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14 Nov 2007

gay in rangoon

While the world's attention has been focused on Burma's bloody crackdown of human rights protests, judges in Hong Kong were considering whether to award the top prize of a new literary competition to a Burmese gay novel. Dinah Gardner was in Rangoon to bring you this report.

Nu Nu Yi's Smile as they bow narrowly missed winning - last week the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize went to a Chinese book set during the Cultural Revolution - but her novel about a gay transvestite medium is a fascinating insight into Burma's gay community.

Top: A winner of Myanmar's National Literary Award, Smile as they bow which was first published in 1994 follows the lives of three young Myanmar people. It has been translated into English and will be published at a later date. According to Irrawaddy, an independent Burmese news magazine, the novel was originally rejected by Burma's state censors in 1993 but was later given permission to distribute a heavily redacted version the following year. Attempts to create a film adaptation were blocked by Burma's Motion Picture Censor Board. The author Nu Ny Yi was quoted as saying: ''The authorities said the story was against the customs of Theravada Buddhism and Burmese culture. They also said being born a man is an honour, and that a person living as a gay man loses that honour.''
Smile as they bow describes nat-kadaws which literally mean "the spirit's wives" in Burmese. Nat-kadaws are mediums who allow themselves to be possessed by spirits, called nats, at special festivals. For a price, these men and women dance crazily, act drunk and tell fortunes. One of the nat-kadaws has a female persona, and many gay men assume this role as it legitimises their status as homosexuals inside Burma. "[These men], while not envied, are respected for their roles as shamans and seers," writes Eli Coleman, Philip Colgan and Louis Gooren in a 1992 paper, "Male cross-gender behaviour in Burma."

"It's a melodramatic show," says "Bowie," a gay Burmese businessman who operates his own tour guide company in the country."Some of the gay guys are in their element when they become a nat-kadaw."

While it's no Thailand, most observers say Burma has a history of being fairly gay tolerant. Even though the legality of homosexuality appears to be a grey area - the British government and exile groups say gay sex is illegal, although locals say they have never heard of anybody being punished for being gay.

"It's a gay friendly country - gay acts are not targeted," Bowie says. "But like anything, [the government] can use it against you if they want."

Gay couples should avoid public displays of affection, he says. "There is no hostility, there is no confrontation, although some people ridicule gays and transsexuals." But the main pressure for Burma's gays is from their family.

"There is a huge inbuilt respect for parents," he says, adding that although there is not a major push to get married and have children - as there is in neighbouring China - many gays remain closeted because they do not want to embarrass their parents by being openly gay.

Gay tourists should find the country welcoming, says Gerry of gay-friendly Mandalaytravel.com. While his company doesn't take clients around gay bars - "we want our guests to visit [Burma] for the culture and the beauty of the countryside and people" - he says the company employs some gay tour guides who are able to talk about gay life in Burma.
"I can assure you Myanmar is gay-tolerant," he adds. [Burma was renamed Myanmar by the military junta in 1989.]

"On the outside the Burmese look very conservative but having been there for many years I can assure you the opposite is true."

There is also a burgeoning gay scene in Rangoon - the former capital. The place to go, says Bowie, is Pioneer, inside the Yuzana Garden Hotel. Pioneer is a scruffy club downtown that plays 90's techno music. It also caters to Burma's straight middle class - watch out for businessmen drunk on brandy and young kids on drugs.

"You cannot miss the boys snogging on the dance floor on Fridays and Saturdays," jokes Bowie. "It's half gay these days."

Rangoon does not have extensive nightlife choices - the poverty stricken population can barely afford to feed themselves never mind have money left over to party on the weekend. But there is a thin layer of middle class and a small group of mainly hotel bars and clubs offer the best chance outside of Pioneer of meeting other gays.

BME, a fairly seedy option in the City Lake View Hotel, around the corner from detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's house on University Avenue - is a popular choice. However, since the protests it has remained closed - the road leading to the hotel is barricaded and guarded by armed troops- the area around Suu Kyi's house is just too sensitive for public access.

Meanwhile, DJ Bar, is a funkier and more upmarket venue. It also usually has a decent DJ and is popular with the expatriate population. "Any foreign gay men will get a lot of attention in Burma," laughs Bowie. "They are all looking for someone 'generous'!"

And in a country where the average daily income is less than a US$1, who can blame them?


1. 2007-11-14 23:41  
burma is a sweet nation ... i love my nation. =P
2. 2007-11-15 00:47  
I really hate it when westerners refer to places in asia with names which were coined during the colonal era.

There is no Rangoon now.
It's been Yangon for a long long time.
Doesn't she take Geography?

What else... oh yeah Peking instead of Beijing.
Such disrespect.
3. 2007-11-15 01:01  
Duke, wait till you meet the Brits who insist on calling East Asians "Orientals" despite the Euro-centrism of the term. I actually met one of those before. He kept insisting that since "Oriental" is such a commonly used term in UK, it must not be racist and/or colonialist.
4. 2007-11-15 01:03  
I also find the last two sentences degrading and racist.
Who does she think her target audience is?
hello... millions of Asians happen to read this

If she wants to print this sh;t mocking some poor asian countries and equating poverty with loose dignity in a really really wide sweeping statement, then Fridae.com should really wonder if it's worth while publishing on it's website.

She can print it in some coke snorting country where it's allright to drive after having a few lines.
5. 2007-11-15 02:21  
Oh god.

She even called Myanmar Burma
What's next?

1/ Discovering gay life in Persia's Babylon?
2/ Borneo's big jungle boyz?
3/ Cruising the Indochina?
4/ Going down the wild side of East Hindies?
5/ Bombay's blushing lesbians?
6/ Mad afterparties in Madras?
7/ Ceylon's hermaphrodites?

6. 2007-11-15 02:31  
Rangoon/Burma is still officially used by many nations (eg UK, US) to refer to the city/country, as they don't acknowledge the Yangon/Myanmar combination created under military junta rule - the same that engineered the recent bloody coup and is keeping Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.

It's true that a waiter's monthly salary there hovers around US$20. Sad fact of life, as all available resources are sucked up by the junta. I didn't think Dinah was trying to be racist - she simply quoted a local Burmese who was giving his observations. The ending may have been too abrupt in this case.
7. 2007-11-15 02:35  
Sorry - wrong use of word.

Not "coup" but attacks.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myanmar
8. 2007-11-15 03:20  
There is currently a show on nat-kadaws in Le Duplex, a Paris bar:

10. 2007-11-15 07:05  
Woah, the last few lines of this article are really problematic. "Who can blame them" for wanting to shower rich white expatriates with attention because they're poor?

This is a little too much of a familiar story of white colonialism, exoticizing Asian people's bodies, based in a significant part on the unequal economic power, and certainly not doing something to critique or undo why people are in poverty to begin with.

A country's poverty and social problems are not going to go away with more sex tourism, people.
11. 2007-11-15 16:09  
Well , for your information Mister Dysk-Tonic , most business people in Burma are from China, India and Singapore (...)
There goes U "White Colonialism" enigma.
Relating sex tourism to "White Expatriates" is also pathetic. Most pedophiles in Cambodia amongst other places are locals and Asians but Caucasians make the news.
It seems to me that U are stilling living in the last century.
Why dont U take a holiday to Harare, there U can find your peers and mingle with Chinese business men who dont give a damn about human rights.

12. 2007-11-15 17:38  

You obviously do not what you are talking about, and you obviously do not know anything about Burma.

The military government in Rangoon changed the English-language name of the country from Burma to Myanmar circa 1990. Most people who are opposed to the Government still refer to the country as Burma. The democratically elected President, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has asked people not to recognize the name change.

I've had a lot of refugee and immigrant Burmese friends in the USA, I have known a lot of Burmese dissidents in Thailand, and I have been to Burma itself. Almost everyone refers to it in English, as Burma. Indeed, very militant people will get angry if you call it Myanmar, because they feel you are supporting the government.

The same goes for calling the city of Rangoon by its new official name "Yangon".

Millions of other Burmese are apolitical and they probably could not care less if it's called Burma or Myanmar.

If you choose the call the country "Myanmar" because the military calls it that, then so be it. However, you are foolish to ridicule a "Westerner" for calling it by this name when millions of Burmese find the English-language name Myanmar to be offensive. In this case, you should accept both names as legitimate, and save your opinion until you have discussed the matter with Burmese people, or studied up on recent Burmese history.
14. 2007-11-15 21:29  

Do you know how many countries have diplomatic ties with Myanmar. Close to a hundred. That means more than 3 billion people officially recognise it's existence.

How many countries have diplomatic ties with Burma. 0, because Burma does not exist. Maybe only in the minds of the west who are fretting because Myanmar is not one of their dogs.

Obviously what you know is worth sh;t.

So bloody typical of westerners to deny the right of a country to be recognise by their own rightful name.
15. 2007-11-15 21:53  
Dear dysk-tonic,

I think you hit the nail right on the head. You're absolutely correct to narrow it down to the whites.

They waltz in to asia treating everyone else like hustlers or at least human beings which are beneath them. . . . and then they have the nerve to deny it, or even in this case, justify their actions.

Bollocks. Hope they lynch you in a jail there, whiteboy

16. 2007-11-16 02:21  
Duke, she is totally right to use Burma/Rangoon as we Burmese ourselves don't use Myanmar/Yangon. It's not that she doesn't know geography, but you don't know the history of Burma.
17. 2007-11-16 03:25  
Seems like a few of you need to get over your colonial hangups. Name changes by the illegitimate military regime are well, illegitimate. Simple line of thought. Doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

Nevertheless, whatever you want to call it, you do not have to resort to blatant racism to get your point across. All these attacks on 'westerners' are uncalled for, reflects badly upon yourselves and the rest of us and deviates from the topic at hand.
19. 2007-11-16 10:09  
@ astro_frank:

Sorry to correct you, people in Myanmar mostly refer to their country as Myanmar. Some use Burma as well. The name Myanmar was not 'invtented' by the junta but has been there a very long time already. The official name of the country is Myanmar, the city is called Yangon, hence we should use those names. It has nothing to do with being 'junta friendly' or not.

However, the article does not really describe gay life in Myanmar, in the big cities such as Yangon (!) and Mandalay. Of course, farang (foreigners, whites) do get a lot of attention but definitely not because 'they are all looking for someone "generous"'--bullshit, sorry. Unlike most Thai people in the big cities in Thailand, sorry to say, Myanmar people don't put on a fake smile to get money but their interest, their curiosity is genuine in most cases. Of course, one should never generalise.

I stayed and worked in Myanmar earlier this year and it's a lovely country with the most friendly people in SE Asia I have ever met!

One should have mentioned Lion's World Bar in Yangon, a bar where often fashion shows are being held. A bar where gays meet, too. You can find gays everywhere in Myanmar, may it be even at a temple festival in Bagan.

I shall not comment on the present political situation in Myanmar now but I so much wisth that for the people in Myanmar who deserve happiness and success, who strongly believe in the words of Buddha, all their wishes will come true. May dialogue and reconciliation, may the true words of Buddha lead to a better Myanmar, one of the countries with the best and most friendly people on this planet in my humble opinion.
20. 2007-11-16 11:43  
Rather than bitching about quotes and names, it would be nice if more people contributed information such more places to go and meet gays in Burma, or describe experiences they've had in Burma. Something more constructive, perhaps!

Both Burma and Myanmar are accepted by different people. Since the generals ignored the results of the 1990 election in which Suu Kyi's NLD party won a landslide victory, some people --including Burmese/Myanmarese themselves -- have chosen not to recognise the name change, despite Burma's colonial connotations. So there is little point in arguing over this name -- most publications have a style guide in which they'll chose one.

21. 2007-11-16 16:08  
Someone mentioned "rich white expatriates". Nowhere in the article states that. Surely whites are not the only expatriates/ foreigners in Burma. (In fact, Singapore is Burma's largest foreign investor.) I'm tempted to read these assumptions as being racist in itself.
22. 2007-11-16 19:22  
It's high time the French stopped referring to England as Angleterre, and London as Londres, after all it's nearly 1000 years since we were colonised by the Norman Conquest. They should accept the local English names for these places. ;)
23. 2007-11-16 22:55  
"Any foreign gay men will get a lot of attention in Burma," laughs Bowie. "They are all looking for someone 'generous'!"

And in a country where the average daily income is less than a US$1, who can blame them?

No one can blame them. Not every gay in Myanmar is after money. There are a lot of gay people in Myanmar who are decent and educated.

The burmese gay businessman called Bowie and the author sound insulting and racist against our society here.

25. 2007-11-17 03:37  
Dear pamcs,

"Well , for your information Mister Dysk-Tonic ,"
Yes, sir?

"most business people in Burma are from China, India and Singapore (...)"
A disproportionate amount of Burmese need for foreign investment is due to poverty caused by a re-routing of her resources and her labor to the British empire during the period of colonialism. This is the history of British colonialism and imperialism around the world, in black Africa and in Asia as well. Even if what you say is true, that most business people may be from China, India and Singapore, it doesn't disprove my larger point about colonialism, considering: China is also an imperial culture, and India/Singapore are both old-British colonies as well, with much older histories of British colonialism, and with much greater geographic and historical fortitude to recover from it economically... and certainly not without social cost due to the long-lasting impact of racism (ex: politically conservative movements trying to defend old Victorian sodomy statutes in the name of "Asian values"). In addition, I would argue that a disproportionate amount of sex tourism in brown Asia DOES in fact happen from Western tourists. I am not talking TOTAL population of potential travelers, but rather, who is it in the world who is most likely to have the expendable income, AND the culture of (racist) exoticism that propels them to travel to parts of Asia for paid sex to begin with? The world is WHOSE oyster?

"There goes U "White Colonialism" enigma."
Try growing up Asian in post-colonial Asia. It is kind of enigmatic. I can tell you about upper-class Christian homophobia, huge class divides between those who speak Western languages (esp. English) and those who don't, religious fundamentalism as a response to the excesses of Western-dominated globalism (with a few Asian Tigers thrown in for good measure).

"Relating sex tourism to "White Expatriates" is also pathetic. Most pedophiles in Cambodia amongst other places are locals and Asians but Caucasians make the news."
Since when did I bring up pedophilia? And are you denying that there is a culture of disproportionate white expatriate sex tourism in Asia? Do you need me to cite my sources?

"It seems to me that U are stilling living in the last century."
And are you the final arbiter of what it means to constitute a 'modern' viewpoint? Wanna keep me up to date? P.s. Modernism is one of the ways that colonial violence occurs (ex from Western colonial history: You barbaric non-Christian brown cultures, perhaps we can civilize you). Would you like to civilize me? ;)

"Why dont U take a holiday to Harare, there U can find your peers and mingle with Chinese business men who dont give a damn about human rights.""
Some of us can't afford to take a holiday.

26. 2007-11-17 03:53  
P.S. Let's think about the most major vestige of European colonialism that makes it so that I believe I am right to implicate the White Westerner in issues involving sex tourism in parts of Asia (without discounting the reality that other Asians also are complicit in maintaining systems of inequity and poverty).

What language are we writing in? When a majority of Westerners come to Asia, what language do they speak when communicating with people? Whose lives are belittled when the Westerner cannot understand the local populace? How many of these paid sex transactions happen in Burmese?

I don't hate Westerners or white people. It is ignorance that causes suffering.

Peace and metta.
27. 2007-11-18 03:14  
Heartening to read so many aggressive responses to this biased, badly written and explicitly stupid article.

"Who can blame them". Who indeed. Who can blame Fridae for publishing racist gibberish. Erm..me?
28. 2007-11-19 13:45  
Dukenukem, you're funny. I love it when people focus on meaningless side issues, and it's even better when they generalize their stereotypes as if there's a big bag with a label, and you're a boogie-man who will place people inside accordingly. You would be an excellent propaganda minister, world-wide. By the way, your nickname is that of a videogame character who is big, white, and blond, and loves guns.
Dysk-tonic, you go for the easy explanation to everything that can be found in Asia. You can even apply that argument to illustrate income disparities, and so dismissing the responsibility of people who have governed for decades but were never really scrutinized by an uninformed public and a weak civil society (and this last one, blame it on local cultures). Sex-industry is found everywhere - who colonized Amsterdam then? Blame it on promiscuity, capitalism, class-divisions, race issues, gender issues. To blame it on colonialism, today, is only a scapegoat.
I'm not going to discuss further when I found most of the posts actually focus on different dimensions of the problem, and do not necessarily oppose one another.
Nevertheless, when people go for the White-man-money whatever arguments.you know, I'm sick of hearing that against Black and Asians. You're all the same the ones who convey such line of thinking, even if your skin were blue.
As for Burma, and I refuse to call it what the Junta named it for my own principles, it's a country whose population deserve the best. May one day the conditions be created so that the millions of refugees can return, and the fascinating cultures within the country can flourish free. By the way, Dukenukem, *whisper* it's China who is right now the biggest Junta supporter. (um, i wonder if China has boosted the prostitution in asia?nah, they're asexual and use the money for charity).




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