RANGOON — The US ambassador to Burma has raised concerns over reports that women activists who publicly opposed a controversially interfaith marriage law have been threatened with violence.
“It has been reported in several newspapers that women speaking up in opposition to proposed legislation affecting women’s rights are receiving death threats and being called traitors. I have talked personally to some of these women,” Derek Mitchell said Saturday in Rangoon.
“Threats of violence to suppress speech and peaceful dissent are unconscionable and dangerous for the health of this nascent democracy, and should not be tolerated. Anyone favoring a new civil society of openness and dialogue should be standing up for these women, denouncing these threats, and not only protecting but encouraging the free expression of ideas and opinions without fear.”
The ambassador was speaking during a ceremony to announce that US retail company Gap will produce clothing in Burma and will partner with the NGO Care International to provide technical and educational training to female garment workers.
At least four Burmese activists have been targeted by violent threats after listing their contact information in early May on a public statement backed by nearly 100 civil society groups that objected to the interfaith marriage bill.
The bill calls for Buddhist women to receive permission from parents and local authorities before marrying a man of another faith, who would be forced to convert to Buddhism.
Opponents have criticized the proposed legislation as undemocratic and discriminatory. Some say it prevents women from making their own choices, while others believe it is intended specifically to prevent conversions to Islam.
Since signing the statement, four activists—Aung Myo Min of Equality Myanmar, Zin Mar Aung of the Rainfall Gender Study Group, May Sabe Phyu of the Gender Equality Network and Khon Ja of the Kachin Peace Network—say they have been harassed by anonymous phone callers and online messengers. One activist was forced to change her phone number after her original digits were posted on a Facebook page advertising prostitutes.
The interfaith marriage bill is part of a package of proposed legislation to “protect race and religion.” The package, promoted by a group of nationalist monks, also includes bills to ban polygamy, enact population control measures and restrict religious conversion.
Khon Ja said some she has faced death threats since adding her phone number to the public statement in early May.
“They called saying, “If you dare come to Mandalay, you will be dead when we see you,” Khon Ja told The Irrawaddy last week, adding that she wondered if the Association to Protect Race and Religion, the radical monk-led group, knew about the threats.
Zin Mar Aung, founder of the Rainfall Gender Study Group, said she had received obscene messages on Viber, a phone application. She said one Viber group has been created with the name, “We will kill those who destroy the race.”