Aung Myo Min is the Executive Director of Equality Myanmar. He was a student leader in Myanmar's 1988 revolution and the first openly gay man among the democratic movement. He has been awarded seven international awards for his work in human and LGBT rights. He returned to Myanmar in 2013, after twenty-four years in exile.
My friends were surprised when I became an insurgent in a Karen National Union (KNU) jungle camp. I was surprised myself.
I became a student activist because of what I witnessed on that fateful day in 1988. I was at the forefront of the student demonstration marching from Yangon University. When we reached the White Bridge we were barred by soldiers behind iron barricades.
Trucks drove into the crowd and police started hitting everyone. We fled in fright. We hid in a house and watched from a window. It was like watching a movie. People running, being hit, lying in the road and being forced into police vans. That day changed me. I was enraged by what I saw.
Later I learnt that it wasn’t only students who were treated like this. But when I reached the camp I realised the ethnic experience was even worse. The Karen had been tortured for over 20 years. Their houses burnt down, young men taken and women raped. From being a student activist I became a human rights activist, living in the jungle.
We would shout “We want democracy! We want human rights!” but I had no idea what these were.
My friends thought I wouldn’t last a week in the camp. I had studied English literature but I needed ‘jungle culture’ to survive. We had to find our own food and build tents. Nobody even knew how to cut bamboo! Technology students designed the tents. Finalising the design took them two weeks but they collapsed as soon as they were built. The Karen found it hilarious.
The army would attack in the summer and retreat in the rains. I knew that even if I picked up a gun I would never hit the target. My skill was communicating. I spent most of my time talking, learning about people’s lives and became passionate about helping the community.
In 1988 I didn’t understand the meaning of human rights. We would shout “We want democracy! We want human rights!” but I had no idea what these were. But in the jungle we had time to read. Using donated books we set up a ‘Jungle University’.
One day I picked up a book called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was unlike anything I had ever read.
There were no words from Shakespeare or Bernard Shaw. I had to look up words like ‘equality’ and ‘discrimination’. I realised that our main human rights violation was ignorance.
My dream is for human rights activists to be able to work openly and freely. I want our country to be a champion of human rights.
I was really impressed by what I read. The Karen had suffered so much that they were very suspicious of Myanmar people. But I tried to explain that good and evil isn’t linked to nationality, and at the same time I began to understand their position. This for me is the basis of human rights.
When I was young I never thought much about my future. I imagined I would find work as a tutor or in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But my dreams took root in 1988 and became stronger with every passing year in the jungle.
My immediate dream was to go back to my country. That has now come true. My longer term dream is for human rights activists to be able to work openly and freely. I want our country to be a champion of human rights.
In 2000 I set up an organisation called the Human Rights Education Institution Myanmar (HREIB). There was no mention of LGBT because I didn’t want people to think it was because I was gay. I never came out in the camp. Gay sex was illegal there. But later I realised that there was nothing wrong with being gay. It was the law that was wrong.
I started introducing LGBT issues to our work when I was ready to come out myself. I ran training for people who suppressed their sexual orientation for fear of being ridiculed. Later this became Colours Rainbow. Equality Myanmar was set up in 2012. Initially I stayed behind the scenes, but it quickly became active. The organisation has its roots in HREIB. It has grown enormously but its networks, vision and mission remain the same.
I began learning about child rights when I was a refugee. The most two common issues in the border areas are child soldiers and child trafficking. I established a couple of theatre groups run by young people. As with Equality Myanmar I have stepped back so that they can lead.
LGBT rights are not anything special. They’re just human rights. Someone’s worth or ability shouldn’t be judged by his or her sexual preferences.
I’m satisfied with two achievements in my life. I started HREIB with just $3,000, and it now has more than 50 staff and is well-respected. I’m also proud of what I’ve achieved for LGBT and child rights. I always say that a good community leader is one who is no longer needed.
Finally in 2013, after 24 years in exile, I was allowed to come back to Myanmar. When I came back I was worried about two things. One was that I would be locked up. The other was whether I would be accepted by society.
There is still a lot of prejudice against LGBT people. Some think being gay is something to be cured. We are expected to wear make-up or women’s clothes. I still get comments like ‘Saya Aung Myo Min is a great guy. It’s a shame he’s gay’.
LGBT rights are not anything special. They’re just human rights. Someone’s worth or ability shouldn’t be judged by his or her sexual preferences. I’m proud of being a role model for the LGBT community.
I’ve known the British Council for years. I used to be a library member before I left the country. After my return, I sent some of my young actors along for forum theatre training and I was invited to speak at the screening of an LGBT-themed documentary. I used to think of the British Council as a place to read but now it offers many programmes. I think it’s a great development.