Buddhist women in Burma should not be stripped of their right to freedom of choice in life-changing matters like marriage. Yet that is precisely what U Wirathu, a nationalist Buddhist monk, is pushing Burma’s parliament to do.
Wirathu is mobilizing about 5,000 monks for a meeting in Mandalay to discuss the proposal. Last year, Wirathu and his followers proposed that the Buddhist marriage law be amended to require that any Buddhist woman who wants to marry a non-Buddhist man get her parents’ written permission and prove this to local authorities. The groom should also convert to Buddhism. Failure to comply could spell doom for the couple – the groom could face 10 years in prison and have all his property confiscated. He could also be prosecuted under the Burmese penal code.
The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement and the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation should denounce the proposal as discriminatory. Article 22 of Burma’s constitution guarantees everyone equality before the law without discrimination based on sex, race, or religion.
Burmese should not be fooled by Wirathu’s claims that this proposed law is for women’s protection. It not only restricts women’s rights, but directly targets religious and ethnic minorities as well. And it follows in the wake of the brutal “ethnic cleansing” in Burma’s western Arakan State, the so-called 969 nationalist movement to boycott Muslim businesses, and the discriminatory two-child policy imposed on Rohingya in parts of Arakan State.
Women’s rights groups in Burma have condemned the proposal. Some groups that did so last year faced threats and intimidation by Wirathu and his camp.
Lower House representative Thein Nyunt is expected to submit the amendment to the marriage law in the parliamentary session that began this week. Burma’s parliament, in which only 20 MPs out of 659 are women, hasn’t exactly been a bastion of women’s rights. But parliament should listen to the women’s rights groups, reflect on the anti-discrimination provision of the constitution, and reject this proposal. It would be a lasting setback to adopt Wirathu’s scheme to infantilize Buddhist women, curb their right to marry and start a family, and give official imprimatur to his campaign of ethnic and sectarian hate.
International donors and governments building diplomatic and trade relations with Burma should insist that the country respect the basic right of all women and men to choose a partner, marry, and start a family.