September 5, 2013

MUMBAI –-Nationalist Buddhist monk U Wirathu says his dream is to see Myanmar adopt a law that restricts Buddhist women’s ability to marry non-Buddhist men.

His dream could come true if the National Democratic Front party follows through with its plan to introduce in the Myanmar parliament a bill drafted by some Buddhist monks – and if it passes in parliament. A petition seeking public support for the bill is reported to have received more than 3 million signatures.

The measure would require non-Buddhist men to convert to Buddhism before they could marry a Buddhist woman. The couple would then have to get written consent from the bride’s parents or guardians and subsequently prove compliance with these preconditions before local authorities could register the marriage. According to a draft of the proposed law, a non-Buddhist man who does not comply with these rules before marrying a Buddhist woman could face 10 years in prison and have his property seized and handed to her. He could also be prosecuted for other offences related to marriage under the Myanmar penal code, with separate sentences and fines.

The proposed law is a deliberate attempt to crush religious freedom for Myanmar’s minorities. The vast majority of Burmese are Buddhist, with Christians and Muslims making up most of the remainder. Given last year’s deadly “ethnic cleansing” campaign against the Muslim Rohingya population in Arakan state and anti-Muslim violence elsewhere, the target seems clear. But in denying Muslims and other religious minorities the right to marry as they please, the bill would also seriously infringe upon the rights of Buddhist women.

Forcing adult women to seek the written permission from their parents when they wish to wed a non-Buddhist violates their human right to freely marry and found a family. The proposed bill would also violate Myanmar’s human rights obligation to provide women and men equal rights before the law, including by ensuring that women and men, in civil matters, have the same legal capacity.

Compelling women to seek parental consent for marriage would give parents carte blanche to dictate such decisions. It allows parents to refuse consent for their adult daughters to marry whom they wish.

And that can be dangerous. Other South Asian countries provide ample and tragic examples of “honor” killings, home confinement and other violence committed against women who choose partners contrary to the caste, ethnic, or religious preferences of parents. In 2012, the Law Commission of India proposed a law to criminalize such violence to deal with the rising abuses against people who choose to marry outside their caste, religion, or other group. Rather than criminalizing inter-religious marriages in Myanmar, the government should address the underlying resentment, threats, and violence between communities, to protect women from violence, and support the rights of couples to marry freely. This would include enacting a much-needed law against domestic violence.

By treating interreligious marriages without parental consent as a criminal offence, proponents of the Myanmar bill are creating a draconian law that disapproving parents and authorities can use to bully women who want to marry non-Buddhists. Women’s rights activists like Pyo Let Han fear that the bill could incite violence and put couples’ lives in danger at a time when efforts are needed to reduce mistrust and communal disharmony. Activists initiated a Facebook campaign titled, “We are Wise,” objecting to the proposal as politically motivated, and issued a press statement against it.

Aung Myaing, the chairperson of the Buddhist Theravada Dharma Network, claims the bill would protect vulnerable Buddhist women who unwittingly make marriage decisions without understanding the ramifications. The implication is that Buddhist women in interreligious marriages have far fewer legal protections and rights than those who marry Buddhists.

Such arguments seek to exploit a general lack of awareness of existing laws, fueling the fear that such women will find themselves in an invalid marriage not recognized by law. However, any concerns about the validity of interreligious marriages where a Buddhist woman marries a non-Buddhist have however already been addressed by the 1954 Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage and Succession Act.

Under this law, when a Buddhist woman marries a non-Buddhist man, all rights and disputes regarding the marriage are governed by Burmese customary law, which also governs Buddhist marriages. The proposed new law, if enacted, will suspend the application of the 1954 law and simply prescribe conversion to Buddhism.

Some have argued that the bill will promote better relations between Buddhist and minority religious populations in Myanmar. Coming after a spate of attacks by Buddhist militants against Muslim communities and a resurgence of Buddhist nationalism, this bill seems intended to further repress religious minorities. Dr. Chie Ikeya, a historian who has looked at the status of Burmese women during the colonial period and the opposition to Indo-Burmese marriages at that time, has documented how Buddhist women who sought to marry non-Buddhists were often ridiculed and singled out for “destroying” their amyo (race, ancestors, kin, religion, and culture). Dr. Ikeya described such nationalist Buddhist opposition as a “colonial Darwinian discourse on racial degeneration.”

Dr. Tharaphi Than, another historian, traced how the 1954 Act governing interreligious marriages was enacted in a period of “escalating economic nationalism” where “women married to foreigners bore the brunt of the criticism for the Burmese poor economic performance against Indian and Chinese interests.” The current bill is being put forward against the backdrop of another nationalist campaign, the 969movement, led by Buddhist monk Wirathu to boycott local Muslim businesses. Given these circumstances, it’s unlikely that those campaigning for the bill have women’s rights in their mind.

Rather than backing this discriminatory  bill, Myanmar’s politicians should work with human rights and women’s rights groups to draft a bill allowing couples to register a civil marriage without either party having to convert or follow a religious group’s personal status laws. As the United Nations religious freedom expert has recommended,“States should in their personal status laws provide the possibility to have an interreligious marriage for individuals who have different religious affiliations or no religion at all.”

Such a bill should set out the rules that govern a civil marriage. It should guarantee women’s equal rights within marriage, including equal rights to divorce, marital property, maintenance, child custody, and inheritance. It should prohibit threatening or harming anyone who is in or seeking an interreligious marriage.

Having an open discussion on a bill that genuinely respects the rights of women and religious minorities is desperately needed. But the current climate for fostering dialogue is poor. The women’s rights activists, religious minority groups and those Buddhist monks who publicly oppose the proposed bill on interreligious marriage have received threatening phone calls.

The bill restricting interreligious marriages might be U Wirathu’s dream for Myanmar. But it is a nightmare for religious minorities and Buddhist women. Myanmar’s leaders are traveling the world, proclaiming the reforms taking place. But the unlocking of many previously closed doors has also opened the way to new forms of discrimination against those at greatest risk in society. If Myanmar is to make genuine progress on human rights, it should include everyone.

Aruna Kashyap is a researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. Follow her on twitter @aruna_kashyap