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Earlier this year the current president of Burma, Thein Sein, proposed a new law which would restrict Buddhist women to only be able to marry within the religion. The bill sets out a 10 year prison sentence and confiscation of the property of any non-Buddhist who seeks to marry a Buddhist in violation of the law. According to the draft, any non-Buddhist wishing to marry a Buddhist would have to convert to the religion, seek parental consent and consult the local government. This ban on inter-faith marriage is one of four bills suggested by extremist Buddhist nationalists that aim to ‘protect’ race and religion; the other bills cover a ban on polygamy, religious conversion law and family planning interventions.
Ninety-seven civil society organisations, including HART, spoke out in May against the law (full statement here), stating that “developing initiatives based on religion hinders the implementation of national solidarity and current peace building processes”. The bill sits on perilous political ground as it is discriminatory towards women, violates the fundamental right to liberty of religious belief, and also could be perceived to have a political agenda in the forthcoming 2015 elections, which violates Article 364 of the Constitution (“The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden”). The bill sets out to ‘protect’ Buddhist women from the perceived threat of Muslim men, and hence is likely to win the support of the Buddhist majority in the upcoming elections which may threaten Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic opposition – a petition in support of the bill by the Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Belief has already garnered over 1 million signatures.
89% of the population of Burma is Buddhist, with Christianity and Islam minorities comprising around 4% each. Burma has a history of religious violence which accounts for the deaths of at least 250 people in Buddhist-Muslim clashes since 2012. The drafted law is exclusionary of minority religious groups and hence could provoke further unrest. The proposed law is backed by Ashin Wirathu, a radical monk who leads the 969 Movement that aims to ensure that Burma remains a majority-Buddhist state. Fear mongering of Muslim ‘insurgencies’ has lead to the Muslim minority being perceived as a threat to Buddhism in the country. The predominantly Muslim Rohingya people, whom the UN describes as one of “the most persecuted minorities in the world”, have suffered racially and ethnically motivated attacks akin to genocide and denied citizenship of their own country.
In placing restrictions on women’s choices in marriage (no curbs are planned for Buddhist men wishing to marry outside of their religion) the law is inherently discriminatory towards women. The statement released by the alliance earlier this year suggested that the law “is based on discriminatory beliefs that women are generally physically and mentally weaker than men, and therefore need to be supervised and protected.” This assumption violates the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which was ratified by the Government of Myanmar in 1997. Women in Burma are time and time again denied a political voice, and this law would act to further silence them and restrict their choices. A statement by the Nobel Women’s Initiative highlighted a further concern that several female leaders, who signed the joint statement against the proposed change in law, have received threats of death and sexual assault.
The proposed law is unconstitutional on several counts, as well as being damaging to the position of women and religious minorities in Burma. It is of paramount importance for the future peace of the country that it is not passed. The drafted law was sent to Thein Sein on the 30th June and now awaits his approval before being sent to parliament for consideration.
You can take action by signing this petition and by continuing to support the work of women’s rights groups in Burma.