Democracy Lab

Still in the Closet

Life isn't easy for Malaysian gays. And it may actually be getting worse.

Sweaty young men gyrate on raised podiums to a thumping dance track by Kylie Minogue. Some are in blonde wigs, tight t-shirts, and sunglasses, shimmying in the dim purple light. One is in bondage gear, locked in an embrace with his male partner.

It could be a scene from any gay nightclub in the world. But this is a typical night at Marketplace in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of majority-Muslim Malaysia.

Over the past decade or so, Malaysia's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community has found a voice of its own, thanks to the growing prevalence of social media and the work of gay activists. But an embattled ruling political party, and reaction against the growing acceptance in many parts of the West of gay rights, has made Malaysia's LGBT community a target for conservative Muslim politicians and their supporters.

One of the world's longest-ruling coalitions, the Barisan Nasional (BN) or National Front, has governed Malaysia since independence in 1957 using a race-based political structure. The majority ethnic Malays are represented by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), while the Chinese, Indian and indigenous races have their own parties within the National Front.

But in 2008, for the first time in its history, the National Front took a significant beating during the general elections, and performed even more badly during the 2013 polls -- although the party did retain power. The opposition, who campaigned on a platform of racial inclusiveness, gained ground due to growing disgust over rampant corruption and cronyism and the government's undermining of civil institutions. The opposition's gains were also aided by the emergence of urban, younger voters, independent news outlets, social media and civil society groups.

Effeminate and transvestite men had for centuries been tacitly accepted as part of Muslim communities in Malaysia, traditionally doing the make-up for brides at rural weddings, for example.

"Back then society just accepted fluid gender identities as part of the natural order," says Sharaad Kuttan, a presenter and producer for BFM, a business radio station in Malaysia.

But running parallel to that acceptance has been intolerance by more conservative elements. The gains made by the opposition, including the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), over the last two elections have driven the ruling party to try to appeal to the conservatives within its power base.

As a result, minorities, be they racial or sexual, have come under pressure.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has joined the attacks on the LGBT community. "LGBTs, pluralism, liberalism -- all these ‘isms' are against Islam and it is compulsory for us to fight these," Najib said in July 2012, speaking to a 11,000-strong crowd of religious scholars. This May, he again said "human rights-ism" was against Islam, according to Bernama, the national news agency. Online media lit up with criticism over the comments, which he later retracted.

Some Islamist groups have added to the chorus. In November 2013, the activist Muslim group Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia said the country had no room for LGBT rights or religious freedom, according to the Malay Mail, an independent online newspaper.

The verbal attacks by the political elite against Malaysia's LGBT community may have stepped up in recent years, but the persecution has been going on for longer.

Nisha Ayub, a transgender woman, experienced such discrimination 14 years ago when she was 21. When religious officials asked to see her identity card, which read "male" and "Muslim," she was brought to a jail and charged for impersonating a woman. Having long hair, breast implants, and wearing makeup "was against Islam," she was told. Two days after her arrest, she was found guilty by a sharia court and imprisoned with male inmates for three months.

Prison wardens forced her to stand naked in front of other prisoners, subjected her to an anal probe and mocked her for having breasts.

"I was treated like a puppet," she says. Also during her detention, six cellmates made her perform oral sex. It was her first sexual experience.

Now a transgender activist with Justice for Sisters, Nisha says, "I feel for my trans community because [we] don't feel protected under the law. We have no rights as citizens. People could kill me and nobody would want to know."

The Ministry of Education, the Department of Islamic Development, and the Department of Special Affairs did not respond to email requests to be interviewed for this article.

Members of the LGBT community are frequently harassed. Police raid Marketplace from time to time; they claim they are there to root out illegal drugs, but patrons say they feel singled out among other clubs in the area.

For those who choose to go public with their sexuality, the backlash can be hostile -- especially if they are Muslim. In 2010, Azwan Ismail, an ethnic Malay man, posted a video online entitled "I'm gay, I'm OK" -- and created a media firestorm. It was modeled on the "It Gets Better Campaign," aimed at helping LGBT youth in the United States cope with harassment. After receiving death threats, Azwan says he avoided going out alone. In response to the Malaysian campaign, YouTube user "faiz461" wrote: "we muslims still tolerate ur freedom of religion. dont push us too far."

Minority rights in Malaysia have been steadily eroded over many years through the weakening of key institutions such as the judiciary, the electoral commission, and the mainstream media, which have been heavily influenced or even co-opted by the ruling parties.

That process began in earnest during the 1981-2003 leadership of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. During his time he imposed severe restrictions on civil liberties, passed draconian security laws, and had then-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim arrested for sodomy in 1998.

"Malaysian institutions have just rotted away, not merely weakened. It's like termites eating through timber. What remains is just a shell," says Jahabar Sadiq, chief executive officer and editor of the Malaysian Insider, an independent news website.

But even among other minority groups, homosexuals are a particularly easy target for politicians trying to score points with conservative voters. And that's true not just of Malaysia: Nigeria, Uganda, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, among others, all have harsh punishments for homosexuality. "They are the weakest groups you can hit out on," Jahabar says "Gays have no official standing in this country. No politician on either side will stand up for them."

Bridget Welsh, associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University, says, "Fear is a well-known tactic that works in a Malaysian context, [especially when] put along racial or religious lines. The government is using this tactic to stay in power."

UMNO is locked in a battle with PAS for recognition as the country's number one Islamic group. In PAS' heartland of Kelantan in the north, a ban on alcohol has pushed once-thriving bars and karaoke lounges underground. Swimming pools and supermarket checkout lines are segregated by gender. PAS has long advocated imposing strict Sharia-based laws nationwide if it comes to power. After neighboring Brunei recently adopted an Islam-based penal code, which will make gay sex punishable by stoning to death by 2015, PAS suggested similar legislation be considered for Kelantan.

But gays in Malaysia are also discriminated against under the parallel secular civil legal system, a legacy of British colonial legislation that criminalized sodomy and other homosexual acts. Sodomy between consenting adults is punishable by caning and up to 20 years in prison. It has rarely been enforced, except for political reasons, such as that of Anwar Ibrahim. As deputy prime minister, he had been seen as Mahathir's anointed successor. But in 1998, Mahathir sacked him, and Anwar was subsequently charged with sodomy for which he served four years in prison. Anwar says these charges were trumped up because he posed a political challenge to Mahathir.

Malaysia's racial and religious structure makes it difficult to be both overtly gay and Muslim. But those from other backgrounds have a somewhat easier time.

"I came out ages ago. It really depends on your religion, race, age, class and whether you're urban or rural," says Jerome Kugan, 39, who sports a nose ring and is part Chinese and part Kadazan (an ethnic group from eastern Malaysia). He started a monthly musical event called "Rainbow Rojak" (a pun on a local fruit salad), at which raucous crowds pack into a hip café in downtown Kuala Lumpur. "You can have a good time in KL ... if you don't shove it in people's faces," he says.

Social media has allowed members of the LGBT community to meet, flirt, date and provide counseling. Malaysia has one of the highest Internet penetration rates in Asia, according to Freedom House, and Malaysians are among the world's most enthusiastic users of Facebook. Take a ride on any metro train in Kuala Lumpur, and you will see headscarf-clad Malay girls, workers in office attire, students in flip flops and jeans all glued to their smartphones. Gay men routinely use the Grindr mobile application to rendezvous with their friends, and LGBT activist groups flourish in cyberspace.

Many in Malaysia's gay community are also emboldened by the enormous strides made in the West for LGBT rights. Same-sex marriage is now legal nationwide in 17 countries and in some jurisdictions in in the U.S and Mexico.

But many Muslims see these developments as a threat to their society. In 2011, the education ministry in the conservative eastern state of Terengganu introduced camps to "re-educate" effeminate young men to be more masculine.

The boys were given religious counseling and physical education over a four-day period; later, the state education director was quoted as saying it was a character-building camp, and not aimed at correcting feminine characteristics.

Two years later, in March 2013, the state sponsored a play, Asmara Songsang (or "Abnormal Desires"), that follows the lives of three LGBT people. They have wild parties and convince a naïve Malay girl to take off her headscarf. Some later repent -- and those who don't are struck by lightning. The moral of the story is "to warn young people about the perils of being gay," as Malaysia's Director General of Information, Communication and Culture, Fuad Hassan put it in 2013.

Malaysian LGBT activists realize that they may not achieve the kind of progress made by their peers in the West.

"Same-sex marriage in the west becomes mistaken for our campaign here, but this approach does not work in Muslim-majority countries," says Pang Khee Teik, co-founder of Seksualiti Merdaka, an LGBT festival that was banned in 2011. "There's a backlash [here]."

Ultimately, Pang says, most gays in Malaysia would be happy if Malaysian authorities stop harassing and vilifying them.

The fight to achieve the kind of acceptance gay people enjoy in the West may have to wait for another generation.



A Path to Peace in Syria

As President Bashar al-Assad’s officials reach out to contacts in the West, the differences between the regime and the opposition may be smaller than they first appeared.

The current U.S. approach to Syria has been overtaken by the course of events. While Washington attempted to contain the conflict as much as possible, in the hope that a political settlement could emerge from exhaustion, if nothing else, the advance of the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) in Iraq has shown that the war is spreading across the Middle East. It isn't only Iraq: The millions of Syrian refugees and the sectarian animosities engendered by the conflict are destabilizing Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey as well.

There are no easy answers. Certainly, enhanced American military involvement in Syria is not a solution: Such a policy would only encourage Syria's allies, Iran and Russia, to increase their support for the regime, an escalation in which the United States in no way, shape, or form wants to become involved. The $500 million requested by President Barack Obama's administration to aid vetted rebels is a sop to Washington interventionists and is certainly not enough to tip the military balance in Syria. The timing of the announcement suggests that its ultimate target may be to weaken ISIS rather than the regime, and the request is likely to get ensnared in Congress -- which may have been the administration's intent.

Rather, perhaps counterintuitively, what the Syrian conflict needs now is another push of intense, persistent, and creative diplomacy toward a negotiated settlement. Difficult to accomplish? Absolutely. Impossible? Not at all. The last round of talks in Geneva were a failure, but that does not mean that diplomacy should cease and desist.

Three years of brutal conflict have actually produced similar discourse regarding a political settlement by elements within both President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the opposition. Neither side is monolithic: We know of the fragmentation of the opposition, but the Syrian government also has its different factions. Certainly, a moderate faction within the Syrian regime -- and I believe Assad himself can be counted in this group -- has of late been putting out a number of feelers to Western contacts regarding its vision of a "new Syria," and what it might take to get there. I recently met with top Syrian officials in Beirut, and I know of at least two other such meetings with other U.S. interlocutors in recent months.

Needless to say, there is still a vast divide on what exactly is an acceptable political settlement. The question of whether Assad should stay on as president in some capacity or go is still a combustible issue to many. But beyond this issue, there are some important convergences on the broad parameters of what a post-conflict Syria should look like.

Both regime and opposition officials, for example, tout the idea that Syria's post-conflict future should be defined by a decentralized, federal political system. Details beyond this are hard to come by, and the failure of a federal system in Iraq does not engender much confidence that it would succeed in Syria. It is also safe to say that the regime version of a decentralized political system is very different from opposition versions. The regime will want to maintain as much central government authority as possible, while the opposition -- at least those willing to consider this alternative -- will press for a devolution of power away from Damascus and toward the provinces and municipalities. Regardless of the differences, however, there is a general recognition on both sides that the "old Syria" -- the authoritarian, centralized structure that existed prior to March 2011 -- is gone, and should not be resuscitated.

The opposition's predisposition toward decentralization is fairly easy to understand. It is a reflection of the sectarian and ethnic diversity spawned and hardened by the civil war as well as the fact that many villages, cities, and provinces have essentially been on their own for some time.

Syrian regime officials, far from being advocates of a pluralist democracy, see decentralization as a strategic necessity. For them, it is the best way for components of the regime to ensure at least some modicum of power and status in the future. The regime has neither the manpower nor money -- much less the legitimacy or credibility -- to reassert anywhere close to the authority it once enjoyed over the territories it has lost, and even over much of what it nominally controls. Besides, why would it want to make concessions in political negotiations to gain back territory that has largely been destroyed?

There is also absolutely no way that the regime's military, which is even more dominated now by Alawites than it was in the past, would be allowed back into Sunni-majority villages, cities, and provinces. These areas have largely been on their own for three years, and view Alawites in general with tremendous distrust and outright animus -- an attitude reciprocated by the Alawites. From Assad's point of view, if he really wants a shot at maintaining his position while reintegrating most of the nation-state of Syria, decentralization is his only choice -- even with the recent uptick in the regime's military fortunes.

Ever since it became clear that Assad was not going to fall anytime soon, the central question for any political settlement has been this: Can the Syrian regime give up enough power to satisfy at least the minimum requirements of a critical mass of the opposition? In the end, it may prove impossible to find a satisfactory formula, but it is certainly something worthy of careful exploration. War weariness has softened what had been a litany of hard-line positions by each side, creating a potential bargaining situation where the government's political power can be traded between the provinces and Damascus. Much work remains on both sides, however, in terms of generating ideas that can potentially form the basis for compromise.

There is certainly reason to doubt the sincerity of the regime's feelers to Western contacts, as Damascus often pursues several options at once, in an effort to have its cake and eat it, too. And the regime will bargain hard in an excruciatingly tedious process wherein it will try to seem as if it is giving up power without actually doing so in a meaningful way. There is also still the question of finding -- and meticulously developing -- viable negotiating partners on the opposition side amid increasing opposition polarization. And a "new" Syria cannot just replicate sectarian authoritarianism in another form, as happened in Iraq. But what other realistic option is there for ending a conflict in a way that contributes to the Middle East's stability, rather than simply watching the war add to the regional conflagration?

If a negotiation can eventually be organized, the devil will be in the details. The problem is that neither side has really been compelled to think about the substance of its preferred form of governance in a systematic, coordinated fashion. This will take time and perseverance, as international mediators shuttle between the sides, away from the Geneva-type grand-bargain spotlight. The initial steps are quite basic: Learn about the real interests of the stakeholders, especially those on the ground, and then work with both sides to develop options that hopefully begin to reconcile competing political interests and engender further discussion -- perhaps within each side first before moving on to the bilateral level.

Assad is a key. Only he can convince regime hard-liners to realize this is the only way forward. Recent history suggests the Syrian president may not be willing or able to do this if it means him giving up power. According to a senior official in Ankara, a top Turkish official met with Assad early in the uprising in 2011 to encourage him to enact political reform. He told Assad that a Syrian president would have more legitimacy by winning 40 percent of the vote in a true pluralist democracy than the usual 98 percent of the vote in Syria's typical single-candidate referendums. Assad reportedly reacted to this by saying, "Well, what happens if I lose?" The Turkish official responded, "Then you retire."

To date, Assad has found the option of "retiring" at some point unacceptable. With his recent election "victory," Assad thumbed his nose at the very idea that he will be transitioned out in an internationally brokered agreement. Unfortunately, if he is seen as being essential to a solution, then it is likely he will see himself as essential in its aftermath.

The only solution is some medium-term path of political accommodation, resulting from creative and persistent diplomacy coupled with greater regional and international cooperation. It may take years rather than months, but it is ultimately the only way to prevent Syria from becoming a multigenerational battleground that sparks widespread regional instability. There is no time to lose, as this disaster scenario is already occurring.