Parliament Considers Bill to Criminalize Polygamy, Infidelity

By Nobel Zaw 5 December 2014

RANGOON — The Union Parliament will consider a bill to formalize criminal prohibitions against polygamy and infidelity, mandating hefty jail terms for citizens and foreigners who take more than one spouse or commit extramarital affairs.

The bill is one of four draft laws under the controversial “protection of race and religion laws” introduced into the parliament this week and scheduled for debate in January 2015. Published on Friday in the state-run Mirror Daily newspaper, the monogamy law as it currently stands would impose a seven-year prison term and a fine for any act of polygamy and infidelity under Section 494 of the Burmese Penal Code.

Any husband or wife found to marry another party while the original union is still legally recognized or conduct an extramarital affair would also forfeit all property rights and grant their partner grounds to seek divorce.

Dr Nyo Nyo Thin, a lawmaker from the Rangoon Division Parliament, has welcomed the draft law.

“I agree with monogamy law…Burma is working towards an international standard, so for that reason I welcome the law,” he said.

The law would apply to all Burmese citizens both within and outside the country, as well as foreigners who marry citizens during their time in Burma.

Lawyer Khin Zaw told Irrawaddy that the law is unclear in parts and does not reconcile with Article 13 of the Burma Laws Act, a colonial-era statute which states that all judicial decisions relating to marriage should be made with respect to the customary law of the religion of the parties concerned.

Presently, the articles of the Penal Code relating to polygamy can potentially be interpreted as only applying to religions which explicitly prohibit polygamy, such as most denominations of Christianity. In Buddhist and Islamic customary law, polygamy is often technically permitted, notwithstanding de facto local taboos.

Cherry Zahau, a human rights activist from Chin State, told The Irrawaddy that any attempts to criminalize polygamy and extramarital affairs would be welcomed, as many women are affected by unfaithful husbands.

However, in light of the large number of laws passed in the life of the current Union Parliament, Cherry Zahau said it would be better to wait for existing laws to establish themselves rather than rushing to pass the monogamy bill next year.

The monogamy bill and the three other bills which comprise the “protection of race and religion laws”, which include new regulations on religious conversion, interfaith marriage and population control, were tabled in parliament last week and have been published in full in Burmese language state-run newspapers and the Ministry of Information website.