An Open Faith In Burma


While attending a nat pwe – a festival devoted to the folk spirits, or nats, of Burmese tradition – Will Boast finds another side to the celebration:

I’d been told by locals that nat pwes were also “gay” festivals and to expect to see “many ladyboys.” The junta’s attempts to subdue nat worship had an unintended effect: the role of the nat wife [or nat kadaw] was embraced by an already marginalized group. Homosexuality is illegal in Burma and has been since its British colonizers instituted a late-nineteenth-century ban on “intercourse against the order of nature.”

Government restrictions opened a professional vacuum, says scholar Tamara C. Ho. Becoming a nat kadaw offered the achauk—a Burmese term for gay and transgender men—both “a vocation and queer visibility.”

Anthropologists differ in their readings of the gendered aspects of nat worship. Still, nowhere else in Burma, not even in vast, multi-ethnic Yangon, did I see any cross-dressing or open displays of affection between men. In a country marked by socially conservative, austere Buddhist ways, the nat pwe, it seems, provides a rare moment during which the usual rules can be suspended.

Update from a reader:

I’m a scholar of Burma, and I particularly appreciate your posts on Burma, a country which deserves well-informed reporting in the West. Will Boast says that he never saw any cross-dressing in Burma (other than at the nat pwe).  There is at least one group in the country that consistently cross-dresses:

housemaids or domestic servants who work in Yangon.  These are men who dress as women and who work in a typically female realm.  Interestingly, all those I have seen seem to be of Indian (that is, South Asian) descent, rather than Burman or Southeast Asian.  Boast may not have noticed them because these servants work indoors, use public transportation and live in humble circumstances.  They are unlikely to appear at the hotspots increasingly patronized by foreign tourists.

Also, there is a burgeoning LGBT rights movement in the country, albeit a movement that so far involves the most elite, highly educated class and their allies in the expat community.  To my knowledge, Gay Pride Day was celebrated for the first time in Yangon in 2013.  See here.

(Image of male dancer at nat pwe festival by Flickr user Thomas)

A Much-Doubted Detente


President Obama arrived in Burma today for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia summits. Given how the country has backslid on reforms since Obama’s groundbreaking visit two years ago, his return highlights how the rehabilitation Burmese junta didn’t quite go off as planned:

Skeptics warned at the time that the presidential visit and the relaxation of most U.S. sanctions were mistakes because they gave Myanmar’s military leaders too much of a reward for the changes they’d made and diminished U.S. leverage going forward. “Two years after that trip, there have not been a lot of big changes. There has been a lot of backsliding and a lot of inertia,” said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch. “Once the bulk of the financial sanctions were lifted, right after that, reforms began to stall, which is why we urged them not to do it in one go.” After that push in 2012, he said, “There was very little motivation for [the generals] to continue to move.”

One former senior administration official recalled that “there were plenty of arguments about how and when to lift a set of sanctions” to encourage the government’s opening. Now, despite the easing of financial and investment sanctions and the president’s and secretary of state’s visits, he acknowledged that “some of those things have actually gotten worse in the last year,” with officials in Myanmar not allowing a “real opening of the political process” and having done a “horrendous job in their treatment of the Rohingya minority.”

The stalling of the reforms also puts a pallor on Hillary Clinton’s legacy in the State Department, of which the opening of Burma was supposed to be a bright spot. Thomas Maresca reminds us of the continuing plight of the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority, some 140,000 of whom are living in squalid displaced persons camps while another 100,000 or so have fled to neighboring countries:

“The problems facing the Rohingya are among the most desperate human crises in Asia today,” said Murray Hiebert, deputy director of Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “With thousands of Rohingya fleeing on boats for Thailand and Malaysia, this problem stretches far beyond the borders of Myanmar.”

In Baw Du Pha, the camp where [Ousman] Gani is confined, families share 10-by-10-foot rooms and subsist almost entirely on rations of rice, chickpeas, salt and palm oil delivered by the United Nations World Food Program. Health care is at a crisis level ever since the Myanmar government expelled the aid group Doctors Without Borders in February, accusing it of favoring Muslims. Death and illness have become grimly commonplace around the Baw Du Pha camp. Noor Jahar, a widow, showed visitors empty medicine packets and photos of her daughter, Sham Sida, who died in April after treatment for her tuberculosis ran out. Others in the camp said 11 children have died in the past month from diarrhea caused by lack of sanitation and clean drinking water.

In an interview with The Irrawaddy, Obama himself acknowledges Burma’s backsliding, but says he plans to put more pressure on the government regarding reforms:

My message to the government … will be that it has a responsibility to ensure the well-being of all the people in the country, and that the fundamental human rights and freedoms of all people are respected. This is one of the most basic duties of any government. Victims deserve justice, and the perpetrators of crimes and abuses must be held to account in a credible and transparent manner. At the same time, every person has a role to play in Burma’s renewal. For example, much of the violence against the Rohingya and other Muslim communities in Rakhine State is being committed by local residents, but the government has a responsibility to work with the people to improve the humanitarian situation, and to address the underlying challenges. That’s why, when I spoke at the University of Yangon two years ago, I spoke directly to the people of the country about the importance of tolerance and the inherent dignity we all share as human beings. All of us in our own lives have to be vigilant aside bias and prejudice. Burma, like all nations, will be stronger and more successful if it draws on the strength of all of its people. Its remarkable diversity should be seen as a strength, not a threat.

(Photo: Burma President Thein Sein (R) walks with US President Barack Obama after the latter arrived at the Burma’s capital Naypyidaw on November 12, 2014. By Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images)