Lower House Approves Two ‘Race and Religion’ Bills

By Nobel Zaw 20 March 2015

RANGOON — Burma’s Lower House on Thursday passed two bills that are part of a controversial package of four “Race and Religion Protection” bills, bringing the legislation, which is being pushed by an influential group of nationalist Buddhist monks, closer to becoming law.

Parliamentarians told The Irrawaddy that the house majority approved the Population Control bill, which aims to establish government control over women’s reproductive rights, and the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage bill, which would require Buddhist women to seek permission from local authorities before marrying a man of another faith.

“Approximately 200 votes supported the bills, about 40 votes opposed the bill and 3 abstained,” said Phyo Min Thein, a Lower House member for the National League for Democracy (NLD). He said NLD members, some ethnic party members and several members of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) voted against the bills.

May Win Myint, a Lower House lawmaker with the NLD, said she had suggested amendments to the Population Control bill so that women would have more free choice in their plans to have children, but the majority of lawmakers declined to consider her proposal.

The Upper House last month voted in favor of the Population Control bill and the Religious Conversion bill. The former legislation would mandate a number of administrative hurdles for religious converts.

According to May Win Myint, the Upper House will soon discuss the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage, also known as the Interfaith Marriage Law.

A fourth Race and Religion bill, called the Monogamy bill, would ban polygamy in Burma. This piece of legislation is yet to be discussed by the two houses of Parliament.

The Population Control bill is now scheduled for a joint vote in Union Parliament, after which it could be signed into law by President Thein Sein.

The bill is in the most advanced stage among a package of four bills dubbed the Race and Religion Protection legislation, which the government has been drafting after coming under pressure from an influential group of nationalist Buddhist monks, the Ma Ba Ta, who have been accused of spreading anti-Muslim hate speech and whipping up nationalism.

The government has accepted the bills proposed by the group and Thein Sein sent them to parliamentary bill committees to prepare them for a vote. The government and USDP have been accused of using the bills to play nationalist politics with the Buddhist-majority public during an election year.

The Population Control bill aims to establish government control over women’s reproductive rights and grants authorities the power to identify regions where women will be encouraged to have only one baby every three years. The government has said that new bill would help improve health care services for women in impoverished regions.

Opposition lawmakers and women’s and rights activists say it violates women’s basic rights, while the vaguely-worded legislation would give local authorities broad powers to apply population control measures in areas of ethnic or religious minorities, in particular in Muslim-majority parts of northern Arakan State. The Population Control bill does not include punishments or fines for women who go against its stipulations.

In December, a group of 180 civil society groups voiced their concern over the “Race and Religion Protection” bills.

A brief legal analysis by the groups said the Population Control Bill would violate the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of a Child. The briefing warned that children born not in line with the rules of the bill would be at risk of not being registered by local authorities.

Khin San Ye, a NLD Lower House lawmaker, told The Irrawaddy, said the Population Control bill “violates Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women that [Burma] signed it and it should be not enacted.”