By Jared Ferrie
PHNOM PENH, Feb 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An LGBT festival opened in Myanmar on Thursday after authorities allowed organisers to hold the launch event in public for the first time in the Southeast Asian nation where same-sex relations remain illegal.
Hla Myat Tun, a co-director of the &PROUD festival, said it was a surprise that an application to hold a "kick off party" in a public area in commercial capital Yangon was approved - and also that 10,000 people attended the two-day event last weekend.
He said authorities have in the past denied lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups permission to hold smaller gatherings to mark events such as the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.
"This is a big step," Hla Myat Tun told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Yangon.
"It was a big surprise for all of us, that number of participants."
The main festival with performances and film viewings begins on Thursday and runs until Sunday in the walled garden of the French Institute where it has been held for the past few years.
Myanmar has a law that criminalises "unnatural sex", which Hla Myat Tun said was rarely enforced but fuelled discrimination against LGBT people who are often denied jobs or fired if their identity becomes known.
Activists have been lobbying members of parliament to speak out against the law, said Hla Myat Tun, as LGBT acceptance grows in parts of Asia.
"They're not there yet," he said.
However, he suspects LGBT activists' efforts were a factor in getting approval to hold the launch in a public space.
The unexpectedly large crowd over the weekend also indicated widespread public support for the community, said Hla Myat Tun.
"Lots of non-LGBT people came and enjoyed the festival," he said. "It was a really beautiful moment."
Taiwan last year gave same-sex couples the right to marry which was seen as a shot in the arm for the gay rights movement in Asia and Hong Kong will host the 2022 Gay Games, the first Asian city to hold the sports and cultural event. (Reporting by Jared Ferrie, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, resilliance and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)