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17 Jun 2019 15:15
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  •   Home > News > International

    A 'deity' for one week

    In Myanmar, transwomen are often ignored or abused. But for one week each year, they're venerated as "spirit wives".

    In Myanmar, trans women are often ignored or abused. But for one week each year, they're venerated as "spirit wives".

    With two fingers clutching a cigarette and a beer bottle in her other hand, a dancer takes one last swig before breaking into a lively dance.

    The crowd is transfixed. The dancer — known as a "nat kadaw" or "spirit wife" — is the reason they've travelled here.

    Some fall to their knees with their heads bowed down. Others bob to the music with their arms outstretched, hoping to pin a note on her dress for a blessing.

    Life is tough for the trans community in Myanmar, where there's little acceptance or understanding. But it's different at festival time when trans women and gay men play a central role.

    The dancers are "possessed" by nat spirits, a belief that predates Buddhism in Myanmar. Instead of devoting oneself to meditation, restraint and detachment as Buddhism advises, these spirits allow for carnivalesque debauchery.

    On the August full moon, villagers line the road outside Mandalay on their way to the Taungbyone festival, playing loud music while shaking silver bowls with bottle caps clunking on the sides to entice donations.

    As vehicles overloaded with families drive by, they throw notes out the window, sending kids scrambling.

    During the festival, trans peopleare elevated to a position of prestige.

    But trans woman Shin Thant says the respect for people like her lasts for just a fleeting moment.

    In conservative Myanmar, superstition seeps into the way trans people are perceived. On one hand, they are worshipped as "spirit wives". On the other, they're considered a reincarnated product of bad karma, someone who committed sin in their previous life.

    "As soon as the music stops and the nat kadaws take off their costume, the trans person is simply ignored again, society goes back to not respecting them," she says.

    For years, Shin Thant knew she was in the wrong body.

    Growing up in a rural community near Mandalay, there was no one to talk to about it.

    After the festival a few years ago, she found the courage to tell her family she was trans.

    But when she did, her mother threatened to throw acid on her face.

    "My mum was very shocked, and she is disappointed in me," says Shin Thant, in her now-home in Myanmar's largest city, Yangon.

    Her younger brother was equally intolerant.

    "He wanted to beat me and make a fight as he hates transgender people."

    Two brothers start a centuries-long party

    The nats festival dates back a thousand years, or so the story goes.

    Two brothers were supposed to help build a pagoda for King Anawrahta in 1044AD, but they were too busy drinking and gambling.

    The king ordered their execution, but the men's spirits turned into nat spirits.

    For centuries, locals have celebrated the lively festival in their memory, though in recent years it has faced challenges.

    In the 1960s, dictator General Ne Win issued a decree to "criminalise the supernatural" and all films depicting nats, ghosts or witches were banned.

    The nats festival survived thanks to sponsorship from powerful elites who believed in the spirits. The role of dancers called for someone with an ambiguous identity and social position and the trans community soon found a calling.

    From spirits to drag

    Now, the festival is gradually being overshadowed. Western-style drag culture is growing popular in Myanmar and threatens the popularity of the traditional style.

    As a child, Maung Maung — who goes by the name "Shwe" (gold in Burmese) — realised that nat kadaws held one of the only accepted professions for trans people or gay men in Myanmar.

    But recently he found another outlet to express himself and find freedom on stage.

    After struggling to keep his barber shop in Yangon afloat, he turned to drag and believes it will soon be more popular than nat kadaw.

    He has also added fortune-telling to his drag repertoire.

    "I started six years ago and usually perform at KTV or special parties to support my business, but I also enjoy it, drag is fun and I like entertaining people."

    With pride comes respect

    As Myanmar emerges from nearly 50 years of military rule and education levels improve, activists hope the tide is turning.

    For this year's pride week, the city government allowed the second public LGBT rights event to be held in a park in downtown Yangon and drag performers took to the stage.

    Rainbow flags were waved high on a flotilla of boats down Yangon's river and hundreds watched the "drag Olympics", which included a stiletto race.

    Director of LGBTI rights group Colours Rainbow, Hla Myat Tun, says campaigns are gathering momentum, but talking about mistreatment at the hands of police is still taboo.

    "[When we formed in 2012] I would say the biggest problem we had was that the police would always harass, torture or offend the LGBT community — it still exists today."

    Colours Rainbow hopes the momentum will lead to law changes.

    For years they have been fighting for the penal code to be amended to remove provisions that make homosexuality illegal and punishable by imprisonment. Rape is also defined as criminal act only by a man against a woman, which limits the protection for LGBT people.

    In 2017, Colours Rainbow found that the most used law against the LGBT community in Yangon was one that allowed the police to apprehend anyone on grounds of suspicious activity and failure to identify and account for oneself.

    With the illegality of homosexual acts, LGBT people are often apprehended and corruption and bribery are rife, regardless of whether someone is charged or not.

    LGBT people interviewed by Colours Rainbow revealed abuse by police that included coercion to plead guilty, being stripped or burned or forced to entertain officers. Those arrested were often not allowed to communicate with legal counsel, and regardless of the sentence, a sum of money was requested.

    Shin Thant says she has faced this kind of harassment from police.

    "First, he touched me with an electric stick to my body and then he hit with police rubber stick because he hates transgender people, but I am not disobeying the rule of law," she says.

    'I am trying to make them feel proud of me'

    For a long time, Shin Thant didn't know whether she should stay silent. But since moving to Yangon, she has found her voice.

    She was crowned Miss Transgender of Myanmar last year and now has her sights set on becoming the first openly trans member of parliament.

    "I would like to protect LGBT rights, make equal laws and policies. Now I want to use my position to fight for LGBT rights and be a social influencer."

    With time, her relationship with her family has also recovered.

    Shin Thant and her mother now live together in Yangon.

    As her mother peers at her, Shin Thant puts down her lipstick and smiles back.

    "My family is number one to me, that's why I am patient with them accepting me and I am trying to support my family to make them feel proud of me, especially my mum."


    • Words, photos and video: Libby Hogan
    • Editor and digital production: Leigh Tonkin
    • Video editor: Jack Fisher

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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