BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A planned law intended to stop Buddhist women in Myanmar marrying non-Buddhist men is “a disgraceful act that would invite international ridicule” and violate women’s basic rights, a statement released by 97 civil society organisations said.
The law, proposed initially by Buddhist nationalists and some monks, would force Buddhist women wanting to marry outside their religion to get permission from their parents and local government officials.
Human Rights Watch said a copy of the proposed law it had seen also sets out a 10-year prison sentence and property confiscation for any non-Buddhist who seeks to marry a Buddhist in violation of the law.
In February, President Thein Sein, praised for introducing democratic reforms in the impoverished majority-Buddhist country, asked the National Assembly to draft four controversial laws to “preserve race and religion”. They relate to population control, religious conversion, monogamy and restricting interfaith marriages.
No curbs are planned for Buddhist men wishing to marry outside their religion.
The law is expected to be submitted to the president by June 30, media reports say.
The statement, endorsed by 97 groups in Myanmar representing different faiths and ethnic groups, said organisations working to promote women’s rights and equality strongly rejected such a bill which was “based on discriminatory beliefs that women are generally physically and mentally weaker than men, and therefore need to be supervised and protected”.
“This denies women their inherent rights … of freedom of choice,” it added.
The statement also warned that faith-based extremist nationalism could destroy peace and incite conflict.
"There are religious and ethnic differences among the nationals of Myanmar, and developing initiatives based on religion hinders the implementation of national solidarity and current peace building processes," it said.
The statement said amendments to the controversial 2008 constitution and peace negotiations with armed groups should be prioritised over the interfaith marriage bill.
Since Thein Sein’s government took power, ending five decades of iron-fisted military rule, it has abolished media censorship laws, allowed protests and started ceasefire negotiations. Western governments have lifted or suspended sanctions in response.
Yet the country has been grappling with anti-Muslim sentiment since religious conflict erupted in June 2012, killing at least 240 people and displacing more than 140,000 people, mostly Muslims.
“We believe that current faith–based political activities, including the arguments against interfaith marriage currently taking place in the country, are not in accordance with the objectives of the peaceful coexistence of all faiths and the prevention of extreme violence and conflict, but are instead events and ideas designed to distract the public before the 2015 election,” said the statement.
“We view these events as delaying the momentum of transition to democracy, and as a hindrance to national peace processes and the constitutional amendments desired by Myanmar's people,” it added.
May Sabe Phyu from the Gender Equality Network said the government should instead focus its efforts on a law to eliminate violence against women which is in the works.
“It is very disheartening for women’s rights activists that the government is fast-tracking a law that restricts women’s rights and doesn’t adhere to international rights standards when it should instead be supporting a law that will be truly effective in protecting women,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the capital Yangon.
Shwe Shwe Sein Latt, founder of non-governmental organisation Phan Tee Eain, said civil society groups have been expressing their concerns to government officials in private about the law but were assured it was only a rumour.
She said she was hounded by supporters of the law when she criticised it previously.
“But I feel it is our duty to speak out publicly against this. We’re very anxious,” she added.