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Burmese authorities are warning women not to wear “skimpy clothing” if they plan to take part in this year’s Thingyan water festival to celebrate the traditional Buddhist New Year.
In the country’s second-largest city, the Mandalay Police Force said that revealing outfits and displays of public drunkenness could land offenders in jail for tarnishing the image of the country and its dominant religion.
Police Lieutenant-Colonel Sein Htun announced that “workshops” would be held in the days leading up to Thingyan to educate women about what would be considered acceptable behaviour for would-be revelers.
Anyone who doesn’t abide by these guidelines “will face charges under cultural laws that can result in a punishment of up to four months in jail or a fine for defying orders,” he added.
It wasn’t clear which cultural laws he was referring to, but the statement did cite Article 188 of the Penal Code — a catch-all law that makes it a punishable offense to disobey any order “duly promulgated by a civil servant.”
The Ministry of Culture has also issued an official notice in state media telling the public to “enjoy the festival in a civilised manner.”
Among its injunctions are to refrain from “rude and vile behaviour that doesn’t conform to the religious teachings” and “wearing clothing beyond the limits of Burmese culture that can be an eyesore to the public who cherish and would like to uphold the Burmese culture.”
Social media users in Burma were quick to criticise government efforts to tone down an event that typically turns into a week-long session of partying by the country’s youth, but the announcement by the Mandalay Police Force received some support from an unexpected source.
On Tuesday, Sandar Min, a Rangoon Division MP from the National League of Democracy, posted a comment on Facebook expressing approval of the decision to restrict women’s right to dress as they like.
“I must welcome the Mandalay regional government’s move and would like to encourage our Rangoon government to do the same,” she wrote in a post that was later removed.
Others, however, argued that greater efforts should be made to protect women from sexual assault, especially in light of a violent attack that occurred in Mandalay last year that was filmed and posted on social media.
One woman from Mandalay who said she didn’t wish to be named called the police response to such incidents “misogynistic and an embarrassment”.
“I’ve never heard of any plan from the authorities to ensure the safety of women participating in the festival. All they do is point at the book and say there are laws protecting women,” she said.
“But what we want is real, practical action on men groping women, hosing them to the point where their undergarments come off, and going around in groups physically assaulting women — the officials should be doing this first.”