New Myanmar law regulates interfaith marriage
by Anna K. Poole
Posted 7/15/15, 11:48 am
Human rights groups are blasting a new law adopted last week in Myanmar, also known as Burma, requiring women to register their intent to marry outside their faith. The legislation gives the government power to halt the marriage of a Buddhist woman to a non-Buddhist man if someone raises objections to the union.
“It’s shocking that Burma’s parliament has passed yet another incredibly dangerous law, this time legislating clearly discriminatory provisions targeting the rights of religious minority men and Buddhist women to marry who they wish without interference,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
Myanmar’s new marriage law is the second of a four-part series of bills known as the Protection of Race and Religion Laws, drafted by hardliner Buddhist monks with a staunch anti-Muslim agenda.
In May, President Thein Sein enacted the first of these laws, a population control bill mandating a 36-month gap between children for certain mothers and giving regional authorities the power to implement birth spacing in overcrowded areas. Some argue the legislation is aimed at curbing high birth rates in the Muslim community. The population bill is vague about the penalty for unauthorized births less than three years apart, but it could include coerced contraception, forced sterilization, or abortion.
For a non-Buddhist man in Myanmar, stepping into an interfaith marriage could prove ruinous. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, the marriage legislation prohibits husbands from “committing deliberate and malicious acts, such as writing, or speaking, or behaving, or gesturing with intent to outrage feelings of Buddhists.” Noncompliance is considered a divorce-worthy offense, sweeping away the man’s land and child custody rights, and punishable with a prison stint of up to four years.
In November, when Sein first sent a draft of the bill to Parliament, The Myanmar Times reported some women’s disapproval.
“We already have restrictions on marriage because we need to marry in the same faith and caste,” said one Burmese woman, who requested anonymity. “I’m curious how this law will actually protect Buddhist women.”
The marriage act changes little for Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, one of the most severely oppressed minority groups in the world. Denied citizenship within Burmese borders, the Rohingya are essentially stateless and already face tight restrictions on the right to register marriages, births, and deaths. Since 2012, heavy persecution of minority Rohingya Muslims by radical Buddhist groups has sparked a maritime mass exodus and regional refugee crisis.
By signing the interfaith marriage bill into law, “the [Myanmar] government and ruling party lawmakers are playing with fire,” Robertson said. With the landscape of this Buddhist-majority nation increasingly stained by sectarian violence, legislators risk much by proposing such inflammatory restrictions. The marriage bill, like the population control bill before it, will only add fuel to Myanmar’s simmering religious tension.
The pending half of Myanmar’s Protection of Race and Religion Laws include a monogamy bill criminalizing extramarital affairs and a bill requiring government registration and approval prior to religious conversion.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Anna K. Poole
Anna is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course.