Spotlight (Sept. / Oct. 2014): Women’s Rights Activists Resist Myanmar’s Proposed ‘Law On Protection Of Race And Religion’

Last March, Myanmar’s President established a committee to draft laws aimed at protecting ‘national race and religion’.

Source: AWID 06/10/2014

Last March, Myanmar’s President established a committee to draft laws aimed at protecting ‘national race and religion’. An alliance of influential Buddhist monks – from the religious nationalist movements 969 and the Association of Protection of Race and Religion (Mabatha)[i]- lobbied for the enactment of the laws via a petition that was eventually signed by approximately 4 million people.

The result was four proposed Bills, which have been condemned by women’s rights activists in Myanmar who have come together to fight them under an umbrella group known as the Women’s Network of Burma/Myanmar. “This bill will have a dire and catastrophic impact on women’s human rights, is likely to polarize and ignite further violence between religious communities in Burma/Myanmar, will cause grave damage to Burma/Myanmar’s international reputation, and threatens to derail the democratic reform process.”

In a letter to the President, as well as a joint public statement released by 97 civil society organisations, further endorsed by 166 women’s rights, development, human rights networks and faith based organisations, they asserted that the laws not only contravene international human rights, but are an attempt to distract the public in the lead up to the 2015 elections. They also noted that these laws could be used by the government as a tool for political gain at the 2015 election.  The 969 group released a statement soon after where they accused the women’s rights organizations and CSOs of being ‘traitors’. Indeed, several women human rights defenders received threatening online messages and phone calls – including death threats.

In a Buddhist majority country where extremist monks are inciting religious nationalist fervor, Thin Thin Aung from the Women’s League of Burma has said that, “What the monks say, many people do. Our group has been called traitors. It’s very difficult for ordinary people to speak out”.

According to the Network, the laws violate human rights in several different ways. For instance, it forces people to provide reasons for conversion and undergo an investigation by a registration committee to receive approval (or not) on what should be a personal decision. It also restricts the rights of Buddhist women who need to obtain permission from their parents and government officials in order to marry non-Buddhist men. This bill also forces non-Buddhist men to convert to Buddhism before marrying Buddhist women. Furthermore, the bill proposes discriminatory measures aimed at controlling the growth of the Muslim population in the country; and adds to the large number of laws in Burma/Myanmar that restrict and regulate women’s sexuality, marriage and inheritance rights, and are in urgent need of reform.

At the time of writing, it is unclear whether the government will enact any or all of the proposed Bills. As Saw Hla Tun, secretary of the Lower House Bill Committee, notes“There is a possibility that laws about the safeguarding of nationality and religion from related people will be submitted to the parliamentary meeting when it restarts on September 11”.

The context of religious nationalism in Myanmar

One of the reasons for the drafting of the laws appears to be a fear of Islam. The Rohingya people in Northwest Myanmar are a stateless Muslim minority group not recognized among the 134 official ethnic groups of the country, and viewed by authorities as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Outbursts of violence against Rohingyas by Buddhists in 2012 and 2013 led to the deaths of hundreds of people with 150,000 Rohingya’s currently housed in camps for internally displaced people that restrict their access to livelihood, food, water, travel and education. 700,000 remain in surrounding villages. Human Rights Watch described it as ‘ethnic cleansing’. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are also 200,000 to 500,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh.

Persecution of the Rohingyas should not be underestimated, with some2 asserting that it has unofficial government-backing. U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, asserted in July “I have received continuing allegations of violations against the Muslim community, including arbitrary arrests, torture and ill-treatment in detention, death in detention, the denial of due process and fair trial rights and rape and sexual violence.”

Alongside the simmering ethno-religious tensions in the Northwest, a group of influential Buddhist monks, such as Ashin Wirathu from the 969 movement, have been ‘running a broad anti-Muslim campaign’ since the political transition in 2011. Their logic is based upon a fear of Islam and Muslims ‘taking over’ Myanmar, together with the desire for Myanmar to have a Buddhist identity. Reifying Buddhism as a common thread in Myanmar’s national and political identity is the easy path to take – particularly for a country with a very recent past of protracted ethnic conflict, historically ruled by a military regime, now taking tentative steps towards reform. 

An uncertain path ahead, coupled with complex interconnections between religion, politics and nationhood in Myanmar, emphasizes how the use of valid existing human rights mechanisms to underpin any society can ensure the rights and freedoms of all people regardless of religion, gender or ethnic background. It is these instruments that women’s rights activists have turned to in their fight against the controversial Bills.

Women’s rights activists spearheading the counter-movement

The counter-movement to religious nationalism and the Bills in particular has been led by women’s rights activists, students, intellectuals and other civil society organizations. They state: “We believe that current faith–based political activities… are not in accordance with the objectives of the peaceful coexistence of all faiths… but are instead events and ideas designed to distract the public before the 2015 election… There are religious and ethnic differences among the nationals of Myanmar, and developing initiatives based on religion hinders the implementation of national solidarity and current peace building processes.”

The Interfaith Marriage Bill in particular, threatens to significantly curb women’s freedoms as well as placing the responsibility of preserving race, religion, culture and traditions solely on women. Women’s rights activist May Sabe Phyu has said “Women are portrayed as mentally and physically inferior to the men… whether it’s about faith or marriage or how many children to have – women should have the right to make their own decision about their life, and adopting this law will restrict freedom of choice.”

The Women’s Network of Myanmar/Burma have raised important questions in relation to the Bill – a representative asking “why [do] they (969 and Mabatha) propose to have religious conversion and interfaith marriage bills in which they are considering only Buddhist women? While they are trying to protect Buddhist women, what about the other women? The state should … adopt International laws and have anti-violence against women laws.” As highlighted in their public statement, elements of the proposed law do not meet international human rights standards, and do not comply with the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) that the Government acceded to in 1997.

The 969 movement has condemned the movement against the proposed laws as foreign-backed traitors “for raising the human rights issues and not [working for] the benefit of the public and not [being] loyal to the state”. This perhaps demonstrates the power of human rights discourse and that Myanmar’s transition to democracy is being watched, further underscoring the importance of international pressure to push for effective government responses that demonstrate commitment to international conventions. Clearly women’s rights activists agree. A women’s network representative told AWID recently “we are all watching every single step of both the government side and the movement of 969”.