the motives to show the world how it is different from the authoritarian mainland in the era of the regime’s rising global power is behind the push for becoming a paragon of freedom and tolerance in Asia. This kind of “acceptance with an agenda” might fool the international media, but the message of acceptance is never passed down to the grassroots level.
When I attended the ILGA Asia conference in 2013, I came to the conclusion shared by many other activists: Marriage equality is too far-fetched for us, at least in our lifetime.
Demands for LGBT rights are not just fighting the repressive laws and homophobic groups. We are fighting the beliefs, traditions and systems backed by patriarchy, collectivism and fundamentalism, which have been institutionalized and cherished by the society. If you are from one of the bottom Asian countries, you have additional fights against corruption, ignorance and misconceptions against the minorities. This is the reality of being an LGBT person in Asia.
Victor Maung is a journalist and LGBT rights activist who was born in Myanmar. He lives and works in D.C.