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Myanmar's marriage plans to 'fuel religious tensions'

By Joshua Carroll
December 5, 2014

President Thein Sein passes draft laws that stops Buddhist women marrying outside their religion

YANGON -- Myanmar is set to adopt marriage laws that rights groups fear will trample women’s rights and fuel religious discrimination.

A group of ultranationalist Buddhist monks, known as Mabatha, have spearheaded a campaign to require Buddhist women to seek permission to marry men of other religions.

The monks – who have been accused of inspiring sectarian violence against non-Buddhists, particularly Rohingya Muslims – claim interfaith marriage leads to forced conversions and is eroding Myanmar’s national identity, which many people consider deeply entwined with Buddhist faith.

The package of laws has been approved by President Thein Sein and is due to be debated by parliament next month.

The bill also proposes limiting the number of children people can have in certain regions and require anyone wishing to change religion to get government permission, a process that would take months.

In an interview with The Anadolu Agency on Thursday, Tun Tun Oo, a Christian campaigner, said: “No-one should be able to control another person’s faith. The Interfaith Marriage Law goes against international human rights law and our own constitution.”

Myanmar's 55 million population is 89 percent Buddhist with Muslims and Christians both making up around 4 percent of the population.

The draft law places no restrictions on Buddhist men who wish to marry outside their faith while women must seek permission from local authorities and post a public notice of their engagement.

The couple must cancel their marriage if there are any objections or face two years in prison.

“The proposed law is based on discriminatory beliefs that women are generally physically and mentally weaker than men and therefore need to be supervised and protected,” an alliance of civil society groups stated earlier this year.

Observers say Sein has submitted to religious nationalists in a bid to gain popular support before next year’s election.

The president won praise from foreign governments for introducing sweeping reforms in the former pariah state in 2011 but Monday’s decision to approve the draft laws is the latest apparent example of Sein courting extreme nationalist sentiment.

Hundreds have died and more than 140,000 have been displaced in sporadic outbursts of mostly Buddhist-led rioting since 2012. The majority of the victims have been Muslims.

Human Rights Watch called on Myanmar’s parliament earlier this year to scrap the law, which it said was “stoking communal tensions” and would “politicize religion.”

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