Civil Society Groups Urge Myanmar to Drop Bills to ‘Protect’ Religion, Race

2015-01-29
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Lawmakers attend a parliamentary session in Naypyidaw, Aug. 16, 2013.
AFP

A group of 180 civil society organizations in Myanmar have called on parliament to drop four proposed bills they say contravene domestic and international laws, adding that the legislation could “destroy the stability” of society in the country by stoking religious tension if enacted.

The four controversial laws on marriage, religion, polygamy, and family planning proposed by a Buddhist organization called the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion—which is connected to a nationalist Buddhist monk group—are being debated in Myanmar’s current parliamentary session.

In a joint statement issued Wednesday, the 180 women’s networks, ethnic and religious organizations, democracy groups and special interest lobbies, said the four bills risk “inciting hatred, discrimination, conflict and tension” within religious communities, if they were to become law.

The proposed Religious Conversion Law, which would require those who want to change faiths to first obtain permission from local authorities, is in contravention of constitutional laws which entitle citizens to the right to freely practice religion and which protect them from abuse of religion for political purposes, the statement said.

The law also goes against an article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which enshrines the right to freedom of religion, including the freedom to change religion or belief, it said.

The statement said that the Health Care for Controlling Population Growth Law, “aims to legalize state control over women’s sexual and reproductive rights, including family planning and birth spacing,” which would violate the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women.

It would impact the registration of the birth of children not born in line with the draft law, as well as contravene the Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC), which ensures governments work to develop all children to their full potential and guarantees them the right to a legal name and nationality.

The Myanmar Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law “violates human rights” because it controls a person’s conditions of marriage and their private life, including the legalizing of punishment for actions contrary to the law, according to the groups, who said the draft law was also in contravention of international rights laws.

By requiring the registration of marriages for Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men, the draft is “not applying the law equally to all people,” the statement said.

The groups said the proposed Monogamy Law fails to state that polygamy under any custom or religion is prohibited and that a person who contravenes the provision shall be punished, and instead impacts negatively on women, including those who cohabit without a marriage contract.

They said that women in polygamous relationships could lose their rights because their marriages are not officially recognized, while the rights of children to life, survival and development will be violated if they are born into such marriages.

“Religion, family planning and reproduction, and marriage are subjects integral to the private lives of people,” the statement said, adding that the government “cannot and should not control these areas of people’s lives through laws.”

“In order to build a courteous and respectful community—one free of hate speech—there is an urgent need to develop laws that create balance … between diverse communities,” the groups said.

The government would be better off focusing on reforming the constitution and the development of the peace process between the government and numerous armed ethnic groups—the two issues most pressing for the people of Myanmar, they said.

Lawmaker responds

Responding to the statement, Ba Shin, a member of parliament’s Joint Committee for drafting bills, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the civil society organizations have the right to raise their objections to the proposed laws, but that lawmakers would enact legislation “after determining the needs of the people.”

He said of parliament that “there were more people who were in favor of passing the laws,” though he acknowledged that some non-Buddhist lawmakers had argued against passing the Religious Conversion Law.

“That is democracy—if this law is really necessary for the people and the country, it must be enacted,” said the lawmaker, who is a member of the Rakhine National Party.

“Just because we did not have that kind of law in the past does not mean it should be rejected.”

Ba Shin said that in his opinion “these laws are really needed in the country,” though he questioned whether all of the points in the draft legislation were necessary.

But the laws “protect Burmese women, especially Buddhist women,” he said, which is why they were necessary to enact.

The Association for the Protection of Race and Religion has said the laws are necessary to maintain stability in Myanmar, which since 2012 has suffered several bouts of deadly violence between Buddhists and Muslims as it emerges from decades under tightly controlled military rule.

Muslims have borne the brunt of the violence, many of them ethnic minority Rohingyas in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Targeting a religion

Ma Khin Lay, the founder of Yangon-based Triangle Women Support Group, one of the organizations which signed Wednesday’s statement, told RFA that in analyzing the four laws, the groups had found that they were focused on religion and “very weak” in protecting against violence towards women.

“What we would like to see are laws that will protect against all kinds of violence against all people living in our country, no matter what religion they believe in or what race they are,” she said.

She said if parliament passes the laws without taking the points made in the statement into consideration, it would be seen as “completely non-democratic” and not representative of the people.

“We know for sure which religion this bill refers to. Not only will this bill have an impact on this particular religion but also on other religions and our brethren, the ethnic nationalities,” she said.

“If that happens, it could also very well harm the efforts of our president [Thein Sein] who at this time is working very hard through a lot of difficulties to achieve peace in the country. We have to take that into consideration—this law could also create animosity amongst the ethnic nationalities.”

In its 2015 Freedom in the World survey of political and civil liberties published Wednesday, Washington-based Freedom House noted that Myanmar had begun to “veer from the path of democracy,” partly due to proposed laws “that would ban religious conversions and interfaith marriages [and] threatened to legitimize anti-Muslim extremism.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2015, published Thursday, said the rights situation in Myanmar was “a car crash” in 2014, in part because of legislation “that promotes Buddhism over other religions, including state control over religious conversion, inter-faith marriage, polygamy, and family planning.”

It noted that ultra-nationalist Buddhist monk organizations had “created a climate of fear for threatened Burmese groups that criticized the proposed laws.”

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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