RANGOON — Last week, Burmese President Thein Sein put the finishing touches on controversial legislation propagated by a group of nationalist monks, much to the chagrin of the international community that had spent months trying to dissuade the country’s decision makers.
Responses were swift, if perhaps a bit futile. A seldom heard voice on the issue, however, came forward this week as Ko Ni, a prominent lawyer and Muslim member of Burma’s main opposition party, spoke out on his belief that the laws are “ridiculous.”
Speaking to The Irrawaddy in his Rangoon office, Ko Ni described the laws, which create restrictions on interfaith marriage, birth spacing, religious conversion and polygamy, as unnecessary. His party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), did not support the legislation, but he did not specify how lawmakers voted on the bills.
The so-called “race and religion protection bills” were first introduced by the nationalist group Ma Ba Tha, which is widely viewed as anti-Muslim, and were put to Parliament in December of last year. While other bills have stagnated in the chambers, the package had a relatively easy ride, despite objections by the NLD and some ethnic minority lawmakers.
“They are just a handful of people if you compare with the ruling party,” Ko Ni said, referring to the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which risks losing its lion’s share of power after a Nov. 8 general election that is hoped to be the nation’s first free and fair poll in decades.
Controversy over the new laws arose amid what is seen as a moment of rising anti-Muslim sentiment, compounded by the recent disenfranchisement of some hundreds of thousands of stateless Rohingya Muslims residing in western Burma’s Arakan State and what appears to be the deliberate disqualification of several Muslim candidates throughout the country.
The “protection laws,” as they have come to be called, are viewed as a crowning achievement of the anti-Muslim movement; one monk who lobbied for the legislation has even stated on the record that the bills were intended to stop the spread of Islam in Burma by “protecting” Buddhist women from predatory men of various faiths, particularly the Rohingya.
The international community has lambasted the new regulations as counter to reconciliation and possibly in violation of Burma’s human rights commitments, claiming the laws could be used to discriminate against ethnic and religious minorities and impinged upon women’s freedom of faith, family and reproductive rights.
“They are not in accordance with the norms a law should have,” Ko Ni said, expressing concern that recent passage of the laws could cause severe damage to Burma’s reputation at a time when the world is beginning to doubt the sincerity of a reform process that began in 2011, when the former military regime ceded power to a quasi-civilian government.
Not only do the laws run afoul of international norms, he said, but they are also in violation of Burma’s Constitution, a much-maligned charter drafted by the military in 2008. The Religious Conversion Law, for instance, clearly contravenes the religious freedom enshrined in the document.
The law, which requires persons wishing to convert to seek approval from a local registration body, is “ridiculous,” according to Ko Ni.
“It is quite irrational to ask for someone else’s permission to convert to a faith that you believe in,” he said, before barreling into a takedown of the other laws in the package. The Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Act—popularly referred to as the Interfaith Marriage Law, which requires Buddhist women to seek approval to wed a man of a different faith—is particularly problematic, he said.
“The law seems to favor the protection of Buddhist women’s rights. What about women of other faiths? A law should cover everyone, and now it seems to totally neglect women from other religions living in the same country,” Ko Ni said.
Regarding the Population Control Healthcare Law, which was signed in May and allows regional governments to implement a 36-month birth spacing policy, the lawyer said the regulations were “unnecessary” in Burma, where population density is not as high as in neighboring countries.
“For China, it is a must-do,” he said, noting that Burma’s population is only around 51 million people, “but here it is insulting to individual rights, as every family may have their own plan about how many children they would like to have.”
Moreover, he said, the law is “unreasonable” as it contains a legal loophole whereby those wishing to have a child can do so outside of the state or region where the policy has been enacted.
It’s weird that the law came into effect not because of complaints by women, but by monks.”
While the laws cover a range of issues, much criticism within Burma has been aimed at the Monogamy Law, according to Kyee Myint, a leading member of the Burma Lawyers Network. Effectively outlawing polygamy with punitive measures that could imprison offenders for up to seven years, the law conflicts with Burmese customary practice, he said. Kyee Myint argued that customary laws—some of which entitle a man to take multiple wives and grants all of them equal status and inheritance—have been “perfectly fit” to adjudicate disputes in the past.
“It’s weird that the law came into effect not because of complaints by women,” he said, “but by monks.”
International actors have expressed varying levels of “concern” that the laws, which are backed by a nationalist movement viewed as extremist, are intended not to protect women, but rather to further institutionalize discrimination and exacerbate tensions between people of different racial and religious backgrounds. Buddhist monk U Thawpaka, an information officer for the Ma Ba Tha headquarters, dismissed the claim during a televised interview earlier this year, insisting that the legislation is meant to prevent conflicts over what he views as a growing trend toward forced conversions.
“If you look at interfaith marriages, there are some Buddhist women who were forcibly converted to other faiths under threats, leading to conflicts between the two communities,” he said. While the true frequency of coerced conversions remains unclear, U Thawpaka was resolute in his view that “you can see many kinds of that incident today.”
Regardless of Ma Ba Tha’s true intentions, both Ko Ni and Kyee Myint said the USDP may have had its own intentions with regard to the laws, swiftly passing them with relative ease before the upcoming election. The move could have been used to bolster the party’s support among an increasingly conservative electorate.
“It seems the ruling party hoped it would get votes from nationalists, so they would approve of them in Parliament where they hold a majority of seats,” Ko Ni said, adding that it would be possible to amend the laws in future legislative sessions, should an appropriate proposal be submitted.
“Only when lawmakers submit a proposal, because the laws [seem to have been] politically motivated for the interests of one party, can the laws be scrapped,” he said. “After all, laws are made by men.”