Sex, Politics & Seksualiti Merdeka

By Mong Palatino, The Diplomat

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.