(The Sunday Times, May 2020)
Burma is historically familiar with ethnic strife. But now the land of maroon-robed monks is confronting discord of a different kind, as politicians, doctors and spiritual leaders turn on each other in a ferocious row about sex.
The trouble erupted over a plan to update sex education in schools, a sensitive topic in conservative Burma, also known as Myanmar, whose Buddhist monks are up in arms over a new textbook featuring sex workers and gay people.
Then Kyaw Win Thant, a 31-year-old doctor, entered the fray, accusing the monks, long held up as the nation’s moral arbiters, of watching pornography and visiting prostitutes.
His Facebook posts, since deleted, did not endear him to the monastic community.
He went to perform a ritual apology at a monastery but narrowly escaped being lynched by a baying mob that had gathered outside. He faces two years in prison for “insulting religion”.
U Pamaukkha, a prominent, nationalist monk, is at the forefront of opposition to the new sex education curriculum. “To put it bluntly, we don’t want Myanmar to become a country of whores,” he said.
Sex education, he claimed, would lead teenagers astray, resulting in promiscuity and pregnancies. “Teenage girls will not be able to finish their studies. These children will become like sex slaves.”
Politicians have jumped on the traditionalist bandwagon in advance of November’s election, when Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s leader, is widely expected to be re-elected, albeit with a smaller majority.
Maung Thin, an MP, warned parliament that the new sex education text could “arouse” students. “In our culture, women should not have sex before marriage,” he said, adding that girls should be taught about the birds and the bees by their female relatives or a doctor. “If it’s not taught properly, teenagers will stray.”
Nevertheless, sex education has broad support among women’s groups and the younger generation — and it may be much needed: according to one survey, 38% of adolescents did not know a woman could become pregnant after only one sexual encounter.
Although the urban elite has embraced modernity — along with smartphone technology — much of the country is still under the sway of superstition: women are told that washing their hair when menstruating could be fatal, and that their underwear must be washed separately from men’s so as not to jeopardise masculinity.
A 2019 survey of 1,000 unmarried adults aged 18 to 45 revealed that three out of four had never had sex education. Half of the respondents believed “sometimes a boy has to force a girl to have sex, if he loves her”.
The overwhelming majority (97%) believed that women should remain virgins until marriage and 76% thought the same for men. Gay sex is not just frowned upon but criminalised under Burma’s colonial-era penal code; and there is no word in the official Burmese lexicon for “masturbation”.
Previously, teachers have had the opportunity to broach sex in the context of “life skills”. But the topic is often ignored by teachers and students alike as too embarrassing.
“The teacher just gave us a book and let us read it by ourselves, without any explanation,” was how Myo Myat Myat Thu, 19, remembered her sex education.
As a consequence, teenagers have become used to learning about sex from the internet. “Parents are especially worried about it,” said Phio Thiha, a doctor at DKT, a family planning charity.
He has begun organising live discussions on Facebook for parents on sensitive topics such as what to do if you find your teenager watching pornography.
As for the monks, a spokesman insisted that, whatever the positions of individuals, they, as a body, were remaining above the fray. “We never said whether we agree or do not agree on the new curriculum. It is not monks’ business.”