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Mounting alarm over Myanmar draft laws on marriage and faith

Myanmar police take up position outside a mosque on April 4 during anti-Muslim riots on the outskirts of Yangon. (Picture: AFP Photo/Soe Than Win)

By Henry Zwartz
June 10, 2014

Laws undermine women and could spark violence, say critics
International watchdogs and community groups have expressed mounting alarm over new draft legislation regarding marriage and religion proposed by a group allegedly connected to the nationalist Buddhist 969 movement. 

Myanmar’s government has accepted drafts of four new laws first proposed last year by a group of Buddhist monks known as the Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion and Belief. The drafts are currently being written by the government and await approval by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. 

Critics of the laws say they could further inflame religiously motivated violence that has claimed hundreds of lives in western Rakhine state and other parts of the country since 2012, and that they directly undermine the rights of women and minorities. 

The draft legislation has spurred local opposition, particularly from women’s rights organizations including the Women’s League of Burma and the Karen Women’s Organization. 

They were part of a coalition of 97 Myanmar-based women’s and community groups who signed a joint petition rejecting the interfaith marriage law. In response to the petition, a Buddhist monk and figurehead of the Buddhist nationalist movement in Myanmar dismissed the coalition as “lice that live under the skin”, according to the HRW statement. 

Furthermore, several activists who signed the petition received death threats. Khon Ja, from the Kachin Peace Network, told the Irrawaddy magazine last week that she had received a phone call saying: “If you dare come to Mandalay, you will be dead when we see you.” 

In a statement last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the proposed laws as encouraging further “repression and violence against Muslims and other religious minorities”. 

One of the draft laws, titled “The Emergency Provisions on Marriage Act for Burmese Buddhist Women” – also known as the interfaith marriage law – makes it illegal for a Buddhist woman to marry a non-Buddhist man unless he converts to Buddhism before marriage. 

Violation of the proposed law could lead to 10 years in prison and confiscation of personal property. 

A second draft law on religious conversion would require anyone wishing to change their faith to seek permission from a host of local and national government offices and ministries, with a three-month waiting period for a decision to be made. 

Those found guilty of violating the law could face a maximum sentence of two years in prison and a US$200 fine. 

“Burma’s government is stoking communal tensions by considering a draft law that will politicize religion and permit government intrusion on decisions of faith,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for HRW, in a statement last week. 

“Following more than two years of anti-Muslim violence, this law would put Muslims and other religious minorities in an even more precarious situation,” Adams said. 

“International donors, investors and governments need to vocally oppose this law and other laws and policies that could result in long-term religious discrimination in Burma.” 

Myanmar President Thein Sein and Thura Shwe Mann, speaker of the country’s Lower House of parliament, have instructed various ministries to prepare government-endorsed versions of the proposed laws for public consideration before being officially presented in parliament after June 20, the HRW statement noted. 

The legislation violates both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Myanmar’s own 2008 constitution, which states that citizens may “freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health”, and in particular Article 348, which ensures that the state “shall not discriminate against any citizen … based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex and wealth”, according to the HRW statement. 

“If passed, this [religion] law would stand in clear violation of basic human rights and it would demonstrate a significant backtracking on human rights,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a Thailand-based human rights monitoring group. 

“It should be condemned by concerned citizens in the country as well as by the international community.” 

Among Myanmar Muslims visiting or working on the Thailand-Myanmar border in Mae Sot, the laws further illustrate the politicization of religion by the government and restriction on individual rights. 

“The government doesn’t allow Muslim women to have their choice. If the government asks why did you become a Muslim, I would say because I love my husband, who is a Muslim, and my religion. I should be able to choose,” said a woman from Yangon who asked not to be named. 

A Myanmar Muslim woman based in the border area said the laws create obstacles to religious tolerance and instigate hatred among faith communities for political reasons. 

“When I go to Yangon, I get along with Buddhists just fine, but the policies of this government are no good. Oppression against Muslims is because of this government. They are making us Muslims the problem for their own ends.”

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