INTERVIEW: Gender Discrimination in Authoritarian Burma

Mizzima News
Friday, October 22, 2010 - 20:00
South Eastern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Human Rights
Initiative Type: 
Online Dialogues & Blogs

With women's rights on the decline in Burma, Mizzima reporter The The interviewed Thin Thin Aung from the Women's League of Burma (WLB) in the run-up to the 2010 general election.

Q: The WLB has outlined various discriminations against women and gender inequality in Burma. So, which rights are being violated and how is violence against women being committed? What are the reasons for these violations?

A: Many women in Burma are suffering from oppression, discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual violence and it is rampant across the country. I find two reasons when I analyze the cases. The root cause of these violations is the growing militarism in Burma since the military took power in 1962 and the military culture that has developed since then. The second reason regards cultural and traditional practices followed by all ethnic races across the country that discriminate against women. Speaking to the first reason, torture and persecution against people are being committed by authorities in many areas in Burma. Under these circumstances, the security scenario has worsened and women are suffering from various types of oppression.

Q: Burma is a signatory country to the ‘Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women' (CEDAW). In which areas has Burma failed to implement the conditions of CEDAW?

A: The military regime of Burma signed CEDAW in 1997. As a signatory country of CEDAW, it is automatically committed to implement all the provisions in CEDAW. But I don't see the junta effectively implementing articles on the promotion of status of women. They are implementing the eradication of female trafficking plan. I see they are speeding up this eradication plan. But, they have failed to implement the promotion of health and livelihood for women and also failed to enact the necessary laws in this regard. The promotion of the status of women must include tackling issues regarding the elimination of women in the political decision-making process and decreasing job opportunities. These issues must be implemented and tackled by special projects and schemes.

Moreover, the regime has responsibility as a signatory country of CEDAW to eradicate discrimination against women in education. But, women are still discriminated against in education under the junta's constitution and existing educational laws. Though admitting women to some learning institutions in Burma such as medicine and engineering, qualifying marks for women are higher than required for male counterparts. This is a direct violation by the government.

Q: Do you study the policies of political parties contesting the election?

A: Some parties include some issues on women's affairs in their policy papers such as promising gender equality and to enact laws to safeguard the security of women. They are also promising job opportunities for women and the eradication of female trafficking. But, the points these political parties make are general and as such fail to effectively tackle the root causes. For instance, the policies mentioned in the manifesto of the Wunthanu NLD (a break-away group from NLD) are shocking to me. I said before that traditions and cultural practices in Burma are one of the root causes of discrimination against women in Burma. However, they look to promote women who can preserve the national culture. I am shocked to see these words in their election manifesto. What is the national culture? When we analyze it we can see the national culture is a set of disciplines that dictates to women how to behave, how to live and how to preserve the culture. These points include many violations against women. Also, some women leaders and politicians have said in their speeches that there is no discrimination against women in Burma. Women in Burma are enjoying gender equality, they say. It is very dangerous for us, because this is the attitude of urban people, the urban middle class and women intellectuals in Burma.

The attitude that there is no discrimination against women is embedded in the brains of these women. At the same time, they are saying they will fight for women's rights. They must admit there are discriminations against women and no gender equality in Burma before advocating for women's rights in Burma. If there is no discrimination against women and there is gender equality, they have nothing to do with women's rights. So, they must first admit and recognize discriminations against women and the lack of gender equality in Burma. Only after recognizing these things can they develop a programme on how to tackle these issues. But, I think they are just making superficial points in an attempt to lure women votes for their parties.

Q: After this election do you see any prospect for better security and social welfare for women and a reduction in violence against women?

A: I don't see any chance. Even after the election it will be difficult to see the elimination of violence against women, forced labor and the trafficking of women and children. The military dictatorship is the root cause of discrimination against women and violence against women. Throughout the reign of the military regime, ethnic women living in frontier areas have constantly suffered more violence, including sexual violence. Thus, violence against women can only be eradicated after the elimination of the military dictatorship. However, the main purpose of this election is to make the 2008 constitution come into force. Many provisions in this constitution suggest the continuance of military supremacy in our country.

For instance, article 445 of the constitution provides impunity for the military junta with respect to any violation of human rights. By seeing this article, it is very clear that military rule and supremacy will continue in Burma, as well as these violations. This provision seems to encourage predators to commit more crimes against women.

Q: What points in the constitution are the most important and dangerous for Burmese women?

A: If you see the provisions of this constitution you will note there are no provisions guaranteeing gender equality. Moreover, there are specific provisions that discriminate against women in education and job opportunities.

For instance, please see chapter 8 of this constitution, which says ‘women shall be entitled to the same rights and salaries as received by men in respect of similar work,' and that there shall be ‘no discrimination for or against any citizen of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar in appointing or assigning duties to civil service personnel.' But, the exception to these clauses is found in article 352, which says, ‘however nothing in this section shall prevent appointment of men to positions that are suitable for men only.' So, I'd like to point out this is absolutely unfair and unjust to women.

Another dangerous point in this constitution concerns how action can be taken against servicemen and military personnel. Military personnel can only be tried by court martial under military laws for whatever crimes they commit. They cannot be tried by civilian courts for committing crimes against civilians. The constitution says ‘in the adjudication of military justice, defence service personnel shall be tried by court martial.' Women will thus face more difficulties in seeking justice in civilian courts when crimes are committed against them by soldiers.

Q: I heard that the WLB is trying to put Burmese Army generals on trial at the International Criminal Court. What are your continuing efforts in this work?

A: Since we cannot seek justice from the un-independent judiciary system in Burma, we must put them on trial at the International Criminal Court for violations of international law. They have committed a lot of war crimes and inhumane crimes that need to be investigated by a UN commission of inquiry. About ten countries have already given their endorsement. So, we have a plan to enlist more countries in support of this commission of inquiry.

Q: In Burma, more than half of eligible voters are women. As a women's rights activist, what would you like to say to women voters?

A: When you see the result of the 1990 general election, there were only 15 female MPs-elect out of a total of 485. That is only three percent. This percentage is very low by international standards. Under this constitution too, 25 percent of total seats are reserved in both legislative bodies for the armed forces, but there are no female military personnel in the armed forces.

Further, CEDAW calls for more participation of women in the decision-making process, at least 30 to 40 percent. But the provisions in the junta's constitution are opposite to the CEDAW convention. So, we need to fight against this constitution. We must conduct legal reform by rectifying unjust provisions against women in this constitution, such as seeing women only as mothers linked with their children. We must amend these unjust and unfair laws. So, I'd like to say that women should resolutely and relentlessly oppose this election and try to amend this constitution.