Rationalization of a Society in Policy Making: Case Study Myanmar

Author – Han Nwe Nyein


In any society, values and laws are closely related. Laws could be said to be a part of legal structure designed to serve the norms and customs of the society (Dror, 1957). That is, the values, culture and traditions play a significant role in the policymaking process. However, not every socially accepted norm is not appropriate to be adapted into policies or laws. And again, just because it is not accepted by society, it does not mean, it is not morally correct or should not be made into laws. It depends on the maritury and modernity of the society and how their values, norms and traditions are rationalized and can reflect the current needs and development of the society. Modernity and maturity is a process of social changes or adaptation. The classical modernization theory presents the differentiation and rationalization as its core variables (Haferkamp & Neil, 1992).

Conceptualization on “Rationalization”

A German sociologist Max Weber introduced instrumental (Zweckrationalitat) and value rationality (Wertrationalitat) (Carrol, Anthony. 2011), in which value rationality is “handling an action with a certain value in mind” (Hogen, 2012). According to Weber, rationalization is a journey towards Entzauberung which is dis-enchantment of religious superstition and myth.

The process of rationalization could be seen in any sphere. For example, the transformation of personalized justice issued by elders and leaders in a society to the codified, rationalized and impersonal justice, or the development of constitution and rationally enacted law instead of absolute authority of the monarch. Weber’s theories of rationality and Entzauberung play a significant role in the emergence and development of modern Western culture. For Weber, modernity is driven by a process of cultural rationalization in which values are rationalized and replaced by pragmatic ends (Gane, 2002). As opposed to traditional society, Entzauberung was used to describe a modernized, secularized society where scientific understanding is more valued than belief.

The Context of Myanmar

However, in Myanmar, it is not the case. Myanmar is known as a socially conservative country and a traditional society. Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962 when General Ne Win took control (Bandow, 2016) until 2010 when the election was held. During this time, Myanmar has been known to have xenophobia, especially the military junta (Report, 2008). The half a century worth of xenophobia of leaders led to the rejection of modern values such as globalization, diversity, tolerance, social change, human rights, equality and participation.

On top of that, Myanmar is a religious country. According to the 2014 census, the majority of the county are Buddhists which occupy 89% of the population. Buddhism has been the state religion of Burma since ancient kingdoms, AD 1044 (Harvard, 2020). General Aung San, Burmese National Hero, Independence Leader, tended to adopt secularism for state affairs and opposed constitutionalizing the special status of Buddhism in 1947 Constitution, he could not overcome the majority’s desire.  Although Buddhism is not the State Religion of Myanmar according to the 2008 Constitution, the Constitution has already given the special status with the Article (361). Thus it has undeniably been the essence of Myanmar culture. And Buddhism had got involved in the daily practices of the Myanmar people (Maung, 1964). In this way, the code of conduct of Buddhism has become the values of Myanmar. And these values play a significant role in policy making in Myanmar.

Myanmar people believe that abortion is a sin according to Buddhist philosophy because it is taking a life. Abortion is a very sensitive issue. And abortion which is supported by pro- choice camp, and perceived as taking a life by pro-life camp, directly goes against one of the primary codes of ethics of Buddhism. By Buddhism, life starts at conception. As it was mentioned, the laws do not go against these values and make abortion illegal. Articles 312, 313, 314, 315 and 316 of the Myanmar Penal code imply that abortion is illegal and anyone who helps or causes the miscarriage including the mother herself would be subjected to up to three to ten years of imprisonment and/or a payment of fine unless it is to save the women (Worrell, 2020). These laws seem to be made to protect the mother. However, in practice, this is what hinders them from getting a safe and healthy abortion. There are clear reasons why women should be able to access safe and healthy abortion.

In recent years, rape cases have increased sharply in the country with the case of “Victoria” as the most infamous one. In 2016, 1100 sexual assault cases are record which are 429 cases against adult victims and 671 cases against child victims. However, the number rose by 305 in 2017. The Ministry of Home Affairs said in a report about sexual assault that there were 1405 rapes in 2017, including 508 adult women victims and 897 child victims. But still, for the rising rape cases, the Ministry of Home Affairs report urged women to wear suitable clothing in order not to tempt fate (Win. 2018).

Moreover, sex education is not efficient in Myanmar. In theory, sex education is offered in schools, however most teachers tend to skip the topic just because they are too embarrassed to talk about it in the classroom. (The Economist, 2018). Outside of classroom, parents-to-children sex education is rarely practiced because it is perceived as embarrassing (Wa, 2019). On the other hand, Myanmar is a relatively poor country. Although she was predicted to graduate from the list of the Least Developed Countries in 2025 by Thomas Kring, economic adviser to United Nations Development Programme (Kyaw, 2016), she is still one of the LDCs. For women in Myanmar, the unplanned and unwanted pregnancy put a burden on their financial situation. With the increasing rape cases and unwanted pregnancy, poor sex education which led to unprotected sex, and financial inability to raise a child, women simply choose to get rid of the pregnancy even if it was illegal. Maternal death rate of Myanmar is the second-highest in Southeast Asia and two-fold the regional average with 282 fatalities in 100,000 pregnancies. Although around 10 percent of the deaths are officially known to be caused by abortions, experts say the actual number would be higher since the deaths from infections are counted separately. According to Sid Naing, country director for reproductive health NGO Marie Stopes, unsafe abortion might be the cause of up to a third of all maternal deaths happening in Myanmar (Henshaw, 2017).

To avoid these tragic losses, instead of thinking abortion as taking a life or a sin, it should be viewed from a health perspective and take it as a health care by abandoning the traditional belief that women should accept “all the children God gives,” giving the fetus more value than the woman who carries it. That is, it should be approved on some grounds which are to preserve the woman’s physical health, to preserve the woman’s mental health, in case of rape, sexual abuse, or incest, economic or social reasons and on request (Berer, 2017).            Another clear example of where the government does nothing that might contradict with popular public opinion is LGBTQ issue. According to section 377 of Myanmar’s Penal Code 1861, the same-sex sexual activity is illegal and subjected to imprisonment for 20 years or fine and a period of imprisonment which could be extended to 10 years. Although the law is not strictly enforced, it greatly influences the treatment of LGBT people (Ni, 2020). What is enforced frequently is the law under Section 35c of the Police Act, which states that “any person found between sunset and sunrise having his face covered or otherwise disguised, who is unable to give a satisfactory account himself may be taken into custody by any police-officer without a warrant, and shall be punishable on conviction with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three months” (The Police Act, 1945). This law is obviously targeting agsinst transgender women or anyone who like crossdressing by giving the police authority to arrest them on the basis of being in disguise. U Aung Myo Min who is the executive director of the human rights education and advocacy program Equality Myanmar said that many MPs show that they are greatly concerned about the rights of LGBTQ people but they never take initiative for it (VOA, 2019). This is greatly influenced by the opinion of the people itself. That is, the policy to protect the LGBTQ people could not be made because they are not accepted by the society. In Myanmar where Buddhism is prominent, many people believe that LGBT people did bad things in a past life and their sexuality is a punishment for their bad deeds from past life (Me, 2018). One popular belief is that they are gay because they were rapists in one of their lives. So, being a homosexual is thought to be an abnormal behavior and a retribution for past life misdeed and as the elected government, they rather intend to ignore the rights of minority than to go against the idea of their people since the majority accounts for lots of votes. For example, regarding this issue, a political party said that they would attempt to protect the rights of LGBTQ people; however, as the society itself does not approve of their sexuality, there is nothing much the party can do. They never expressed any slight intention or whatsoever to abolish or amend section 377. The party also claimed that there is no excessive offence to LGBTQ people in Myanmar that needs their immediate attention. In fact, there is. For example, in 2019 June, a gay librarian committed suicide before posting the mocking comments and photos from homophic colleges and that they forced him to come out as a gay man on Facebook. The post went viral and the LGBTQ people demanded the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) to conduct an investigation. However, the investigation concluded that the victim was mentally weak which has disappointed most of the people. Regarding this issue, the Kings N Queens coordinator Tin Ko Ko said, “The MNHRC is very negligent of LGBT issues’ ‘ (Sone, 2019). That is, even the National Human Rights Commission itself is negligent of the rights of minority group. Juan Miguel Sanchez Marin, the deputy director from the Myanmar’s LGBT+ rights group, Equality Myanmar said, “LGBT discrimination in the workplace is unfortunately a common practice in Myanmar” (Yi, 2019).

On the other hand, the media is also discriminating against the LGBT community implicitly or explicitly. It is said that the media can influence the behavior, attitudes and beliefs of a large portion of the population (Jodrell, 2015). That is, the media can create a more approving or disapproving environment for new ideas, new approaches or new behavior, in this case, the LGBTQ people. Sadly, the Myanmar movie industry has taken a leading role in mocking and humiliating and giving misinformation about LGBT people. In Myanmar films, LGBTQ people are mostly portrayed as jesters where the only purpose of their existence is to be laughed at. Sometimes, homosexuality is treated as diseases. There was a film where a gay character was cured and turned back into a heterosexual. The censorship board itself turned a blind eye to such discrimination. Either way, the way Myanmar films are made, according to U Aung Myo Min from LGBTQ rights group Equality Myanmar, encourages the public to bully and mock the LGBTQ people (Baker, 2017). In addition to that, the Myanmar film industry has rarely adopted a rating system until recently and thus children are exposed to such films, affecting their mindset and view on LGBTQ people. There was, however, one Myanmar movie which broke the stereotype of LGBT characters, “The Gemini ” (Ye, 2018).

That is, the government won’t make a move if the society does not prefer it even if the policy is morally correct or benefits the people. That is a risky pattern especially for such a country as Myanmar where rationalization is relatively low. Moreover, even if the government wants to promote some social values, it is impossible without the cooperation of the society, especially in societies where the community is very traditional and religious institutions are taking a large role (Gavison, 2013). So, the rationalization of a society is truly important as it influences the policy and law making of the government and the values should be reapproached in a secular direction.



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photo credit: www.safeabortionwomensright.org


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