Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Burma’s President Thein Sein and House Speaker Shwe Mann to reject the Emergency Provisions on Marriage Act for Burmese Buddhist Women. In a statement on Tuesday, HRW called the proposed legislation “a major reversal for religious freedom and women’s rights in Burma.”
The draft interfaith marriage law, currently being discussed in parliament, restricts Buddhist women from marrying outside of their religion, requiring that non-Buddhist men convert to Buddhism before marriage. The couple must also obtain written consent from the bride’s parents. Violations could result in a 10-year prison sentence and confiscation of property.
Under the new law, Buddhist men can continue to marry freely without parental consent or conversion of their partner’s faith.
HRW believes that the law, which enshrines “blatant discrimination” and “seriously jeopardise[s] women’s autonomous decision making”, could be both unconstitutional and a breach of Burma’s international commitments.
According to Tuesday’s statement, the interfaith marriage law would contradict Article 348 of Burma’s Constitution: “The Union shall not discriminate any citizen of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex and wealth.”
HRW said that passing the law would “violate Article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which Burma is a party, which specifies that governments should ensure that women and men have ‘the same right to enter into marriage.’”
The interfaith marriage law comes as a part of a package of race protection legislation drafted by the Organisation for Protection of National Race and Religion (OPNRR), headed by Tilawka Biwuntha, a member of the government-appointed National Head Monks Committee.
Included in the package is a law regarding conversions to Buddhism. How this would impact on those willing to convert to Buddhism to marry is unknown as the draft is yet to be assessed by the religious affairs ministry and publicly available.
Speaking to DVB on Tuesday, HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson expressed a concern that a conversion, particularly that of a Muslim man to Buddhism, would be socially accepted.
“The question of whether a person’s conversion to another religion would actually be believed goes to the very worrisome issues of basic trust between ethnic and religious communities that will be broached if this draft legislation becomes law,” Robertson said.
The interfaith marriage bill is backed by a petition circulated by OPNRR that reportedly gained over one million signatures.
Such levels of public support and the willingness on the part of Buddhist nationalist leaders to call mass protests — as seen across Arakan State at the weekend — may force the hand of MPs in passing the bill.
However Robertson told DVB that it would be folly for the government to kowtow to those rallied by hate speech in Arakan State.
“Hate speech against Muslims in Arakan State is something that needs to be controlled by the government, not tolerated.” Robertson said.
“The virus of Buddhist religious extremism in Arakan State should not be allowed to spread just because the government is concerned about how the Rakhine [Arakanese Buddhists] may react to failure to pass a dangerous and discriminatory law.
“By politicising and discriminating on issues as personal as religious beliefs and right to marry, the government creates a dangerous precedent of taking punitive actions against persons simply because of who they are,” Robertson concluded.