One hundred and eighty women’s groups, networks and civil society organisations have voiced their opposition to the proposed Protection of Race and Religion bills by handing a signed statement to parliament.
The statement was signed by a wide collective, including the Burmese Women’s Union, Gender Equality Network, the Myanmar Lawyers Network, groups, ethnic rights groups, women’s groups, and other NGOs and civil society networks.
Representatives of the groups travelled to Naypyidaw on 29 January to deliver the statement, said May Sabe Phyu of the Gender Equality Network.
The four bills – namely the Marriage, Monogamy, Population Control and Religious Conversion bills – have received fierce criticism from observers from around the world since the proposals were first publicised last year.
Monk Ashin Parmouhka, is the leader of the Organisation for Protection of National Race and Religion, commonly known inside Burma as the Ma Ba Tha, who have spearheaded the campaign for the new legislation. He maintains that the laws are necessary to prevent further racial and religious violence in the country, which since 2012 has suffered several bouts of deadly communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims that overwhelmingly affected the latter.
“If you want to see peace and an end to religious and racial conflict in Burma, these laws must be adopted,” he said. “If you want more conflicts and unrest in the country, then don’t adopt the laws.”
Many observers see the Race Protection bills as attempts to subjugate and control the Muslim community in Burma. Recent bloody confrontations between Muslims and Buddhists have led to a rise in nationalism among Burmese Buddhists across the country. Human Rights Watch say there have been over 100,000 people displaced by recent communalist violence in Arakan State.
But civil society groups have also been drawing attention to the disproportionate effect that the proposed legislation would have on women.
Commenting on the joint statement presented to the government on Thursday, Khin San Htwe of the Burmese Women’s Union (BWU) told DVB that the BWU “are concerned with the bills as they serve to directly or indirectly control and limit the rights of women, who make up more than half of Burma’s population. Based on our study of the provisions in the bills, we concluded their purpose was to legally control the female population rather than to protect them.”
The women’s group’s statement has highlighted that in many respects, the proposals would be unconstitutional under Burma’s 2008 Constitution. The statement also points out that many of the laws would be in contravention of international legislation, including the Convention Eliminating All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR).
Particular attention is brought to the UDHR’s Article 7, concerning entitlement to protection from discrimination.
The statement is also explicit that the suggested Marriage Bill, meaning that women would need permission from local authorities to marry someone of a different faith, is discriminatory towards non-Buddhists. Alternatively, a Buddhist man does not need permission to marry a non-Buddhist woman.
The Population Control Bill is criticised for threatening to interfere with women’s reproductive choices, and for its ambiguities. The announcement says that, “adopting it as a law can be seen as targeted discrimination against minorities and ethnic groups.”
Adultery, marriage crises and women’s rights violations are linked to the proposed Monogamy Bill, which proposes seven-year jail sentences for having multiple spouses or extra-marital affairs. The statement goes on to say that the rights of children would also be threatened if it was to be enacted.
The signatory organisations to the statement have put forward the recommendations that they feel are necessary to prevent unconstitutional and discriminatory laws being passed. It is also pointed out that faith, reproduction and family planning should be beyond the remit of government intervention, stating that the laws would “degrade democracy and harm Burma’s reputation in the word.”
Instead, the statement suggests, Thein Sein’s regime should focus on constitution amendment and peace building, which should involve implementing “laws that are in the interests of the people”, and focus an legislative amendments and proposals that will protect women from discrimination and violence.
Thursday’s statement also presses the government to enact laws preventing hate speech, stating clearly that the Race Protection bills are counterproductive and a threat to public security.
Khin San Htwe adds that: “If the government genuinely wish to protect the Burmese women and improve their life, we would like to suggest they implement the agreements in the Convention Eliminating All Forms of Discrimination Against Women”, to which Burma has acceded.
This article was edited on 2 February 2015 to clarify that Burma has acceded to the Convention Eliminating All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.