YANGON, Myanmar — In the month since they donned traditional wedding suits and pledged a lifelong commitment before family and friends, Tin Ko Ko and Myo Min Htet have been afraid to sleep in their own home.
The two men, whose celebration was trumpeted around the world as Myanmar’s first gay wedding, say they fear arrest after police told a local newspaper they would be investigated. Same-sex marriage is not legal in Myanmar and several laws criminalize same-sex relationships.
The men themselves initially described their event as a wedding and both wear gold wedding bands. But in the wake of negative reaction to their news — mainly in police quotes to newspapers and disparaging comments on news sites and social media — they have changed their language.
“We are not married. It was a celebration of our 10th anniversary as a couple,” said Tin Ko Ko. “Marriage is not legal for gay people.”
Tin Ko Ko, 37, and Myo Min Htet, 28, are not the first gay couple in Myanmar to have had a commitment ceremony. But they are unique for having had theirs in a relatively public setting, discussing their plans in advance and allowing a newspaper to attend and photograph the ceremony.
The debate over their ceremony has amplified discussion of LGBT rights in a country that until very recently was cut off from most of the rest of the world, under control of a repressive military regime for five decades. In 2011, the military junta dissolved and opened the door to free elections. Myanmar since has exploded with new ideas, new liberties, and new calls for protection of human rights and freedom of expression.
Before the reforms, the military government quashed LGBT rights. Activists worked in exile or under the umbrella of groups concerned with HIV and AIDS. Now, with the government and societal transition, LGBT groups have emerged and gained a voice. But resistance remains strong in most of this heavily religious, largely conservative country.
“The issue of LGBT has become something people have started talking about, but many people still think it’s a taboo, that it’s a threat to the culture, to the religion,” said Aung Myo Min, an openly gay activist who worked for many years in exile and finally returned to his native Myanmar in 2013. “LGBT people are becoming more visible and there’s a bit more tolerance than before.”
Myanmar, a former British colony, has the same sodomy law on its books as India, Singapore, and many other parts of the former British Empire, known as Section 377. But its law is one of the most extreme, allowing for life in prison.
In their only interview since the ceremony, Tin Ko Ko and Myo Min Htet discussed their life together, the public celebration of their love, and the state of Myanmar’s newly energized LGBT rights movement.
“Before the ceremony, we lived our lives in peace and didn’t have any problems,” said Tin Ko Ko, seated next to his partner, both cross-legged and dressed in traditional longyi, the long skirts worn by Burmese.
“We dress conservatively and behave conservatively,” he continued. “After the publicity, people began to recognize us and there have been problems.”
That recognition came with the media frenzy that followed their wedding on March 2 at an upscale hotel in Yangon. Though they kept the location secret to most media outlets, word leaked.
The next day, their story and wedding pictures, and some accompanying anti-gay rhetoric, flooded the front pages of local media. With Myanmar’s great opening has come a fiercely competitive and often unrestrained new media industry, eager for readers and sales. The first same-sex wedding was perfect fodder for their pages.
Eleven Myanmar, which described the celebration as “a marriage ceremony held between two gay lovers,” quoted police saying they would investigate the couple and could bring charges.
Their day of celebration was full of joy, but fear followed. The men work for LGBT rights organizations in Yangon, and lead a low-key, quiet life on friendly terms with their neighbors. Ko Ko Tin was open with his own family about being gay from a very young age, while Myo Min Htet, who grew up in a rural area, faced more of a family struggle.
Since meeting and falling in love a decade ago, both men have remained committed to their relationship and to improving the state of gay rights in their country. They knew their ceremony would send a strong signal.
“My friends were really surprised to see me in the newspaper, but some got in touch and said they also had gay friends living in rural areas,” said Myo Min Htet.
The police have not contacted the men directly, yet the couple remains fearful about Section 377. Though largely unenforced, the colonial-era is a critical barrier to LGBT rights in the country, Aung Myo Min said.
“Having 337 makes LGBT people live in fear of constant intimidation,” he said. “We really want to take that law away. I’d like to say all repressive laws should be reviewed and repealed.”
Nobel Peace Laureate and Burmese pro-democracy politician Aung San Suu Kyi has called for abolition of the anti-sodomy law, while the United Nations says the law hinders progress against HIV and AIDS.
While Myanmar is in a major transition period, particularly in the realm of human rights, gay rights are often not taken seriously even by human rights workers, Aung Myo Min said.
“I think people still think that people still believe LGBT people are second class, so many people give priority to national issues like the constitution and law,” he said. “It’s a struggle within a struggle. We have to educate people that these are not a special rights, they are human rights as well.”
For Tin Ko Ko and Myo Min Htet, though legal marriage is not now within the law, they hope Myanmar follows the lead of other countries in enshrining that right.
“We are humans and we all want the same rights. Of course we would want to be married,” said Tin Ko Ko.