Global advocacy group Human Rights Watch has slammed as "discriminatory" a proposed Myanmar law restricting interfaith marriage, warning it would deepen sectarian divides in the Buddhist-majority country as well as threaten religious freedom and women’s rights.
The U.S.-based group called on Myanmar’s President Thein Sein and parliament to reject the proposed Provisions on Marriage Act for Buddhist Women, which according to the group is currently under consideration by lawmakers and the government.
Under the proposed law, submitted by a coalition of Buddhist monks and laypersons in a bid to “preserve the national race and religion,” Buddhist women would only be allowed to marry Buddhist men, according to a copy seen by HRW.
The law would also require those of other faiths to convert before marrying a Buddhist and seek written consent from brides' parents, according to the group.
HRW's Asia director Brad Adams warned that the proposed law would intensify sectarian rifts in Myanmar, where at least 250 people have died in several bouts of religious violence since 2012, many of them ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims.
“In ethnically and culturally diverse Burma, government leaders are playing with fire by even considering proposals that would further divide the country by restricting marriage on religious lines,” he said, using the previous name for Myanmar.
“Donors and development partners who care about progress towards human rights and democracy in Burma should demand the government end its contemplation of this shocking law.”
Request from Thein Sein
The proposed law is one of four pieces of legislation submitted by Buddhist monks that Thein Sein last month recommended parliament consider—alongside legislation banning polygamy, restricting religious conversion, and imposing population-control regulations.
Thein Sein had asked parliament to consider legislation in those areas after receiving a petition in July from the Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Belief—a group of senior monks who support the 969 Movement, which claims the country’s minority Muslims are threatening the Buddhist majority.
After receiving Thein Sein’s request, Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann said the onus was on the government to draft and propose the laws to the legislature.
'Major reversal' for rights
Under the proposed interfaith marriage law, any non-Buddhists who seek to marry a Buddhist in violation of the law could face up to 10 years in prison and have their property confiscated, according to HRW.
It would also require men intending to marry to obtain written approval in advance from the bride’s parents or legal guardian before a wedding can proceed, while men would not need the approval of their parents to marry.
HRW said the law would be “seriously jeopardizing women’s autonomous decision making and their freedom to start a family of their choice.”
Adams slammed the proposed law as a “major reversal for religious freedom and women’s rights.”
“It is shocking that Burma is considering enshrining blatant discrimination at the heart of Burmese family law,” he said.
The petition from the Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Belief the proposed law is based on has reportedly garnered more than 1 million signatures from people across Myanmar.
Rights groups have accused Buddhists linked to the 969 Movement—led by monk Wirathu, who has called on Buddhists to boycott Muslim-owned shops and businesses—of stoking sectarian tensions in the country by spouting hate speech and inflaming mob violence in the country.
The movement has enjoyed growing support at both the grass-roots and in the government, with supporters claiming it is intended solely for the protection of Buddhism and not as an anti-Muslim crusade.