Human rights activists are denouncing a crackdown on LGBTQ people in Malaysia, as evidenced the sentencing of two women to caning for having sex with each other, a brutal attack on a transgender woman, and a raid on a gay nightclub.
The incidents have come in the first few months after the election of a new national government. An alliance of opposition forces in May defeated the Barisan Nasional coalition, which had held power for 60 years, promising a new era of openness and an end to political corruption. It is not, however, a new era for LGBTQ people in the nation, The Guardian reports.
“The previous government led by Najib Razak was vocally homophobic,” the publication notes. But politicians associated with that government, now in the minority, are ratcheting up their homophobic and transphobic rhetoric, “a tactic aimed at gaining popularity and putting the new government in a difficult political position, forcing them to clarify their stance on an issue seen as a poisoned chalice,” according to The Guardian.
Also, while gay sex is illegal nationwide, each state has the authority to punish violations of Islamic law by Muslims, who make up the majority of Malaysia’s residents. The state of Terengganu has set the punishment for the women convicted of same-sex relations, reports Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy organization. They were sentenced August 12 to six strokes each of a cane plus fines, with the caning scheduled for next Tuesday. If the sentence is carried out, it will be the first instance in the nation of women being caned for same-sex activity, the group notes, citing local media.
Human Rights Watch called on Malaysian authorities to drop the case against the women and cancel the punishment. “The scheduled caning of two women is the latest blow to Malaysia’s LGBT community, which had hoped for better protection under the country’s new government,” said Graeme Reid, director of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights program, in a press release. “This prosecution and punishment will only fuel the recent wave of homophobia and transphobia in Malaysia.”
“Malaysia’s new government should stand against discrimination and brutality and foster a culture of tolerance and equality,” Reid continued. “As part of that effort, it should seek to abolish all laws against same-sex conduct and end the cruel practice of caning once and for all.”
Another homophobic action came Saturday, when police and other government authorities raided Blue Boy, a nightclub popular with LGBTQ patrons, located in Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s capital and largest city. Until then the government and law enforcement had largely let the club operate in peace. But Saturday the police detained 20 men, and local Islamic authorities ordered them to undergo counseling for their “illicit behavior,” The Guardian reports.
“Hopefully this initiative can mitigate the LGBT culture from spreading into our society,” said government minister Khalid Samad.
In addition to governmental actions, there are Malaysian citizens committing crimes against LGBTQ people. Last week a transgender woman was beaten severely in the town of Seremban while bystanders watched and failed to intervene. She suffered broken ribs, a broken backbone, and a ruptured spleen, The Guardian reports. Police have arrested a suspect in the attack, according to Malaysian newspaper The Star.
All these incidents are symptomatic of “unprecedented” anti-LGBTQ sentiment in Malaysia, an activist told The Guardian. “We are also seeing a lot of shrinking spaces for LGBT people – offline, online, everywhere,” said Thilaga Sulathireh, cofounder of trans rights group Justice for Sisters. “This level of aggression is new and the situation is becoming really alarming. We are hearing a lot of cases of people in the community feeling depressed and suicidal and not feeling safe using public facilities or even going out in public spaces.”
The national government has even backtracked on tentative steps to be more LGBTQ-friendly. In July, Numan Afifi, who is gay, was appointed press secretary to the minister for youth and sports, but public outcry forced him to resign within days, The Guardian reports.
Then this month, the minister for religious affairs ordered portraits of two LGBTQ rights advocates removed from an art exhibit and announced a plan to monitor LGBTQ-related online activity. A recent event for educators promoted the concept of “curing” LGBTQ identity. One government official has called for banning LGBTQ people from teaching in nursery schools, and a campaign is being mounted to boycott businesses run by transgender Malaysians. And last week the nation’s deputy health minister, Dr. Lee Boon Chye, said LGBTQ people have an “organic disorder.”