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The link between gender and racial inequality in Burma

Many Burmese women line up every morning to offer rice and food as alms to Buddhist monks

By Dr Nyo Tun
April 27, 2014

In 1932, Burma conducted a referendum to determine whether to remain as a province of India or to become a separate nation. Some Buddhists emphasised that the Buddha was an Indian and that our Burmese ancestors are related to the Kshatriya, the caste into which Buddhas are born. Those scholars supported the notion of Burma remaining as a part of India. In opposition, the separatists’ campaign focused on the distinct social status of Burmese women, different from their Indian and Chinese counterparts. If Burma were to remain with India, the superior social status of Burmese women, even a higher status than in the democratic West, would be downgraded.

It is a source of pride for many Burmese that our nation had a distinct idea — that of the high social status of women. It is a widely held belief that for many in Burma, women are the higher sex. However it is a misconception that the social role of Burmese women is significantly correlated with our Buddhist tradition.

When a large number of Buddhist monks become involved in mass campaigns of support for the effective banning of interfaith marriage, it is a time to reconsider our assumption of the higher social status of Burmese women that we think stems from our Buddhist tradition.

In fact, according to Ma Khin Lay, former political prisoner and gender activist, “Burmese women are discriminated against within our Buddhist tradition.” Ma Khin Lay provides the example of women not being able to access to the upper square of pagodas, which males can access. In contrast, Chinese temples allow women equal access to any public place.

In Buddhist tradition, the inferiority of women is widely acknowledged. Buddhist scriptures lay down the rule that a female disciple can never be raised to the status of the Bhikkhu (venerable monk). This rule has become relaxed, in some ways, in Sri Lanka and Thailand. However the State Sangha Council of Burma upholds this form of gender discrimination.

Buddhist literature demands that girls must ask male family members for permission to marry. Even a woman’s younger brother can call on his religious right to halt a marriage he doesn’t agree with. Unsurprisingly, Buddhist monks feel they hold a legitimate role in current anti-miscegenation campaigns. As a part of their education, Buddhist monks are taught to think women lack the judgmental capability to choose what is right.

Anti-miscegenation campaigns have a long history in Burma. Popular literature published in 1930s included condemnations of “degenerative” marriages between Burmese Buddhist women and Indian men, which could only produce “impure” children, who degrade the Buddhist race and tradition.

Taking this into consideration, the past calls of colonial politicians to protect that freedom of Burmese Buddhist women seem hollow. While it might be true that Burmese women have enjoyed some equality status in their education and profession they are not necessarily liked to Buddhism, and Burmese women don’t have a high social status as many have been led to believe.

Modern Burmese monks, use a similar fictional line of reasoning to warrant their current anti-miscegenation movements, aimed at preserving their tradition of female freedoms.

We are ignoring the real challenges in society, such as the long-established discriminatory practices against women. We pretend as if our Buddhist tradition has addressed all problems that other societies are still struggling to achieve.

As well as this, while modern Burma is a nation of diverse multi-ethnic groups, the majority often excludes other groups from society and politics based on the notion that we have a particular superior tradition compared to other people.

During the decades of her house arrest, the military government launched numerous attacks on Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal life. Their accusation was mainly based on her femininity and her marriage to Michael Aris, a British Buddhist scholar from the University of Oxford.

Currently, Wirathu’s justification of constitutional article 59(f),which bars Suu Kyi from the presidency by virtue of her familial connections, is similar to the military’s past justification for their treatment of her. The military then stated that Suu Kyi’s impure children pose a challenge to our traditions.

We, the people of modern Burma, have imprisoned ourselves in the fictional accomplishments that the past anti-colonial politicians created. This fictional tradition has spoiled us in a sense that we fail to see our multi-racial and multi-traditional diversity as strengths of the nation. Instead we Burmese have come to mistrust the “other”.

Dr Nyo Tun has worked as an international consultant for EU, USAID and Gates Foundation-funded study projects which analyse strategies for national and global health issues. Prior to his international consultant work, he led public health initiatives for providing health care to marginalised populations in various regions of Burma.

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