GMT Grantee Profile:
Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, Thailand
Supporting Burmese MSM Migrant Workers in Southern Thailand
- Training peer educators to provide counseling for MSM migrant workers
- Assisting MSM migrant workers in accessing STI treatment
Based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB) is a nongovernmental organization that facilitates a broad range of human rights training and advocacy programs for grassroots organizations and community leaders. HREIB was founded in 2000 by former student activists involved in the 1988 student uprising in Burma with the goal of empowering Burmese people through human rights education. HREIB recently received its second $20,000 award from amfAR’s MSM Initiative.
HREIB's peer educators work primarily with fishermen and construction workers.
HREIB’s amfAR-supported work focuses on education and counseling for Burmese migrant MSM in Ranong, a southern province of Thailand. The MSM community includes both those who openly identify as LGBT and those who are “hidden.” The latter makes up the vast majority of MSM in Ranong and consist primarily of fishermen and construction workers. It has been estimated that there are between 1,800 and 2,000 MSM migrants in Ranong.
amfAR’s funding has helped HREIB train five peer educators: One works with transgender people, two are MSM youth leaders, one works with “hidden” gay men and other MSM, and one is an LGBT community activist. Since the project began, the peer educators have participated in four intensive trainings and conducted at least 55 discussions with 597 men. They have also distributed 10,000 condoms and 198 tubes of lubricant to promote safer sexual practices.
The peer educators are trained to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, other sexually transmitted infections, and relevant human rights issues—particularly those that affect access to health services. They identify Burmese migrant MSM who frequently engage in unsafe sexual practices and who often are afraid to access health services because of their undocumented status. The educators then offer counseling—providing sexual health-related knowledge and risk reduction skills—to those who have symptoms of STIs and assist them in accessing treatment. They also help with Burmese-Thai translation in clinics.
“Sex and sexuality are rarely discussed in Burmese society,” says Mike Paller, who serves as the program manager for the peer education project. “Burmese people are predominantly Buddhist and are taught from an early age that sexual relations between those of the same sex are a ‘sin against nature’ and that those who engage in homosexual acts are being punished for mistakes made in past lives. Homosexuality is rarely talked about and acknowledged at religious, social, educational, and professional institutions.”
The peer educators understand the social stigmas in the Burmese community and are trained to address specific issues faced by MSM. For example, most Burmese migrants do not carry condoms because they are afraid of being chastised for engaging in sinful behavior.
“Most Burmese migrant MSM in Thailand have negative attitudes towards condoms,” says Paller. “Some feel that condoms reduce sexual pleasure while others argue that condoms cause erectile problems. Many MSM also believe that wearing a condom will erode the trust of their partners.”
HREIB’s work continues to dispel such beliefs and bring a sense of empowerment to a marginalized group. “The most important lesson we’ve learned is the importance of building trust in the community to raise awareness about human rights and sexual health,” says Paller. “We can improve HIV prevention by empowering MSM with peer-to-peer education.”
In their own words
Mike Paller is the Deputy Director of Human Rights Education Institute of Burma.
“One of HREIB's peer educators, an HIV-positive transgender person, was hired to replace a previous peer educator. Now he conducts HIV/AIDS and STI discussions with MSM and transgender groups. He also functions as a translator for HIV-positive Burmese migrants seeking treatment at Ranong Hospital. He has reached out to HIV-positive transgender migrants who are taking ARV drugs on their own, rather than through official service providers. Many transgender migrants do not use health service providers to get antiretroviral therapy (ART) because they don't want to let others know they are HIV positive. They are afraid to lose their sexual partners and customers at their beauty salons. The peer educator has been able to reach out and counsel them about the importance of ART. Now more HIV-positive transgender migrants are accessing ART at Ranong Hospital.”