By Michael Taylor
KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Asian countries holding elections this year must be ready to protect the rights of LGBT+ communities ahead of a likely rise in anti-gay rhetoric by politicians, rights groups said on Tuesday.
A number of countries across the region are set to go to the polls in 2019, including India, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, and rights advocates fear lawmakers may try and appeal to conservative voters by targeting LGBT+ people.
"LGBTI people are always the scapegoat and an easy target to blame by politicians during elections," said Suki Chung, an LGBT+ rights campaigner at Amnesty International in Hong Kong.
"It comes as no surprise that some politicians from time to time make homophobic remarks or speeches to impress the conservative electorate in their countries," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Socially conservative attitudes prevail across Asia, and deep-rooted biases have hamstrung progress on gay rights.
Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei ban sexual relationships between men, and Indonesia has seen an increase in raids targeting LGBT+ people in recent years.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo has picked Islamic cleric Ma'ruf Amin as his running mate for this year's presidential election - a move criticised by human rights groups who cited fatwas issued by Amin that condemned LGBT+ individuals.
In neighbouring Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad says same-sex marriage or gay and trans rights could not be accepted.
More recently, a lawmaker for Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party was criticised last week after he warned that "a country would collapse" if everyone became gay or trans.
"Politicians should realise that they are playing with the lives of LGBTI people when they speak out against us," said Ging Cristobal, project coordinator at OutRight Action International.
"Citizens in countries who do not respect or tolerate LGBTIQ people may see statements from politicians as a license to harm, abuse and discriminate," Manila-based Cristobal said.
No countries in Asia allow same-sex couples to marry or enter civil unions of any kind and opponents of same-sex marriage say such unions could destroy society and family institutions.
Despite this, more politicians across Asia are starting to support the human rights of LGBT+ people as attitudes and legislation slowly changes said Amnesty's Chung.
She cited India scrapping a colonial-era ban on gay sex last year, and a draft bill in Thailand that could soon allow civil partnerships and make it the first Asian country to legally recognise same-sex couples.
Hong Kong also recently agreed to recognise overseas same-sex partnerships when granting dependent visas, and Taiwan could still legalise same-sex marriages despite voters rejecting the idea in a referendum, Chung said.
"While there will be some politicians saying something homophobic, we usually see that those remarks are not well received," she said.
"Overall, we see that more and more politicians are making it clear that discrimination has no place in Asia." (Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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