COMMITTEE ON ELIMINATION OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN CONCLUDES CONSIDERATION OF MYANMAR REPORT

26 January 2000
WOM/1166

COMMITTEE ON ELIMINATION OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN CONCLUDES CONSIDERATION OF MYANMAR REPORT

26 January 2000

Press ReleaseWOM/1166

COMMITTEE ON ELIMINATION OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN CONCLUDES CONSIDERATION OF MYANMAR REPORT

20000126

The detention of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi could be misconstrued as a deliberate attempt by the Myanmar Government to discriminate against women, the representative of Myanmar told the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this afternoon as it discussed that country’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

He said it was untrue that Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest. She was currently free to attend social functions and even meet with diplomats in Yangon. However, she had been restrained in 1989 and had not been allowed to participate in the 1990 elections. Furthermore, he said, upon the lifting of that house restraint in 1995, she had begun to threaten the Government with utter devastation unless it entered into dialogue with her political party.

Other members of the Myanmar delegation dealt with aspects of its compliance with the Convention in areas including education, health, trafficking and prostitution of women, violence against women and marriage.

Aida Gonzalez Martinez of Mexico, Committee Chairperson, said Aung San Suu Kyi’s living conditions demanded the world’s attention. The Committee was also concerned about the living conditions and human rights of various ethnic groups in Myanmar. They should all be able to live in peace under the law.

Several experts also expressed concern about Aung San Suu Kyi. One said that due to geographical inhibitions and lack of information, it was difficult to know exactly what might be happening in a country. However, as far as she knew, the Nobel Prize was usually awarded to nationals of a country for their achievements in the area of peace. If the Committee took up the situation of Aung San Suu Kyi, it was also its duty to pursue it, particularly its humanitarian aspect.

The Committee will meet again at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow to begin its consideration of the combined second and third periodic reports of Burkina Faso.

Women’s Anti-Discrimination Committee - 2 - Press Release WOM/1166 457th Meeting (PM) 26 January 2000

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this afternoon to hear responses by the Government of Myanmar to questions raised about its initial report on implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women. [For background information on that report, see Press Release WOM/1159 of 29 January.]

Statements by Government

U WIN MRA (Myanmar) said that due to haste and inexperience in preparing the report, it did not contain as much data as it should. However, he noted that additional information had been distributed to members, including the “1998 Handbook on Human Resources Development Indicators”, a document on the National AIDS Programme in Myanmar and one from the Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association and another on Violence against Women.

Turning to the issue of the situation of women and children in areas of armed conflict and the alleged problems of forced relocation, he said members should first understand the ethnic insurgency problem in the country. Myanmar had experienced many armed insurrections of its ethnic groups as a result of divide and rule policies under colonial rule. Consequently, the Government had made efforts to establish peace, resulting in the return of 17 or 18 armed groups to the legal fold. Only one group, the Karen National Union, still continued to pursue a policy of armed insurrection, but its members had begun falling away. It was against that background that the experts had posed their questions.

The allegations about forced relocations were untrue, he continued. Villagers were actually resettling in safer areas for their protection and the Government saw that their basic needs and requirements were met. There were no refugee camps on Myanmar’s side of the border. There were transit camps along the border to facilitate the repatriation of the returnees, whose needs were also met by the Government before they returned to their homes. He assured members that there was no gender discrimination in the process.

Addressing questions on the National Convention process and the restriction of Aung San Suu Kyi, he said that the establishment of a democratic society was the ultimate goal of his Government. The political process for achieving that goal was through the National Convention, which had been agreed to by all parties where representatives of national races, political parties and delegates from all walks of life were drafting a new democratic constitution reflecting the aspirations of the Myanmar people. On the annulment of the 1990 national elections, he said that the main task of the representatives in those elections had been to frame a new constitution, not to form a new government. That had been clearly understood.

He said that Aung San Suu Kyi had not been allowed to stand for the 1990 elections and that could be misconstrued as a deliberate attempt to discriminate against women. Furthermore, the allegations that she was under house arrest were also untrue as she was currently enjoying freedom of movement in Yangon, attending social functions and even meeting diplomats. She had been restrained in July 1989 and that house restraint had been lifted in October 1995. However, she had soon begun taking a confrontational stance against the Government and threatened it with utter devastation unless it engaged in dialogue with her political party.

Turning to the issue of forced labour, he said that the Government had already issued an order to make the relevant and offending provisions under the Towns Act and the Village Act defunct. That had ended the requisition of personal services from residents of village tracts and wards all over the country and anyone violating the order would have action taken against him/her. He further stressed that women suffered no discrimination in Myanmar and legally enjoyed equal rights with men in political, economic, administrative and social areas. The new draft constitution that the National Convention was devising would contain provisions to guarantee equality of women before the law.

DAW KHIN AYE WIN, a member of the delegation of Myanmar, said the country’s national machinery for the advancement of women comprised the National Committee for Women’s Affairs and a high-level inter-ministerial policy-making body chaired by the Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement. The National Working Committee for Women’s Affairs was an operational body comprising six subcommittees on education, health, economy, culture, violence against women, and the girl-child.

She said that although the magnitude of violence against women was low, the victims suffered both physically and mentally. The causes of marital violence had been found to include alcoholism, insufficient income, incompatible in-laws and adultery. Women were not fully aware of existing laws protecting them from wife abuse.

Another form of violence was forced prostitution and trafficking in women, she said. Myanmar was aware of the problem along its 3,800 miles of borders with five countries. Although it was impossible to obtain accurate figures on the clandestine activity –- some cases remained unreported -– 150 women were known to have returned to the homeland and 110 cases had been intercepted. There had been an estimated 2,140 cases of trafficking in women and children. Perpetrators had been imprisoned for up to 10 years.

She said that although there was no centre specifically for victims of rape, their physical and mental health needs were taken care of by doctors and social workers. Plans were under way to establish crisis centres. Rape offenders, whether civilian or military, were tried by their respective courts, and penalties ranged from five years to life imprisonment.

Regarding education, she said that 59.7 per cent of those enrolled in universities and professional institutes were women; 72.9 per cent of primary and middle-level teachers were women; and 70.5 per cent of high school teachers were women. Among faculty members in universities, 69.4 per cent were women.

She said the medium of teaching at the primary and middle levels was Myanmar language. English was the medium of instruction in high school and at the tertiary level. Young children had to learn English as a second language from kindergarten in both rural and urban areas. Ethnic minorities had their own dialects and were encouraged to promote them outside school.

Upon graduation, the majority of students of both sexes entered the profession they had been trained for, she said. Myanmar women had entered many non-traditional fields, comprising 49.8 per cent of doctors, 57 per cent of medical technologists and 52 per cent of pharmacists. There were also women engineers and architects. The first two Ph.D degrees awarded in a Myanmar university had been achieved by women in the field of chemistry.

AYE WIN, another member of the delegation of Myanmar, supplied statistics and data to indicate the presence of women at the decision-making level in the Government. At present, women represented 27 per cent of the home-based staff and 20 per cent of the diplomatic corps located abroad, she said, citing data that indicated that women occupied 39 per cent of the mid- to top-level positions in the Government service. In 1996 to 1997, the per cent of women in the top level was about 14. It was evident that more progress was needed in that area, even though women had equal access to higher education and professions.

The phenomenon could be due to culturally assigned gender roles that inhibited women, she said. Some gave up their careers to take care of the family, or took up less rewarding jobs to be with their husbands. Government was making an effort to change the perception of stereotypes through education. Equality was emphasized in school curricula, text books and extra-curricular activities. However, in some cases in remote and far-reaching areas, traditional ideas prevailed.

She stated that the Labour Laws were only applicable in the formal sector. However, a woman from the informal sector could file a complaint to the local authorities and to the Myanmar National Working Committee for Women’s Affairs, which would request the Township Working Committee for Women’s Affairs to handle the matter. There had been over 300 complaints in Yangon during the latter half of 1999.

She also responded to questions on marriage, on women in rural areas, on street children and on non-governmental organizations in Myanmar. She said the media had been used to enhance the role of Myanmar women; there were monthly women’s magazines, television and radio programmes for the advancement of women.

On the issue of health, particularly on mental health, which had been inadvertently excluded from the report, she said integrated mental and community health care had begun training programmes. By the end of next year, 75 per cent of existing health personnel would be able to provide mental health services for both sexes.

She stated that the Convention had been translated and the National Committee had been disseminating relevant information through magazine articles and talks in various townships. There was an awareness that there should be more involvement of ethnic communities in the Convention’s implementation.

Questions and Comments by Experts

Raising the issues of discrimination based on ethnicity, the situation of refugees, and internal armed conflicts in Myanmar, an expert said that the Permanent Representative of Myanmar had cited the existence of 18 armed groups in the country as the reason for relocating local people. Such relocations, without the consent of the people concerned, were a violation of their human rights. Those who had perpetrated forced labour against women in violation of the International Labour Organization Commission of Inquiry under the Forced Labour Convention must be brought to justice.

She said violence against women was perpetrated as much outside the family sphere as within it. The Government should extend the scope of its efforts to eliminate such violence. She also stressed the need for legislation to deal with violence against ethnic minority women. It would take too long to wait until people’s attitudes towards those who were different were changed by education and social awareness.

Another expert said that the Committee was a human rights body, not a political one, and it did not enter the internal affairs of any country. Due to geographical inhibitions and lack of information it was difficult to know exactly what might be happening in a country. However, as far as she knew, the Nobel Prize was usually awarded to nationals of a country for their achievements in the area of peace. If the Committee took up the situation of Aung San Suu Kyi, it was also its duty to pursue it, particularly its humanitarian aspect. She could not even have attended the funeral of her husband. The Committee was not interfering, but was requesting that Myanmar take heed of the petitions that had been presented for her to enjoy her fundamental human rights.

She also questioned Myanmar’s plan to solve the problem of ethnicity. The delegation had not responded to experts’ inquiries on the matter and she felt that the Government had not been doing enough to ensure full human rights for those ethnic groups. A long-term policy could only be achieved in a democratic system that ensured human rights and liberty to all its people, she emphasized.

Myanmar had ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and had the presence of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other agencies, noted another expert. Therefore, the Committee had a right to be provided with responses to members’ queries regarding internal conflicts. The presence of those organizations enabled the Government to show accountability on the State’s conformity with international human rights standards. An effort must be made to translate awareness of human rights, not only to the public, but also to the military and armed forces. That would send a message that members of the armed forces who infringed on those standards would be punished. Myanmar was a Buddhist State; that religion stressed peace and was linked to human rights standards, she noted.

Another expert expressed concern over the absence of an enabling environment for women in the country. As long as there was neither a democratic constitution nor a strong civil society in place, all actions would be regarded as token, never as substantive.

Another expert said that the delegation’s report on the political situation had conflicted with the previous ones she had heard. She urged that the country finish its new constitution and incorporate all essential elements of the Anti-Discrimination Convention to further de facto equality of women. She suggested that some of the financial resources now being freed up from the peace process could be transferred to dealing with attaining equality for women. Also, from the data that had been provided, it was obvious that older women outnumbered older men in Myanmar; it would be useful to have information on the financial situation and health of those women in the next report.

Another expert expressed concern over the ambitious scale of Myanmar’s Plan of Action for the advancement of women. How seriously could the Government be taking that Plan, and the promotion of women’s rights, when those responsible for carrying it out were required to work on a voluntary basis?

AIDA GONZALEZ MARTINEZ of Mexico, Committee Chairperson, said that the living conditions of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi demanded the world’s attention. The Committee was also concerned about the living conditions and human rights of various ethnic groups in Myanmar. They should be able to live in peace under the law.

She expressed the hope that Myanmar would have solved the problems facing it by the time its next periodic report was due and that it would reflect the implementation of projects now being put in place for the advancement of women.

U WIN MRA (Myanmar) said his country was a peace-loving nation making efforts to bring about peace and development in order to build a peaceful society. A domestic constitution was being drawn up as part of the effort to establish a democratic society. Some might think the country was taking too long, but the most important thing was the existence of the political will.

Responding to concerns raised about Aung San Suu Kyi, he said that her failure to attend her husband’s funeral had not been the Government’s doing. She had been granted permission to attend the funeral but had adamantly refused to leave. The Government could not be blamed.

On ethnic conflict, he said Myanmar was proud that 17 out of 18 armed groups had returned to the legal fold. The situation had totally changed. Whereas the border lands had previously been inaccessible, one could now travel even to the far north on the border with China.

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For information media. Not an official record.