Is EU doing enough to back LGBTQ rights in Southeast Asia?

The EU has come under flak for not loudly speaking up for LGBTQ rights in Southeast Asian countries where those rights are most at risk. But is the criticism justified?

Representative image (photo: DW)
Representative image (photo: DW)


On June 4, the European Union's delegation to Thailand attended the annual Bangkok Pride Parade in celebration of Pride Month, which lasts the whole of June.

Thailand is routinely ranked as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly countries in Southeast Asia. The Move Forward party, which won last month's general election, has said it would quickly enact same-sex marriage legislation, the first in the region, if it is able to take office in August.

While the EU is praised for its outreach on LGBTQ issues in the region, there is the perception that it is more vocal about LGBTQ rights in countries where such rights are more established, yet is hesitant about discussing LGBTQ issues in countries where those rights are most precarious.

"Diplomacy is practically about compromise. Unfortunately, to be able to keep healthy relations with other governments, one must set aside a controversial agenda," said Joel Mark Baysa-Barredo, an academic-activist and executive director at SHAPE SEA, a regional educational organization.

"I see this as a problem in the long run," he told DW. By merely scratching the surface on critical issues, it has led to a culture of tokenism, "which we normally see during pride month," Baysa-Barredo said, adding that it will further harm vulnerable people, whose needs are not adequately addressed.

The EU's dilemma

EU delegations are apparently wary of "offending" national governments by discussing such sensitive matters as LGBTQ rights, especially as Brussels is negotiating new cooperation pacts and free trade deals with the likes of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Homosexual relations were de-facto criminalized in Indonesia last December after a change to the criminal code. They have been illegal in Malaysia for decades and its current prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was twice jailed for sodomy after "politically motivated" campaigns against him.

In May 2022, the British ambassador to Indonesia, Owen Jenkins, was summoned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to express "its concern and disappointment" after he flew the rainbow LGBTQ flag at the British Embassy, according to an Indonesian government statement. "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs regards this action as highly insensitive," it said in the statement.

"There is a need to be mindful of the particular sensitivities of LGBTQ issues among interlocutors, on the one hand, and the specific vulnerabilities of LGBTQ persons, on the other," Peter Stano, an EU spokesperson, told DW.

"We believe that a consistent but persuasive approach, rather than a public and conflictual approach, may be more likely to have a positive effect," he added.

"This means that from a public diplomacy point of view, EU delegation engagement will be more visible where there are highly visible events in which EU Delegations take part, such as the Bangkok Pride."

Slow progress on LGBTQ rights

On May 16, International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, the Council of the EU issued a statement calling on "all 67 state jurisdictions worldwide that still criminalize homosexuality, 11 of which impose the death penalty for consensual same-sex relationships, to immediately end this discriminatory practice."

Brunei is one of those eleven countries. Under its version of Sharia law, the "crime" of sex between men, as well as adultery, is punishable by stoning to death, although no executions have been carried out since 1957. The country's Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, in 2019 extended this moratorium amid a tightening of morality laws.

There is a slow march of progressive legislation across Southeast Asia. Last August, the Vietnamese government declared that being gay, bisexual, or transgender should no longer be considered an "illness," and the Ministry of Health instructed medical professionals not to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

Three months later, Singapore's parliament decriminalized sex between men, a law that had dated back to before the city-state's independence, although a constitutional amendment blocked full marriage equality.

On the other hand, the Indonesian parliament passed a new criminal code last December that makes sex outside of marriage illegal. As Human Rights Watch pointed out: "Same-sex couples cannot marry in Indonesia, so this clause also effectively renders all same-sex conduct illegal."

Malaysia came in the bottom-20 rankings of countries for LGBTQ openness in the latest Spartacus Gay Travel Index, a survey of global attitudes. Thailand, the highest placed Southeast Asian country, was ranked in 51st place, on par with Italy. Vietnam came in 56th.

Former colonies of France, like Vietnam and Laos, have never criminalized homosexuality, although the tolerance levels in their societies vary.

The political power of the Catholic Church in the Philippines and of Islam in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei is another factor that features in this debate. In May, a furor erupted in the Philippines after Catholic bishops pushed back against the Department of Education setting a new school curriculum that includes discussions of the LGBTQ community.

Europe can do more

Dede Oetomo, a campaigner and founder of the Gaya Nusantara Foundation, which advocates for LGBTQ rights in Indonesia, says the EU and European states have been supportive of LGBTQ issues in Southeast Asia.

"Being based away from the capital," said the campaigner whose organization is based in Indonesia's second-most populous city, Surabaya, "I hope assistance can also be directed towards organizations away from the capitals."

"When leaders visit, they should diplomatically and in a friendly way remind Southeast Asian governments of the importance of being inclusive of people of all diversities," adding that long-term engagement needs to be attempted, especially around "progressive, humanist interpretations of faith."

Peter Stano, the EU spokesperson, pushed back on the claim that the EU has been "quiet" in some countries. He noted that the EU has publicly and diplomatically raised concerns about the implications of Indonesia's new criminal code for the LGBTQ community while also supporting local human rights groups in the country.

In Malaysia, the EU has organized a dialogue session with local human rights defenders during Pride Month and is planning several LGBTQ-related activities for later this year.

In 2019, it supported the popular documentary "Lotus Sports Club," a coming-of-age story of LGBTQ girls in rural Cambodia.

"Where similar events do not exist, or LGBTQ civil society itself adopts a lower profile, we nevertheless engage," Stano said, adding that "tailormade approaches…are an important tool to identify the best way forward in different contexts."

Edited by: Shamil Shams

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