The Truth About Myanmar’s New Discriminatory Laws

This article was originally published 26 August 2015 at The Diplomat. Available here.

Last Thursday, Myanmar’s parliament approved the remaining two of four “Protection of Race and Religion” bills. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights Chairperson Charles Santiago prefers to call them the “Race and Religion Discrimination bills.” Their passage—which would allow local governments to impose a host of repressive measures—comes at a time of ongoing racial and religious discrimination and violence, part of a concerning trend in systematic Rohingya persecution. It is only more alarming as it coincides with the widespread disenfranchisement of previously registered Rohingya voters, including former parliamentarian U Shwe Maung.

These bills are inconsistent with international norms and standards and represent a clear violation of Myanmar’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Myanmar is a party to both conventions. The bills are likely to not only legitimize anti-Muslim sentiment but also provide a legal framework for increasing discrimination of Rohingya.

The package of laws has been a long time coming. They were first proposed following the establishment of the nationalist Buddhist organization known as Ma Ba Tha, which presented them as a draft to President Thein Sein in mid-2013. In December 2014, the laws were tabled for parliamentary debate beginning in January. Civil society and the international human rights community campaigned against their adoption and encouraged the Government of Myanmar to observe its human rights obligations rather than succumbing to nationalist hysteria.

Despite such concerns, in May the Population Control Healthcare Bill was the first to be approved. UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar,Yanghee Lee cautioned that the “Protection of Race and Religion” bills “risk deepening discrimination against minorities and setting back women’s rights in Myanmar.”

The bill grants regional officials the ability to establish 36-month birth spacing for target groups. The bill lacks human rights safeguards and raises serious concerns for abuse against Rohingya Muslims, who have already been subjected to decades of similarly abusive local orders.

Muslim couples that wish to marry must obtain official approval, which can sometimes take years to secure and require bribes. The Two Child Policy requires them to sign an agreement that they will not have more than two children, under threat of fine or imprisonment. The policy has led to amateur abortions that threaten women’s lives, influenced the number of women refugees, and led to the birth of blacklisted children who may never be registered, explains Engy Abdelkader, an expert on freedom of religion with the OSCE. The CRC requires birth registration and establishes the right to a nationality and identity, noting that the state is obligated to ensure these rights “in particular where the child would otherwise be stateless.”

The desire to control Muslim populations in Myanmar comes from the widespread belief in the Buddhist-majority country that Muslim communities have exceedingly high birthrates and are planning a population takeover. However, as Abdelkader points out, based on official government data, researchers at Harvard University have revealed that Rohingya actually have one of the country’s lowest population growth rates. Unconvinced by such data, Ma Ba Tha founder and ultra-nationalist monk U Wirathu continues to infuse his Buddhist millenarian sermons with narratives of Muslim population growth, and the forced conversion or widespread rape of Buddhist women.

In July, parliament passed the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill, which requires Buddhist women and men from other religions who wish to marry to register their intention publicly. They may only get married if there are no objections. It will apply retroactively to existing unions who must register as interfaith marriages. This violates the universally recognized rights to marriage and privacy, as well as equal protection of the law by applying only to Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men. It is a blatant attempt to curb interfaith marriages says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch.

The justification for protecting Buddhist women in marriage appears to arise from a gender discriminatory narrative that equates women with purity and assigns a patriarchal society with the task of protecting a Buddhist women’s purity at the expense of her agency.

In August, parliament approved the final two bills, the Religious Conversion Bill and the Monogamy Bill. The conversion bill requires anyone who chooses to change their religion to apply with a district level “Registration Board,” submit to an interview and a 90-day waiting period. Such restrictions violate the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right to freely have or adopt religion. It is an assault on privacy, also found in the monogamy bill, which targets religious minorities who are often seen as sexual deviants.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least the most recent bills are still awaiting final signature by President Thein Sein. As the November election approaches he will likely come under increasing pressure, along with the rest of his USDP Party, from Ma Ba Tha to enact them into law.

Throughout the drafting period and especially once the package of bills was introduced to parliament, Ma Ba Tha was active in campaigning for their enactment. In October, U Wirathu organized thousands in Mandalay to demand the passage of the bills. May Sabai Phyu, a human rights defender and member of the Kachin ethnic minority, revealed that Ma Ba Tha challenged parliamentarians who did not approve the bills. Senior monks told their congregations not to vote for those who did not support the bills. Some critics were labeled “traitors” and at least four civil society leaders reported receiving death threats.

Article 364 of Myanmar’s Constitution forbids the abuse of religion for political purposes, and several sections of the Penal Code criminalize deliberate assaults on religious feelings and the incitement of hatred or violence against racial or religious groups. However, there has been no investigation into these activities.

One problem that remains seemingly unanswered, as pointed out by Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists, is whether and how the bills would apply to non-citizens. This is a particular concern for the Rohingya, who have been denied citizenship and subjected to unofficial discriminatory local orders for decades.

When asked whether non-citizens living in the country would be burdened with the requirements under the religious conversion or the marriage bill, U Win Mra, Chairman of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, merely stated “that it is a very complicated thing, which the state must consider carefully.” The inability of the national human rights commission to conclusively dissuade concerns that the law would disproportionately target non-citizens raises serious concerns about implementation.

For Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya rights defender and founder of Women Peace Network Arakan, there is little uncertainty. For her, the central government’s intent with the adoption of the “Protection of Race and Religion” bills is precisely to legalize discrimination.

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EID al-Adha: A Photo Essay

Eid al-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice) is among the most significant religious observances of Islam. It is a several day performance imbued with intense symbolic forces, representing God’s test of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.

The sacrifice is held to conclude the time of Hajj (The pilgrimage to Mecca), during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah. Those who make the Hajj are called Hajji. The Hajj is the final of the Five Pillars of Islam, which also includes Shahadah: the recitation of faith in monotheism; Salat: performing ritual prayer five times a day; Zakat: giving charity to the poor and needy; and Sawm: fasting during Ramadan. According to Islamic practice, every able-bodied Muslim man and woman is obliged to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime if he or she can afford it. However, some have begun to point out that it has become over-commercialized, Hajj packages being advertised the way luxury holidays may be presented in glossy high end magazines. Outside of advertisements and articles, the Hajj is almost as mysterious to Western audiences as it is holy to Muslims.

In an article earlier this year, The Places In Between, modern travel writer Paul Theroux notes that the pilgrimage was perhaps first made more aware to Western audiences by famed British explorer Sir Richard Burton, who had himself circumcised, learned Arabic, and posed as Afghan dervish Mirza Abdullah to make the holy journey in 1853. He published an account of his experiences in a three volume series Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah. The last non-Muslim to reportedly make the Hajj was Arthur John Wavell who made the trip in 1908-1909 and later published his A Modern Pilgrim in Mecca in 1912.

The Hajj concludes with the Stoning of the Devil, Ramy al-Jamarat, where Hajji hurl pebbles at three walls in the city of Mina, east of Mecca. The ritual derives its signification from the Biblical and Quranic story that on his way to sacrifice his son, Abraham was confronted by the Devil three times and three times Abraham was commanded by the angel Gabriel to ‘stone him.’ On the third and final confrontation the Devil withdrew. It is performed to signify the adherents’ defiance of the Devil, and to signify the repudiation of one’s own devils. Ramy al-Jamarat is generally only performed by those on the Hajj. Ramy al-Jamarat is followed by the Sacrifice, which lasts for three days and marks the conclusion of the Hajj. Eid al-Adha, is performed by all Muslims, who can afford the practice, across the globe. The Guardian has a photo series of Eid being practiced around the world.

I traveled to Gabes, in Southern Tunisia, to observe the holiday with a Tunisian friend of mine and his family.

During the last few weeks leading to Eid the streets of Tunis were transformed into a veritable menagerie of bleating, wooly creatures. Corners were converted to sheep pens, hey strewn across asphalt, fluff and horns, children playing, tugging, parents bartering, buying. Many times I witnessed sheep being pulled by red leashes down the narrow alleyways wrapping around my Bab Souika home, the bleating cries of unwilling and unsuspecting sheep echoing up through my open window.

This year Tunisians complained about soaring prices. According to a survey held by the National Institute of Consumption 49% of Tunisians buy their sheep with available money from their salaries, 55% of them are obliged to borrow money, 19% resorted to saving, 4% buy the sheep by installment, and 9% supply themselves. According to an article in Tunisia Live, rising sheep prices are often blamed on greedy middle men trying to increase their profit. While at the height of the conflict in neighboring Libya, sheep were imported and sold cheaply, and despite the fact that sheep production was up by 15% this year, the price is now far higher in both Libyan and Tunisian markets. A second article relates one man’s account, “I can’t afford such prices…we need the government’s intervention to lower them so we can feed our children.” The sheep for my celebration in Gabes were purchased for 350 dinar (about 175 euro) a piece.

Wajdi, my host for Eid, and his brother Sami explained that every Muslim family or couple will get their own sheep. However, Islam does not require the practice of Eid. If you cannot afford to purchase a sheep you are not obliged to do so but around 90% of Muslims perform the sacrifice. Those who live in apartments will slaughter in the bathroom. Wajdi continued, “My mother learned how to carve a lamb and cook from her mother. My father learned how to slaughter by watching his father and I learned by watching him. But this is my first year to participate.” Wajdi is 21 years old and has been living in France for the last several years. While he grew up observing his father and older brothers perform the sacrifice this is his first year to get bloody, so to speak. He went on, “Some people will buy the sheep but don’t know how to slaughter. It has to be done in a certain way you see. They will pay a butcher to come to their home. It costs 10 dinar for the butcher to kill the sheep and another 10 dinar to skin it. Actually we should not say slaughter or kill but sacrifice… In Mecca during the Hajj people also sacrifice camels and cows. A camel is for 7 people, as is a cow. When the sheep is sacrificed we pray for our family members. We ask God for their protection. Afterwards we give 10 per cent and the best part to the poor.”

We woke early on the day of the festival. Wajdi and his father picked us up on their way back from making the morning prayer. We crossed the distances of this town, with its frontier emotional lines carved into the psychogeographic and architectural edifices and structures, dusty corners, errant piles of refuse, meandering youths, chipped paint and unfinished building projects; in Gabes there are few open shops after dark. We crossed from street corners with the names of ancient scholars and military leaders, waited at stop lights with others eager to demonstrate their piety and feast. We sat in the back seat.

In the early morning desert-cold sunlight without the salvation of coffee pulsing through my veins the passing topography morphed into deep poetic sentiments paralleled only by the knowledge of what the day would yet present. We turned off a paved street onto the uneven dirt and callused surface of unfinished country roads, with tufts of grass protruding from the monochrome of earth, the pallid faces of houses hued with the vibrant Tunisian blues on shutters and door frames. We passed a few remaining sheep, confused, calling to their friends in yards, gardens, and tiled rooms. We passed a burnt out, looted, red and stocky skeleton of a creature that might once have been a Volkswagen. A couple boys scrambled through the yards. A few women walked back from a shop. A man might have been grinning from his balcony. We parked in front of a walled home and entered past a massive lemon tree. Grabbing a few bright, young leaves on the way by our host handed us small crumbled, scented nests of citrus leaves to dab our necks, noses, and senses.

Little time was wasted. The prayers had already been made. We were told that the one who cuts the throat must be the one who makes the prayer, the main prayer for the family. The father’s traditional role. The mother seldom takes this role, we were told. The incision was made. The crimson spilled onto the pavement; the sacrifice was made, piety ensured, practice maintained, to strip the animal of its objects of distinction and usher the metamorphosis of living, breathing flesh and blood into morsel of stewed meat and remembrance of mercy.

Only male sheep, and other animals, are used for the sacrifice. One might assume the reason owes to the symbolization of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, and then a ram instead, the male, the promotion of the family line. But when I asked Sami why only male animals were used his answer was different. Not because of the above hypothesis but because, “The male is better in animals, like in humans. The female is not as good. But also, you can kill hundreds of male sheep and if you leave the female alive you will have more sheep the next year. However, if you kill female sheep who will have new sheep?” The meanings behind the male sacrifice are multifaceted and beyond the scope of this rambling entry. One might prepare a deep philosophical and historical investigation of the sacrifice. In some customs it is the female virgin which represents the paragon of sacrificial substance while in others it is the male. Throughout history the virgin sacrifice presents a strange conception of purity. What gendered predilections for the object of sacrifice have to reveal about a cultural or religious performance presents an interesting direction for further study.


 

An incision is made and the animal is inflated like a balloon. This makes removing the pelt from the tissue easier. The internal organs are pulled out and hallowed, washed, and prepared. The heads and feet are torched to burn off the hair. The animal is carved and hacked into pieces. The offal is salted and hung to dry.