(New York) – Burma’s President Thein Sein should refuse to sign into law the discriminatory interfaith marriage bill passed by parliament on July 7, 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill targets Buddhist women who marry – or seek to marry – non-Buddhist men and introduces vaguely defined acts against Buddhism as grounds for divorce, forfeiture of custody and matrimonial property, and potential criminal penalties.

Members of parliament cast ballots in Naypyitaw on June 25, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

The Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law was passed by a vote of 524 to 44, with 8 abstentions, by Burma’s two houses of parliament sitting in a joint session. The final version of the bill has not been made public. The legislation now goes to the president for his signature.

“The Special Marriage Law is a blatant attempt to curb interfaith marriages with absurd claims of helping Buddhist women,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “It’s the latest potential trigger for anti-Muslim violence pushed by religious extremists, and the president shouldn’t sign it.”

Besides being discriminatory, the bill violates internationally protected rights to privacy, religious belief, and equal protection of the law. It “only concerns Myanmar Buddhist women and their non-Buddhist husbands,” and applies to all Burmese Buddhist women age 18 or over. The law permits the township (district level) registrar to publicly display a couple’s application for marriage for 14 days, and permits any objections to the marriage to be taken to local court. The law places further discriminatory restrictions on women under age 20, who are required to obtain consent from their parents or legal guardian to marry a non-Buddhist.

The law also requires a non-Buddhist husband to respect the free practice of his spouse’s Buddhist religion, including displaying Buddhist imagery and statues, and engaging in Buddhist ceremonies. He must refrain from “committing deliberate and malicious acts, such as writing, or speaking, or behaving or gesturing with intent to outrage feelings of Buddhists.” Violations of these provisions are grounds for divorce, and in such a case the non-Buddhist husband would be forced to give up his share of jointly owned property, owe his wife compensation, and be denied custody of the children.

The law will apply to existing marriages, requiring interfaith couples to register as an interfaith marriage. Any professed member of the Hindu, Sikh, or Jaina religion who is married to a Buddhist woman shall “effect his severance from such family” – i.e. disassociate from his original family – and all his property upon his death will go to his Buddhist wife and children. Offenses against Buddhism could bring charges under the Penal Code for insulting religion, specifically sections 295 and 295(a), which impose prison terms of two to four years for violations.

“Non-Buddhist men who marry Buddhist women should not have to fear loss of their marriage, children, and property because of their religion,” Robertson said. “Burma’s president should avert further religious and social instability by sending the law to the legislative scrap heap.”

The Special Marriage Law contravenes Burma’s treaty obligations under international law. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights upholds the right to marry and to found a family without discrimination on religious or other grounds. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which Burma has ratified, requires governments “to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations,” and to ensure that men and women have the same rights and responsibilities during marriage, at its dissolution, and with regard to guardianship of children.

The Special Marriage Law is part of a package of four so-called Race and Religion Protection Laws urged on Burma’s lawmakers by the increasingly powerful and influential Association of the Protection of Race and Religion, known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha. Ma Ba Tha is a nationwide collective of senior Buddhist abbots and influential monks, many of whom frequently denounce Burma’s Muslim minorities, especially stateless Rohingya Muslims. Ma Ba Tha first proposed a draft marriage bill in 2013. The government released a version in late 2014 that was drafted by the Supreme Court, but it had only minor changes from the original Ma Ba Tha draft.

All four bills raise serious human rights concerns. The Population Control Law, which was signed into law in May 2015, empowers authorities to limit the number of children members of any designated group can have, opening the possibility of discriminatory actions against religious or ethnic minorities. The two remaining draft laws – on religious conversion and monogamy – are still being debated in the parliament.

The United Nations and Burma’s major aid donors such as the United States and the European Union have sharply criticized the four bills. The EU stated on July 8 that the Special Marriage Bill “appears not to respect international human rights standards and to run counter to Myanmar’s [Burma’s] own human rights treaty obligations.”

“The parliament and president shouldn’t pander to extremists but rather reject any proposed law that will further divide Burma’s communities,” Robertson said. “As the November 8 national election looms, enacting laws that embolden those who thrive on discrimination and communal violence is a dangerous development.”