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The four bills forming the “Race Protection” package are a distraction from Burma’s real political and economic challenges, and should never have reached parliament, says Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).
In a joint statement released on Tuesday, the groups say that that the bills risk an increase in violence in the country “at a time of a disturbing rise in ethnic and religious tensions, as well as ongoing systematic discrimination against women,” and would contravene Burma’s responsibilities under international law.
The four bills – namely the Religious Conversion Bill, Monogamy Bill, Population Control Healthcare Bill, and Buddhist Women’s Marriage Bill – were drawn up on President Thein Sein’s urging, after 100,000 signatures were made to a petition organised by the conservative Buddhist monkhood group Ma-Ba-Tha last year.
Speaking to DVB on Tuesday, Sam Zarifi, ICJ regional director for Asia and the Pacific, said of the proposals: “They are absolutely distracting from what parliament should be looking at, especially in an election year, and from what the political debate in the country should be about.”
To many observers, the Race Protection package is an attempt to exert control over the Muslim community in Burma. A focal point of religious tensions, Arakan State has seen severe bouts of violence between the Muslim Rohingya population and Rakhine Buddhists, which has displaced more than 100,000 people in recent years, according to data from Human Rights Watch.
In response to a question about defusing the tensions in Arakan State (also called Rakhine State), Zarifi said that what is needed is to ensure that people: “who have violated the law by engaging in attacks and assaults on other people are brought up on charges, and are properly investigated and then given the proper jail sentences. That is absolutely not happening.”
But many in Buddhist-majority Burma claim that the laws are necessary to prevent further racial and religious violence in the country. Last year, as the Speaker of the Union Parliament Shwe Mann recommended the drafting of the bills, monk Ashin Parmouhka told DVB: “If you want to see peace and an end to religious and racial conflict in Burma, these laws must be adopted. If you want more conflicts and unrest in the country, then don’t adopt the laws.”
Last month, the upper house passed the Population Control Healthcare Bill, which limits child births to one baby per mother every three years, with more than 100 supporting votes, 10 objections and four abstentions. It is now due to be discussed in the lower house, or pyithu hluttaw.
Speaking at the time, MP Hla Swe, said: “I believe that a population which is too high can be no good in terms of health. It is dangerous when there is no balance between resources and birth rate, and therefore childbirth should be limited to one per three years.”
Tuesday’s Amnesty International/ICJ statement said that, along with the Monogamy Bill, this piece of legislation on reproductive rights needs serious revision before it should even be considered.
“The incendiary rhetoric of the past few years – talking about overbreeding and a population time bomb – have been used to justify attacks, particularly on the Muslim Rohingya population,” said Zarifi.
“It is crucial for any bill that addresses these issues to clarify that it’s not intended to be used, and will not be used, in a discriminatory fashion,” he added.
In January, 180 women’s groups, networks and civil society organisations voiced their opposition to the proposed package in a signed statement which they delivered to parliament. Khin San Htwe of the Burmese Women’s Union (BWU) said that they “are concerned with the bills as they serve to directly or indirectly control and limit the rights of women.”
However, when talking to DVB on Tuesday, Ashin Parmoukha asserted that women would in fact benefit from the laws. “We demanded that parliament approves the Race Protection laws to bring about equal rights for the Burmese women who are married off to men from other religions, who are coerced to convert into that religion through physical violence and abuse.”
He is unwavering in his support for the legislation. “Our race and religion will be protected and so our country will stand firm.”
Zarifi disagrees, arguing that the proposals are not in the national interest, and in reality distract from the “huge number of very significant human rights and political and economic issues right now … that haven’t been addressed for decades.” He went on to cite issues of budgetary distribution, environmental degradation and poverty reduction as being more deserving of political attention.
All people suffer under such poor governance, he says, using Arakan State as an example. “It’s a very wealthy state, but all of the people there – regardless of their religion and ethnicity – haven’t benefitted sufficiently from the natural wealth. In fact, in many cases they have suffered from the central government’s development projects. These are the real issues in Rakhine State alone that need to be addressed,” he said.