Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

First organized in 2008, the Seksualiti Merdeka festival has been an annual celebration of sexual diversity and gender rights in Malaysia. It promotes the human rights and acceptance of the LGBT community through films, art workshops, stage plays, and seminars. Themed ‘Queer Without Fear,’ this year’s vision is for everyone “to be free from discrimination, harassment and violence for their sexual orientations and their gender identities.”

According to organizers, festival attendance grew from 500 people in 2008, to 1,500 last year. A bigger number was expected this year, but unfortunately, the police decided to be a party pooper by banning the festival activities. They even threatened to arrest any individual who defies the ban; the organizers were also summoned for questioning.

Police justified the ban by arguing that the festival “could create disharmony, enmity and disturb public order.” The police could, truth be told, be referring to the tiny but loud protests of conservative groups that denounced the festival for promoting “free sex” and the gay lifestyle. They are the same groups that expressed opposition to the upcoming Elton John concert in Malaysia.

The festival organizers, which represent a coalition of groups that includes the Malaysian Bar Council and Amnesty International, reminded the government about their right to conduct peaceful forums, workshops and performances. They added that the “intimidating displays of hatred and ignorance towards us, and calls for us to be shut down, demonstrate why we absolutely need a safe space and event like Seksualiti Merdeka.”

They should also note the fact that Malaysia was a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 before becoming a member of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, “vowing to respect sexual rights as universal rights based on the inherent freedom, equality and dignity of all human beings.”

According to MP Charles Santiago of Klang, the government and police have exposed themselves to the world as “callous, intolerant and homophobic” when they banned Seksualiti Merdeka. But he also believes there’s a more sinister reason why the festival was banned: “Driven by the need to stay in power, the government has fashioned the controversy surrounding the festival for its own political mileage. Clearly the ban demonstrates the ongoing persecution against Ambiga.” Aside from being a supporter of Seksualiti Merdeka, Ambiga is a Malaysian lawyer who spearheaded Bersih 2.0, a popular movement for electoral reforms that damaged the credibility of the ruling political coalition.

The ban generated an international outcry from human rights groups and LGBT networks, which sent protest letters to the Malaysian government. They demanded the lifting of the ban against Seksualiti Merdeka, they asked police not to arrest or intimidate the festival organizers, and they called for the protection of the organizers from private actor violence.

The groups added that the ban also proved that it’s necessary to “conduct a public awareness campaign about equality before the law and non-discrimination, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” They asked authorities to train police officials with regard to LGBT rights “to end arbitrary harassment of LGBT individuals, their speech and assembly.”

But organizers of the Seksualiti Merdeka festival perhaps should also thank the government and the police for banning their event since it made a lot of noise in the news and the public actually came to know more about LGBT rights, gender equality and sexual tolerance (or the lack of it) in society. Unlike in previous years, the festival’s objectives became popular this year because of the ban.

The opposition should also use this opportunity to remind the people that as the prime minister talks about his 1Malaysia national unity slogan, his actions and policies are actually creating more divisions in the country.

Written for The Diplomat

Burma’s Opium Addiction

Opium cultivation is on the increase in the Palaung communities in the northern Shan State of Burma. This fact was revealed in a study published last month by the Palaung Women’s Organization. Indeed, it would seem the local authorities are not only aware of the problem, but are aggressively promoting and protecting the opium trade there.

The group reported that opium growing in the 15 villages in Namkham Township has increased by 79 percent in the past two years. In 2008, there were only 617 hectares of opium fields in the area. This year the figure is expected to rise to 1,109 hectares. About 12 villages that hadn’t previously grown opium have started to grow it since 2009.

Drug addiction has also worsened in Palaung communities. In one village, the group discovered that 91 percent of males aged 15 and over were addicted to drugs. The drug menace has also caused the crime rate to go up, including a spike in cases involving domestic violence.

The group is blaming the local and national government for the revival of the opium industry in the area, even accusing a local MP of being the key protector of the opium trade in the region. The group cited testimony from a villager that former militia leader Kyaw Myint had promised Namkham voters that they could plant opium without regulation for 5 years if they voted for him. Kyaw Myint ran under the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, which dominated last year’s elections.

Palaung farmers were tea growers, but the decline of the tea industry, which is heavily controlled by the junta-dominated government, has forced them to switch to opium growing in order to survive. Meanwhile, opium cultivation is tolerated because politicians, soldiers, police, and militia forces can collect high taxes and bribes.

The local women’s group believes that the national government allowed Kyaw Myint’s illegal drug activities to flourish in exchange for its support for the government’s military campaign against ethnic rebels. It said the issue “highlights the nexus between drug production and power relations in Burma’s conflict-ridden Shan State.” It added that the government “needs to rely on its army infrastructure, including local paramilitary forces, to suppress the ethnic resistance movements,” even if the pro-government forces are sustained by the opium trade.

This latest alternative drug report by a local NGO, which covered only one province of Burma, should inspire the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to conduct a more independent study of the drug situation in the country, since it only relies on the data submitted by the junta-backed government. The fact is that the UNODC reliance on government statistics has blinded the agency and weakened its capacity to address the worsening drug problem in the country.

At a minimum, the Burmese government should investigate the illicit drug cultivation in the Shan State. It should be ready to punish public officials and military officers who are found guilty of protecting the opium trade, and it should also assist opium farmers by promoting alternative crop development. Instead of turning a blind eye to the evils of drug use, it should launch an awareness campaign targeting the young about the need to combat the dangerous impact of illegal drugs in society.

Written for The Diplomat

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