Women’s Rights Activists Resist Myanmar’s Proposed ‘Law on Protection of Race and Religion’
AWID recently spoke with a representative from the Myanmar/Burma Women’s Network and the Women’s League of Burma about the proposed ‘Law On the Protection of Race and Religion’.
Earlier this year, the government of Burma/Myanmar published four draft Bills, known together as the “Laws On Protection Of Race And Religion”. If implemented, the Bills would further restrict women’s equality and freedom, fail to comply with international human rights standards, and add to the discrimination against the already persecuted Rohingya people. The draft Bills have been widely condemned, including by women’s rights activists in Burma/Myanmar who have come together to fight them under an umbrella group known as the Women’s Network of Myanmar. The Network has openly spoken out against the laws in a letter to the President and 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. The extreme religious nationalist 969 group released their own statement soon after, accusing the women’s rights organizations and CSOs of being ‘traitors’. Several women human rights defenders received threatening online messages and phone calls – including death threats.
The laws, which include the Religion Conversion Law, Interfaith Marriage Law, Population Control Law, and the Monogamy Law, violate human rights in several different ways. The Bill imposes a patriarchal concept of marriage that assumes women pass from property of the father to the husband, violates the right to exercise freely and without fear of intimidation their belief, religion, choice of partner and sexuality and has the potential to violate their freedom of expression, association and movement. 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 forcing them 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 Myanmar that restrict and regulate women’s sexuality, marriage and inheritance rights. Thus, the purpose of the four draft Bills is to, essentially, foster a nation of one religion and one ethnicity, while marginalizing or even criminalizing others, thus hindering Burma’s/Myanmnar’s transition to democracy, to rights-based Constitutional protections, to national peace processes and instead escalates inter-communal conflict – which has long existed.
Activists assert that the laws not only contravene international human rights, but given a complicated context where extremist monks are inciting religious nationalist fervour amongst the Buddhist-majority population, the passing of the bill is a political tool in the lead up to the 2015 election. As Thin Thin Aung, from the Women’s League of Burma notes, “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 last news received it was expected that the government would finalize the drafting of these laws by October 2014.
A Synopsis of Religious Nationalism in Myanmar
The drafting of these Bills is part of a long history of systematic persecution in Burma of the Rohingya people. The Rohingya people of the Rakhine State in North West Myanmar are a stateless Muslim minority group not recognized among the 134 official ethnic groups of the country, and viewed by authorities and locals 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.
Alongside the simmering ethno-religious tensions in the Northwest, a group of influential Buddhist monks have been ‘running a broad anti-Muslim campaign’ since the political transition in 2011. However, this anti-Muslim sentiment has been long standing, reinforced by the military regime, and extreme monks who spread hatred and violence and dehumanization of the Rohingya people further marginalizing them from mainstream Buddhist society. This inter-communal conflict and tension has spread to other parts of Burma/Myanmar backed by political players and extremist Buddhist monks, also known as 969 movementled by U Wirathu and the Association of Protection of Race and Religion (Mabatha), who have been the primary supporters of the aforementioned Interfaith Marriage Bill. In fact, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, notes that the “ persecution against the Rohingya community could amount to crimes against humanity”. Human Rights Watch described it as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and the Global Minorities Alliance calling it ‘a silent genocide’.
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.
Further more, claims of radicalization and recruitment of Rohingya men, especially youth, by Islamist groups supported by Saudi Arabia, while never proven to be true, has served as ammunition to fuel to the argument of a fear of an Islamist invasion of Burma, thus strengthening, deepening, and solidifying sentiments of patriotism and survival amongst Buddhists. In simpler terms, the cleansing of the Rohingya people is construed to be a necessary act of violence for the survival of Myanmar’s ‘authentic’ national identity.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are also 200,000 to 500,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh, with authorities there announcing in early September, 2014 that they will send back over 2,000 Rohingya refugees to Myanmar – straight back into communal tensions between Buddhists and Muslims. International aid workers fled Rakhine State in April 2014 after being targeted by Buddhist mobs who threw rocks at homes and offices over perceived humanitarian bias towards Rohingyas. International aid organizations in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh were also been asked to cease operations by the government in an attempt to make life as difficult as possible and deter others from seeking refuge.
With international shock and disappointment, Aun San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is allowing the persecution of the Royingya to continue with impunity, even denying that there is any specific violence or marginalization directed towards them
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. Indeed, Women’s Groups and CSOs state: “We believe that current faith–based political activities, including the arguments against interfaith marriage currently taking place in the country, are not in accordance with the objectives of the peaceful coexistence of all faiths and the prevention of extreme violence and conflict, 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 - representative Agatha Nu Nu asking: “why [do] they (969 and Mabatha) propose to have religious conversion and interfaith marriage bills in which they are considering only Buddhist 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.
Holding the government accountable to international human rights conventions and the reminder that Myanmar’s transition to democracy is being monitored, further underscoring the importance of international pressure and solidarity with the with the women’s right activists and CSO’s advocacy efforts. 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”. She says they will continue their collective action based on what steps the government takes.
 Myanmar acceded to Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women CEDAW in 1997  For example, Human Rights Watch argues that the law would politicize religion and encourage further repression and violence against religious minorities. http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/05/29/burma-drop-draft-religion-lawSee also: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/06/11/us-myanmar-religion-usa-idUSKBN0EM2NZ20140611; http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=48094#.VA5ZofmSyGc; http://edition.cnn.com/2014/05/29/world/asia/myanmar-interfaith-marriage-laws/  And to a broader range of politicians including the Lower House speaker Thura Shwe Mann  http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/04/22/burma-end-ethnic-cleansing-rohingya-muslims;http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/27/us-myanmar-969-specialreport-idUSBRE95Q04720130627; and http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/2/25/rights-group-blastsmyanmaroverrohingyapolicies.html  APWLD condemns attacks and threats against women human rights defenders in Burma / Myanmar targeted for opposing the Interfaith Marriage Bill,  For some analysis of these two groups, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/07/opinion/the-people-vs-the-monks.html?_r=0; http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/27/us-myanmar-969-specialreport-idUSBRE95Q04720130627; http://www.aljazeera.com/video/asia-pacific/2013/06/201368111727397847.html  Tomas Ojea Quintana as quoted in “UN envoy warns of possible ‘crimes against humanity’ in Burma” in The Star, April 8th, 2014. Available online http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2014/04/08/un_envoy_warns_of_possible_crimes_against_humanity_in_burma.html  Statement of Women’s Groups and CSOs on preparation of draft Interfaith Marriage Law in Myanmar - See more at: http://humanrightsinasean.info/campaign/statement-women%E2%80%99s-groups-and-csos-preparation-draft-interfaith-marriage-law-myanmar.html#sthash.cmedgJYW.dpuf