Myanmar gets steamed up by sex education magazine

With its glossy pages of pouting models and racy romance tips, Myanmar's first sex education magazine has got the usually demure nation hot under the collar as it explores new-found cultural freedom.

"Hnyo" has sparked fevered debate since hitting Myanmar's bookstores in November, becoming a must-read among the young and curious, just a few months after the end of direct censorship in the former junta-ruled nation.

But the magazine proved a step too far for the country's censors, who this week banned it after just one issue, making it the first publication to have its licence revoked since the end of military rule.

Perhaps tame by western standards, Hnyo's photo spreads of semi-clad women and columns espousing "bedroom secrets" and "the benefits of cuddling" -- to the more cryptic "modern lies before marriage" -- have raised eyebrows in conservative Myanmar, earning it an adult-rating.

Its editor brushes off accusations that the monthly publication is too risque for the country, or in any way as salacious as "Playboy" magazine as critics have claimed on Facebook.

"This magazine is a combination of sex education and entertainment," Ko Oo Swe told AFP in a recent interview, saying the red label on the front page warning it is for over 18s has stirred the unfavourable comparisons.

"Issues about sex remain hidden in Myanmar. Our society is becoming more open but I think sex education is still weak," he added.

After the ban was announced, Ko Oo Swe said he plans to appeal it. He hopes to boost his magazine's social content with a greater focus on issues such as HIV prevention, prostitution and tackling violence against women.

"I am now trying to apply for a new licence as a health magazine," he said.

Hnyo -- which translates as "enchant" or "hypnotise" -- was the first magazine of its kind and proved very popular despite the relatively-expensive $3 cover price at bookstores and street stalls.

Its debut followed the abolition in August of Myanmar's stringent pre-publication censorship which had seen officials scrupulously flag photos or articles deemed distasteful to public morality, as well as stifling dissent.

But since censorship was scrapped, fashion and lifestyle magazines have started to push the boundaries with their content.

Hnyo raised the stakes, so much so that some bookshops refused to stock the magazine, saying its aim is to titillate rather than educate.

The Ministry of Information also sent a letter to the interim press council registering its unhappiness with the "unethical" lifestyle magazine.

The ministry accused Hnyo of breaching its licence as a fashion publication by printing "sex-related articles and photos that are not appropriate for Myanmar's culture".

Hnyo's young readers had hoped it could play a major role in raising awareness of sexually transmitted diseases and, in the longer term, shifting rigid social mores as Myanmar edges out of decades of isolation.

"For those who are quite old-fashioned it (sex education) is a very shameful thing," said Yoon Lae Khin, a 20-year-old student, who is also a volunteer for the Myanmar Medical Association (MMA).

"My mother understands there are things we need to know, but it is difficult to talk about sex in front of my father and siblings. So we need to get this awareness from magazines."

Medical professionals have joined Hnyo's corner, saying it is high time the country talked about sex.

"Young people do not have enough knowledge so problems such as underage pregnancy, pregnancy before marriage and infection with HIV/AIDS and venereal disease occur," said Khine Soe Win, a project officer for a youth development programme with the MMA.

"Old-fashioned people turn their noses up in disapproval" of sex education, he added, criticising them for judging the issue by the yardstick of "a culture they don't understand".

His comments were echoed by Ne Win, a doctor working for the United Nations Population Fund in Myanmar, who believes a modern, progressive media can fill the void left by the nation's reluctance to promote sex education.

"Our activities are not as strong as media coverage which can reach hundreds of readers in a short time," Ne Win said.

But the launch sparked a battle with those who see it as a threat to decency in hitherto modest Myanmar.

Mg Mg Lwin, manager of Innwa Book Store -- one of Yangon's leading bookshops -- refused to stock Hnyo despite fielding a barrage of enquiries, mainly from women, about its availability.

"Even if someone gives me those magazines to sell at my shop, I will not accept them," he said.

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