A moment to applaud

It’s time for the government to put rights back on the agenda and show that it hasn’t forgotten its core values.

IT’S EASY to miss the absence of something.

The National League for Democracy government’s neutering of Ma Ba Tha in mid-2016 was so clinical and effective that U Wirathu’s mob faded from the public eye with barely a whimper. The pages of the country’s newspapers have largely been free of the group’s hate-filled rhetoric for the past six months.

The list of NLD achievements since taking office is regrettably short. But let’s take a minute though to acknowledge the significance of the NLD facing down Buddhist nationalism and rendering it largely impotent. For those who believe in the principles of equality and non-discrimination, it compensates for at least some of the government’s shortcomings.

It would have been easy for the NLD to stop there. But it has now signalled that it is going to take its campaign a step further and begin dismantling some of Ma Ba Tha’s legacy, in the form of the four race and religion laws.

Officials have said that a planned Prevention of Violence Against Women Law will override sections of the race and religion laws (see page 36 for full report).

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Frontier has not yet seen the text of the draft law but the intent, at least, makes it one the government’s most commendable actions yet. The side-lining of Ma Ba Tha last year was a political move aimed at negating a potential threat.

The new law is designed to ensure the rights of women and children that were at risk because of the race and religion laws. It also upholds Myanmar’s commitments under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, better known as CEDAW.

Given the potential for Buddhist nationalists to hijack it, it is a politically risky move but one that, at least in intent, reaffirms the NLD’s long-stated commitment to human rights.

This is welcome, to say the least. For much of its 10 months in office, human rights have taken a back seat to maintaining cordial relations with the military. We’ve had allegations of horrific rights abuses in Rakhine State, a spike in fighting in the country’s north, dozens of spurious defamation cases and a resurgence of Unlawful Associations Act cases, and the government has done little in response.

It’s time for the government to put rights back on the agenda and show that it hasn’t forgotten its core values. The Prevention of Violence Against Women Law is a good place to start.

There’s some confusion as to whether its introduction would result in the race and religion laws being amended, or simply overridden. Frontier believes they should be amended in order to comply with the new law and avoid any confusion in implementation.

This is not the only recent effort to curb Ma Ba Tha’s influence. In the wake of the assassination of U Ko Ni on January 29, the Ayeyarwady Region government prohibited Wirathu from giving a sermon in the regional capital, Pathein. Wirathu may not be Ma Ba Tha’s leader, but he is certainly its most outspoken member, and has in recent years said some vicious words about the country’s Muslim population.

Here, the government should tread more carefully. At a time of heightened tension, it may be justifiable to take preventative action of this nature in order to avoid any unrest.

However, Frontier believes that the government should typically err on the side of freedom of speech. If a speaker delivers an address that incites hatred or violence, then there are laws that could be applied in response.

There are many ways to address hate speech and discrimination. Curtailing another person’s right to speak publicly should only be a final resort.

This article originally appeared in the February 9 edition of Frontier. 

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