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A controversial Burmese marriage bill is discriminatory and risks undermining democratic progress, the European Union (EU) said, after parliament passed the legislation this week in another sign of hardline Buddhist nationalist influence.
The Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage bill, which was approved by the combined houses of parliament on Tuesday, is part of a package of laws originally suggested by radical monks, who have risen to prominence as religious tensions simmer in the diverse nation.
A draft of the bill published in December laid out a web of rules governing marriage between Buddhist women and men of other faiths, including a rule that the couple must apply to local authorities for permission and publicly announce the engagement.
Only if there were no objections could they go ahead with the wedding and failure to comply was punishable by a two-year jail term. It was not immediately clear what aspects of the draft were retained in the approved version.
“The bill discriminates against women by placing restrictions on Buddhist women’s right to marry outside their religion,” the EU said in a statement released late Wednesday, adding it would also be detrimental to religious minorities, especially non-Buddhist men.
The bill, which still needs to be signed into law by Burma’ President Thein Sein, is the second of four proposed laws to go through parliament that rights groups see as exploiting fears between Buddhist and Muslim communities.
A population control law, allowing regional governments to introduce family planning regulations to lower birth rates was approved by the president in May.
Taken together the planned legislation could “undermine the transition towards national reconciliation and an open democratic society,” the EU said.
It added that the marriage bill “appears not to respect international human rights standards” and fails to uphold Burma’s own treaty obligations.
Buddhist-majority Burma has suffered from rising religious intolerance in recent years, following waves of bloodshed in western Arakan [Rakhine] State in 2012 that mainly targeted Muslims and has since erupted in pockets across the country.
Around a hundred women’s rights groups signed an open letter against the marriage law proposal last year. Several said they received threats and harassment as a result.
“Our country’s democracy is very fragile and weak. This law should not be enacted,” Zar Talian, an MP from western Chin State told parliament ahead of the vote on Tuesday.
But supporters brushed aside those fears. Saw Hla Tun, a member of the ruling army-backed party, said it would give Buddhist women “equal rights” if they married a man of another religion.
At least four percent of Burma’s population is thought to be Muslim, while another four percent is Christian, although these figures are old and likely underestimates.
Burma has faced intense international scrutiny over its treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State in recent months after thousands of desperate migrants were rescued from rickety boats in Southeast Asian waters.
Some 140,000 Rohingya were left homeless after the Arakan violence three years ago and they have fled the discrimination and hopelessness of displacement camps in droves.