Thilaga Sulathireh: Malaysian LGBTI human rights defender

Thilaga Sulathireh initially joined the struggle for LGBTI rights in Malaysia in response to her own experience of discrimination and harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. She now devotes herself to promoting and protecting the rights of others. 

‘I’m queer, and it just made sense to be part of the LGBTI movement.’

Thilaga Sulathireh initially joined the struggle for LGBTI rights in Malaysia in response to her own experience of discrimination and harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. She now devotes herself to promoting and protecting the rights of others. The violence and discrimination inflicted on the LGBTI community in Malaysia, particularly on trans people, strengthened Thilaga’s determination to promote transgender rights, and challenge patriarchal norms and oppressive religious traditions and values.

As the founder of several LGBTI campaigns, such as Justice for Sisters, Thilaga and her colleagues aim at raising awareness about the violence experienced by the LGBTI community. Together with the trans community they organise workshops and performances, which aim to raise both awareness and funds.  

Most often these events are conducted in private or semi-public spaces. Given the risk of violence the trans community faces, Thilaga describes it as an ‘underground’ movement, reaching out to possible allies in civil society rather than confronting those with entrenched anti-LGBTI attitudes, such as people with extreme religious views. Thilaga highlights the importance of awareness-raising amongst civil society, as many ignore LGBTI issues. She says that the responses to date from human and women’s rights movements have been positive, citing as an example the inclusion of more LGBT people in panel discussions and events convened by ‘mainstream’ human rights organisations. At the civil society level, she says, the situation of trans people is moving ‘in the right direction’.  

‘We see trans people coming out to speak on their issues on their own terms’

Thilaga sees her greatest achievement as an advocate as the fact that trans people are beginning to speak out on their issues for themselves. At the heart of the campaigns that she participates in is the goal of empowering the trans community; seeing them develop their own advocacy strategies and discourse instead of ‘piggy-backing on LGBTI advocacy’. Unfortunately the number of violent acts against LGBTI people following the banning of the festival Seksualiti Merdeka in 2011 pushed the LGBTI community, and especially trans people, back into the shadows of invisibility.

The festival, that Thilaga helps to organise as an awareness-raising event, was banned by the Malaysian Government, which publicly described it as a ‘free sex festival’. With Seksualiti Merdeka at the centre of attention in Malaysia, the LGBTI community became a scapegoat for the Malaysian State and society. The Government extended the law forbidding the act of cross-dressing to the state of Pehang; ‘anti-free sex’ campaigns and rallies were organised in schools and universities; and groups released guidelines on how to ‘recognise’ homosexual men and women. The Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Religion established a ‘corrective’ programme for Muslim trans people, Mukhayyam, enticing them with microcredit they would acquire by the end of the programme.

Although a multi-ethnic State, Malaysia has a dual legal system of Sharia and civil law. The Malaysian government also especially targets Muslim LGBTI persons, depicting them as blasphemous. Similarly, it is especially Muslim LGBTI rights defenders that face the greatest risk in Malaysia, including harassment, intimidation and threats. Consequently very few LGBTI defenders are Muslims. According to Thilaga, the number of LGBTI defenders in Malaysia is very limited – she says she can ‘count them on two hands’.

These defenders, along with human rights defenders working on allied issues, experience great restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. The banning of the NGO coalition COMANGO, of which Thilaga is a member, and which engaged with the Universal Periodic Review of Malaysia, exemplifies the restrictions imposed by the Malaysian government on civil society. The Malaysian Home Ministry considered the activities of COMANGO as antagonistic to the Muslim faith, as they are supporting the LGBTI community. When the Human Rights Council urged Malaysia to embrace collaboration with COMANGO during the UPR instead of perceiving it as a threat, the country simply ignored this issue in its right to reply. The ban was later quietly reversed.

‘We need more progressive Asian countries in the Human Rights Council’

According to Thilaga, although a number of Asian countries are relatively open, tolerant and democratic at the national level, including Indonesia and the Philippines, this is not reflected in their positions at the regional or international levels, especially on LGBTI issues. She also regrets that Malaysia’s position as a co-founder of ASEAN, and with a strong economy which attracts migrants from across the region, tends to dissuade more progressive States from confronting Malaysia on issues of LGBTI rights and human rights more generally. 

Another problem Thilaga sees is the selection of member States in the Human Rights Council. Given Malaysia’s problematic human rights record, Thilaga wonders how it is possible that her country was twice elected a member of the Council. She urges a better selection process of the members, as well as a basic education on human rights for the elected countries.

At a civil society level it is also difficult for progressive and critical voices to be heard. A major issue for civil society in Asia is a lack of resources. As Thilaga explains, the severe situation for LGBTI people in Africa understandably leads to resources being channelled that way, while the human rights situation of Asian countries is not perceived to be as worrisome. As a result Asia tends to fall off the radar, leading to a shortage in resources and support from outside.

‘I see people becoming empowered. I see my friends standing up to police and asking “WHY are you arresting me?”’

Given the recent developments in Malaysia and the limited space for civil society, one might wonder, what gives Thilaga hope in continuing her work?

Thilaga’s hope lies in the small steps, the small successes. Because the Government does not deliver any hope for change in the near future, her own hope for change is through a bottom-up approach, at the level of the people rather than at an institutional level. As much as there is a need to change the Government’s view, there is also a great need to change public perception, she says.

Thilaga also has hope that Malaysia will not follow in the footsteps of States such as Uganda, Nigeria and Russia, in criminalising homosexuality. She points to Malaysia’s will to become an economically developed nation by 2020 and suggests that Malaysia’s desire for economic development will hold it back from ostracising itself from the international community through such a regressive step.

Lene Swetzer is an Intern at the International Service for Human Rights in Geneva

For more information on the work of Thilaga see

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