10 September 2018 – Last month, the Syariah High Court in the state of Terengganu sentenced two Malaysian women to six lashes on their backs each with a one-metre-long cane for attempting to have consensual same-sex sexual relations. This past week, on 3 September, officers from the Malaysian Prison Department, an agency under the federal Ministry of Home Affairs, publicly caned the two women, aged 22 and 32, in a courtroom packed with around 100 viewers. The Syariah High Court also fined them approximately USD 795 (MYR 3,300) each for their alleged actions.
Not only did state authorities exploit a conflict between federal and state jurisdiction to use a degrading punishment to “educate”—or threaten—others about so-called “wrongdoing”, the caning follows a deeply concerning pattern of intensifying state-sponsored repression against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans Malaysians and human rights defenders across the country. In recent weeks, police raided an LGBT+ venue in Kuala Lumpur and ordered 20 patrons to receive counselling for “illicit behaviour” and government ministers have made a number of prejudiced statements about LGBT+ people, a community whose members face real threats of violence and discrimination in all facets of their lives.
The 46 civil society organisations of The Commonwealth Equality Network—an organisation officially accredited to the Commonwealth—stand in solidarity with Malaysian LGBT+ rights defenders and LGBT+ people, who persevere despite the enormous threats to their dignity, safety and lives.
Commenting on the current situation, Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, Executive Director of EQUAL GROUND Sri Lanka and Chair of The Commonwealth Equality Network said:
“The Commonwealth is an organisation based on shared values. By virtue of membership, States agree to uphold and embody these values. Within the Commonwealth’s Charter itself, States declare that they are ‘implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds’ and ‘accept that diversity and understanding the richness of our multiple identities are fundamental’ to the very core of what the Commonwealth is about. Responsibility for adhering to these standards applies to all Member States, Malaysia included”.
The Commonwealth Equality Network calls on the international community to demonstrate its solidarity with Malaysian LGBT+ people and activists and provide support and resources for a community under attack. LGBT+ civil society provides vital support to marginalised individuals and works in close collaboration with other groups to champion the rights of disempowered populations by participating in national, regional and global conversations about human rights.
TCEN also reiterates the call by LGBT+ groups and civil society in Malaysia for the Malaysian Government to introduce a moratorium on caning and all forms of corporal punishment; to ratify the UN Convention against Torture; to end immediately all forms of harmful, unevidenced and rights-violating activities, speech and rhetoric sponsored by the state and that target LGBT+ persons; and to repeal all laws that criminalise LGBT+ people.
This call is especially salient in light of the Indian Supreme Court’s 6 September ruling on Section 377. In this ruling, the Court recognises the many negative impacts of potential and actual persecution against LGBT+ people and of criminalising laws on them, as well as the equal entitlement of LGBT+ citizens to the enforcement of their rights. Like in India, LGBT+ rights activists in Malaysia believe that LGBT+ people are equal citizens with constitutional rights and should not be subject to discriminatory laws.
Pang Khee Teik, founder of LGBT+ group Seksualiti Merdeka, said:
“Our hope is that in the end all of this will lead to something positive. International solidarity will mean more sharing of opportunities, skills and collaboration with queer Malaysian activists, artists and writers, to create cultural tools for engaging with the public on LGBT+ issues, to sustain a community and movement to defend our rights, and to increase funding towards our terribly under-resourced LGBT+ rights work here”.