Burma’s Buddhist women subjected to discriminatory marriage law

By Isma Hassaine-Poirier, Staff Writer


Photo credit : The Irrawaddy.

Photo credit : The Irrawaddy.

While the sensitive climate is settling down in Burma thanks to the upcoming general elections in November, the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill was adopted by Burma’s parliament with a majority of 524 to 44 (and eight abstentions) on 8 July  this year. It imperils Buddhist women’s right to marry freely outside their religion, by imposing restrictions on their union. The bill, now awaiting President Thein Sein’s signature, is one of four in a package entitled the “Race and Religion Protection Bills”.

The Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill primarily concerns Buddhist women and non-Buddhists men they wish to marry by encroaching their fundamental rights. It obliges women to register with the government if they plan on marrying non-Buddhist men. This law will also allow the local community to publicly display the couple’s intention to marry for 14 days, a period during which anyone may express their objections regarding this union. If there is any objection, the matter will be handed over to the local court. It remains unclear, of what nature these possible objections may be. 

This discriminatory interfaith marriage law obscurely determinates anti-buddhist acts as a justification for divorce, forfeiture of custody, matrimonial property and possible criminal penalties such as prison terms of 2 to 4 years. For example, ‘committing deliberate and malicious acts such as writing or speaking or behaving or gesturing with intent to outrage feelings of Buddhists’ can be construed as violations and therefore used as a reason for divorce. In this case, the non-Buddhist husband will be constrained to give up his part of any jointly owned property, custody of his children and owe his wife compensation. He also must respect the free practice of his wife’s religion.

As the law is retroactive, existing interfaith marriages will be required to register as such. Any member of an ethno-religious minority who married a Buddhist woman is asked to draw a separation line with his original family and all his property upon his death will go to his Buddhist wife and children.

The first law of the package to be introduced, the Population Control Healthcare Bill, was signed into law last May and allows the Burmese authorities to place a cap on the number of children in any designated community. It also requires women to observe a period of at least 36 months between two children. The other two bills, related to monogamy and religious conversions, are still being debated in parliament.

This new legislative arsenal falls within the context of an aggressive campaign fueled by the nationalist and anti-Muslim Buddhist extremist lobby group Ma Ba Tha -  which stands for Amyo-Barthar-Thar-tha-nar, meaning the ideas of nation, language and religion. Even though the real goal for Ma Ba Tha is  to target ethno-religious minorities and drastically limit their rights, this set of laws discriminates against Buddhist women and uses them as a tool in anti-Muslim strategy.

This bill, and the other three constituting the Race and Religion Protection package, istransgressing Burma’s obligations under international law. The CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women), ratified by Burma in July 1997, calls governments “to eliminate discrimination against women in all matter relating to marriage and family relations”. Not only does Burma fail to respect the CEDAW, it also significantly endangers the country’s transition toward open democracy and national reconciliation.

In a statement issued on the 8 July, the EU stated that the special marriage bill “appears not to respect international human rights standard and to run counter to Myanmar’s (Burma’s) own human rights treaty obligations”. The United Nations and Burma’s major donors, like the United States, have also raised concerns regarding the Race and Religion Protection Bill. Human rights groups strongly criticized the bill, claiming it to be a new attempt to marginalize the community of the Rohingya Muslims.