Burma: All Burma Students' Democratic Front Repeals Law Criminalizing Homosexual Acts

One of the largest organizations of Burmese democracy activists in exile, which functions virtually as a parallel government with its own defense and welfare mechanisms and its own legal code, has voted to decriminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations in that legal code. This represents a major step toward integrating respect for sexual autonomy into the rights-based work of the Burmese democracy movement. IGLHRC joins the Campaign for Lesbigay Rights in Burma (CRLB), which has long been advocating this change, in calling for letters of congratulation to the exile organization.

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Please send letters of congratulation to:

All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF)
P. O. Box 31
Mae Sariang 58110
Thailand
e-mail: absdfhq@chmai2.loxinfo.co.th

Please send copies of your letters to:

Committee for Lesbigay Rights in Burma (CLRB)
P. O. Box 37
Chiang Mai University
Chiang Mai 50202
Thailand
E-mail: myomin@cscoms.com

Sample Letter

To the All Burma Students' Democratic Front:

We congratulate you on the decision, at your Sixth Conference held in April 2001, to repeal Section 33 of the Law for the Student Army. As you are aware, that law -- applying to all ABSDF members -- imposed both a one-year prison term, and dismissal from the organization, on any man or woman engaging in same-sex consensual acts.

This decision is commendably consistent with the terms of international human rights law. As you are undoubtedly aware, the United Nations Human Rights Committee held in 1994 that a law criminalizing same-sex sexual activity in the Australian state of Tasmania contravened Articles 2 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Committee ruled that existing prohibitions against discriminatory treatment should be understood to include sexual orientation as a status protected from discrimination.

More importantly, your decision is in conformity with the need, and right, of all people to participate in the struggle for democratic freedoms as equals, entitled to the same measure of dignity and respect. Your actions move us all closer to a day when a free Burma will participate in the deliberations of nations, as a State recognized for its commitment to the principles of human rights for all.

Background

The All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF), at its 6th Conference held on April 10, 2001, voted to repeal a law criminalizing same-sex sexual relations. Section 33A of the Law for the Student Army--a code that applies to all ABSDF members, whether in the cities or on the front lines--punished anyone, male or female, engaging in same-sex sexual acts with one year imprisonment and dismissal from the organization. The conference also passed a law increasing the penalty for same-sex rape, covered by Section 33B of the Law for the Student Army, from three years to seven years.

The ABSDF was founded on November 1, 1988, to represent thousands of democracy activists, mostly students, who had fled Burma for neighboring Thailand, China, India, and Bangladesh in the wake of massive repression. ABSDF was meant to provide an organized structure to counter both the propaganda and the violence of the military State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the junta in power in Burma (which meanwhile was officially renamed Myanmar). ABSDF defines itself as "an organization representing all students of all social classes throughout Burma in their struggle to achieve human rights and democracy. The students of Burma are recognized as the leading force fighting against the dictatorial military regime, and the Front indiscriminately counts all Burmese ethnic nations and classes among their membership. The ABSDF is at the forefront of the popular struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma."

The declared aims of ABSDF, promulgated during its Fourth Conference in 1996, are:

  1. To liberate the entire people of Burma from the suppression of military dictatorship.
  2. To achieve democracy and human rights.
  3. To restore internal peace.
  4. To emerge the federal Union of Burma [to re-establish the State as a multi-ethnic federal system].

The recent decision eliminating the ABSDF's sodomy law grows out of long discussions within the organization about the need to recognize rights on the basis of sexual orientation as human rights, as well as the need for ABSDF to respect international human rights laws and principles.

Meanwhile, Myanmar/Burma itself, under SLORC military rule, continues to retain its own sodomy law. That law, Section 377 of the colonial-era Penal Code of 1882-88, prohibits "Unnatural Offenses":

377. Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with transportation for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.
Explanation- Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section.

ABSDF's decision moves Burmese democracy forces closer to condemning the existing legal repression of homosexuality which continues on Burmese territory.

ABSDF's decision, and its internal discussions, were furthered by the work of the Committee for Lesbigay Rights in Burma (CLRB), an organization of exiles and others committed to supporting lesbigay rights and their place within the liberation struggle for Burma. It sees the democracy movement and the human rights of all groups as interlinked. Its members seek to build the committee to support Lesbigay networking and a newsletter for Burmese people. The organization's goals are:

  1. To build a strong lesbigay movement in Burma
  2. To strengthen the democracy movement
  3. To fight for sexual human rights and for the responsible sexual liberation of all people of Burma
  4. To fight HIV/AIDS and address the health-related concerns of lesbigay people in Burma.

According to the CLRB, the repeal of Section 33A is a significant decision because it signals concrete recognition and concern for lesbian, gay,bisexual, and transgendered people. It is a major step in raising awareness around these issues among the grassroots members of ABSDF. It also paves the way toward greater understanding and respect for LGBT members of the organization -- and of Burmese society, both in exile and at home -- when they do "come out."

For more information about ABSDF, please see:
http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Lobby/3190/factab.htm

For more information about CLRB please see:
http://www.clrb.org