Ma Ba Tha Resists Reforms to Race and Religion Laws

By Nyein Nyein 27 January 2017

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — A Ma Ba Tha central committee member announced on Friday that the Buddhist nationalist group will not accept new amendments to the Race and Religion Protection laws.

Earlier this week, Upper House parliamentarian U Mya Thaung said amendments would have to be made as Parliament prepares to introduce a long-awaited bill for the prevention of violence against women. But as the amendment news came out, Ma Ba Tha—also known as the Association for Protection of Race and Religion—quickly prepared for possible nationwide demonstrations, according to Maung Thway Chon, a Ma Ba Tha central committee member and writer.

“If the Race and Religion Protection laws are amended, Ma Ba Tha will not accept this,” said Maung Thway Chon. “The government will have to face unwanted consequences and will be in trouble. All the people across the country will come out into the streets if Parliament dares to try it.”

The four laws related to race and religion—the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Act, the Population Control Law, the Monogamy law, and the Religious Conversion law—were first proposed by Ma Ba Tha in 2014 and formally adopted by former President U Thein Sein’s government in 2015.

When the race and religion laws were passed, it was claimed that they would protect Burmese Buddhist women from abuse and violence.

The new bill to prevent violence against women has been in development for years. Women’s rights groups first proposed the legislation in 2013, and the precise terms of the bill are still being negotiated by rights activists and the Ministry of Social Welfare.

“From a human rights perspective, it is unavoidable that we will have to amend the Race and Religion Protection laws. The existing laws do make some good points, so we would only need to amend them and not revoke them entirely,” said Upper House lawmaker Dr. Mya Thaung, who chairs the committee on women and children’s rights.

Dr. Mya Thaung also pointed to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as an example. The UN committee recommends that governments remove or amend any laws that exclude or restrict women on the basis of sex.

“We’re planning to submit the violence against women bill in 2017. And before that can happen, the Race and Religion Protection laws must be changed. We have to do this to avoid a conflict between the two laws,” said Dr. Mya Thaung.

Once the new bill is submitted to Parliament, a committee will review the proposed law and follow the procedures for adopting the law, he added.

Both lawmakers and women’s rights activists agree that the purpose of the Race and Religion Protection laws was not solely to shield women from abuse, but that there was also a political agenda at work when the laws were passed in 2015. Today, the activists are pushing for a comprehensive bill to protect women from violence.

So far, negotiations for the comprehensive anti-violence bill are making positive progress, according to May Sabe Phyu, director of the Gender Equality Network, a rights group that is collaborating with the Ministry of Social Welfare. She thinks it was a positive move by the NLD government to show interest in the UN CEDAW committee and to raise awareness about the issue.

But the new law should not be delayed for a long time, she added.

“We want a new law that prevents violence and guarantees better protections for women. What we don’t want is an incomplete law that might be hard to amend in the future,” said May Sabe Phyu.

Another positive change, she said, was the reformation of the Myanmar National Committee for Women’s Affairs (MNCWA) in late December. The government tasked the MNCWA with implementing policies related to the advancement of women and the protection of women in conflict areas.

On Tuesday, the NLD government held a consultation with women’s rights activists in Naypyidaw to discuss the CEDAW committee’s recommendations. Those who attended the meeting agreed that the government would follow up with the UN committee by June 2018 to evaluate how well Burma was making progress.

Recently the UN CEDAW committee compiled a list of 56 recommendations for the Burmese government, based on a report the government submitted in 2015. One of the key issues the committee raised was to remove or amend discriminatory laws—and the interfaith laws were placed in this category.

“Discrimination against women has been continuous in Burmese society because of some longstanding misperceptions,” the Minister of Social Welfare, Dr. Win Myat Aye, announced on Dec. 30 in an address to women’s groups. “Gender-based violence against women is a human rights violation, and the abuses are happening in many different ways in different places.”

Htet Naing Zaw contributed to this report.