Posted in Ideas & Impacts on Oct 30, 2020

Equality, dignity and non-discrimination

Twenty-five civil society organisations have outlined some of the most pressing reforms necessary to protect human rights and democracy in Myanmar. An [online platform]( will be launched on 9th October 2020, where election candidates from all parties will be able to sign up to these pledges and commit to taking action in the Hluttaw or in government, if elected. Members of the public will be able to see which candidates support the various legislative or policy reforms, helping to inform their choice at the ballot box. After the election, the platform will be used to monitor progress with reforms. To mark the launch of the platform we will be publishing a series of articles on the pledges between now and the elections on 8th November.

Myanmar, by signing the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), has indicated to the world that as a nation, we are committed to equality. Article 1 of the UDHR states that all are free and equal in dignity and rights, and Article 2 asserts that everyone is entitled to rights and freedoms, regardless of their race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Sadly, from talking to civil society for this pledge project, it is all too clear that Myanmar remains far from realising its commitment to equality, dignity and non-discrimination. Many people are formally denied the same rights as others simply because they are born a woman or an ethnic minority, or because they have disabilities. The poor are treated as lesser human beings than the rich and powerful.

Some laws, such as citizenship and race/religion laws, were specifically drafted by racist ethno-nationalist men to deny ethnic minorities and women their rights, whilst other laws are routinely abused in order to silence anyone who speaks up about the discrimination they face. Discrimination and inequality also pervades society, as demonstrated recently with the outrageously sexist advertisement released by disgraced director Yone Lay. When authorities do not condemn such things, they are complicit in furthering a culture of discrimination. An extreme of this is when an authority figure denounces a victim’s claims of sexual assault as ‘fake rape’ before even investigating such claims, sending out the message to all future would-be perpetrators that they can act with impunity, and telling women they will be shamed as liars if they speak up.

One of the reasons discrimination persists is because the state – the institution whose responsibility it is to protect equality and human rights for all people are not able to understand what it feels like to be marginalised and discriminated against. Given all political and economic institutions in Myanmar are overwhelmingly led by older Bamar men it is perhaps unsurprising that, for example, the Hluttaw regularly brings forward legislation on economic matters that will help the government’s friends in business; but when asked to pass a law to protect women from domestic violence it takes over 8 years, and still has not been passed. Similarly, the government claims to represent all ethnicities, but has not made any moves to revoke the Citizenship Law or the four race and religion laws, which are deeply racist pieces of legislation.

The evidence of discrimination and inequality in our public institutions surrounds us all, every day:

  • The government regularly invests in public infrastructure whose design excludes less able users. For example, the design of pedestrian bridges recently constructed in Yangon have further excluded wheelchair users from public life of the city.
  • In spite of claiming to want to be a modern, developed nation it remains, in 2020, a criminal offence to be in a same-sex relationship in Myanmar.
  • The poor and impoverished in Myanmar are treated like second class citizens. When a landslide at a jade mine in Hpakant killed hundreds of people in July this year, investigative measures were plagued by intentional conflicts of interest designed to prevent any wealthy mine owner from taking blame. Public officials even suggested the desperately poor artisanal miners were themselves responsible. The message is that if you are wealthy, you can act with impunity, if you are poor, you have no rights.

Whilst Myanmar has seen significant new investment in infrastructure (Ex. the Yangon Bus Services or rural roads) that will help the poor, and funding for health and education has risen rapidly, this spending has come from a very low level and is not benefitting all people equally. Further large-scale investment in human capital – health, education and a social safety net – are required. Government should also carefully reconsider its priorities and ask itself difficult questions about spending – such as whether billions of dollars should be spent on a ‘new city’ when so many people live in slums and cannot afford to feed their families.

In order to arrest this decline in equality and the formal and informal discrimination faced by so many people in Myanmar, the pledge platform launched on 9th October will invite prospective Hluttaw candidates to agree with or commit to the following statements:

  • All people in Myanmar have the same rights regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or disability. The state has a duty to prevent any discrimination based on these characteristics.
  • The government must be accountable for raising awareness to the public that various identity-based groups have equal rights.
  • More government funding must be committed to the protection of women, girls, children and vulnerable groups.
  • The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission must undergo significant reforms to ensure selection of commissioners is transparent and includes civil society members; its proceedings and decisions are published, and; those experiencing prejudice in Myanmar society will be more proactively defended.
  • Instead of a Hate Speech Law – which claims to protect victims of hateful and degrading speech, but in reality will simply create yet another piece of ‘defamation’ legislation to protect the powerful – government should pass an Equality and Anti-Discrimination Law.
  • More women should be appointed to government leaderships positions.
  • Policies must prioritise issues of gender equality and the promotion of women’s rights as a legal duty of all government bodies, supported by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement which should have increased focus and resources for this.
  • Victims of violence have been waiting over 8 years for a new law to prevent and protect women from domestic violence. The current ‘PoVAW’ Bill should be strengthened though comprehensive consultation with civil society, and passed as a high priority of the new administration.
  • Law and provisions which criminalise same-sex marriage will be revoked, including Section 377 of the Penal Code.
  • Gender terminology in government policy and legislation should be trans and non-binary inclusive.
  • Laws and policies which exclude people with disabilities from political participation will be reviewed and revoked.
  • All public infrastructure must be designed to be inclusive for people with disabilities.
  • The government has a duty to protect the rights of all ethnic minorities in Myanmar. No policies or laws should be implemented that result in unequal impacts for different ethnic groups, and all policies and laws that currently do so must be scrapped.
  • The government will never discredit claims of rights violations – such as sexual violence, attacks on ethnic minorities – before those claims can be properly assessed through the justice system.