Con­tro­ver­sial laws un­der de­bate

Mizzima Business Weekly - - EDITORIAL -

After a re­cess of almost two months both houses of par­lia­ment – the Pyithu Hlut­taw and Amyotha Hlut­taw – re­con­vened on Jan­uary 19th for their 12th ses­sion since the Novem­ber 2010 gen­eral elec­tions.

Dur­ing the 11th ses­sion, that ended on Novem­ber 28, the pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion de­bate at­tracted most of the lime­light. It was even­tu­ally de­cided not to adopt the PR sys­tem and re­tain first-past-the-post for the gen­eral elec­tion due late this year.

The cur­rent ses­sion will also at­tract at­ten­tion, be­cause par­lia­ment has some con­tro­ver­sial is­sues on its plate. What, for ex­am­ple, will be the fate of the con­sti­tu­tional ref­er­en­dum planned for May to al­low the peo­ple to ex­press an opin­ion on char­ter re­form?

But pos­si­bly the big­gest is­sue be­fore par­lia­ment is a set of con­tro­ver­sial bills that were drafted in 2013 by a group of na­tion­al­ist monks, the Com­mit­tee for the Pro­tec­tion of Na­tion­al­ity and Re­li­gion, bet­ter known by its Myan­mar acro­nym as Ma Ba Tha.

The four “pro­tec­tion of race and re­li­gion laws” are meant to pro­tect the Bud­dhist re­li­gion and the rights of Bud­dhist women mar­ried to non-Bud­dhist men. The laws were sent to par­lia­ment by Pres­i­dent U Thein Sein late last Novem­ber and will be hotly de­bated in the com­ing month.

The laws have been re­vised since first be­ing sent to par­lia­ment but all four still con­tain pro­vi­sions that are con­tro­ver­sial. Bud­dhist women aged un­der 20 need their par­ents' con­sent to marry non-Bud­dhist men, for ex­am­ple. Clauses re­gard­ing the cus­tody of chil­dren and prop­erty own­er­ship in the event of a di­vorce favour the Bud­dhist part­ner. One of the pro­posed laws would force peo­ple want­ing to con­vert to ap­pear be­fore a reg­is­tra­tion board com­pris­ing of­fi­cials and el­ders, who would de­ter­mine if the per­son wish­ing to con­vert is “gen­uine” in his or her re­li­gious be­liefs.

Hu­man rights groups have warned that the laws risk fur­ther in­flam­ing ten­sions be­tween Bud­dhists and those of other faiths, many of whom are mem­bers of eth­nic mi­nor­ity groups. The Women's League of Burma be­lieves the pro­posed laws would in­fringe on women's rights.

In­ter­na­tional spec­ta­tors agree. US As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary of State for Democ­racy, Hu­man Rights and La­bor Tom Mali­nowski and UN spe­cial hu­man rights en­voy Yanghee Lee de­clared dur­ing their re­cent vis­its that the pro­tec­tion of race and re­li­gion laws are a threat to sta­bil­ity in Myan­mar.

The sit­u­a­tion was “play­ing with fire”, warned Mr Mali­nowski, who said an as­sess­ment of the laws had found they were in breach of in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights stan­dards. The Euro­pean Union re­cently re­leased a state­ment sup­port­ing this view.

Hu­man Rights Watch said the draft laws are a breach of “ev­ery tenet of reli- gious free­dom” and noted that they re­quired any Myan­mar plan­ning to change re­li­gion to “seek a se­ries of per­mis­sions from lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives of gov­ern­ment de­part­ments, in­clud­ing the min­istries of Re­li­gion, Ed­u­ca­tion, Im­mi­gra­tion and Pop­u­la­tion, and Women's Af­fairs, and wait 90 days for per­mis­sion to be granted.”

Heiner Biele­feldt, the UN spe­cial rap­por­teur on free­dom of re­li­gion or belief, said that: “State in­ter­fer­ences into the right to change one's re­li­gion or belief are per se il­le­git­i­mate and in­com­pat­i­ble with in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights stan­dards.”

But will th­ese com­ments yield any re­sult? Ever since the re­lease from prison of the out­spo­ken monk U Wi­rathu, the Myan­mar Gov­ern­ment has been spoon-feed­ing the na­tion­al­ist move­ment. As the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity has lost much of its lever­age in re­cent years it is hard to see why the gov­ern­ment would sweep its do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal agenda aside in this elec­tion year.

Maybe the Bud­dhist-dom­i­nated par­lia­ment will cause a sur­prise by re­ject­ing the laws in favour of the in­ter­na­tional con­ven­tions they breach and to which Myan­mar is a party. Maybe Nobel Peace Prize lau­re­ate and op­po­si­tion leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will fi­nally muster the courage to stand up for val­ues that she pro­claimed in the past to up­hold.

But don't bet on it.

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