Rights Groups Say Interfaith Marriage Bill Is an Unnecessary Distraction

By Lawi Weng 6 May 2014

RANGOON — More than 90 NGOs in Burma have condemned the drafting of a bill to restrict interfaith marriage, saying the bill is an attempt to distract the public from critical issues ahead of the next general election.

If passed, the bill, which the country’s highest court will finish drafting this month, would require Buddhist women to seek permission from authorities before marrying outside their faith. It has been promoted as a way to deter conversion to Islam in the Buddhist majority country.

“We believe that current faith-based political activities, including the arguments against interfaith marriage currently taking place in the country, are not in accordance with the objectives of the peaceful coexistence of all faiths and the prevention of extreme violence and conflict, but are instead events and ideas designed to distract the public before the 2015 election,” the 97 NGOs, including prominent women’s rights groups and ethnic peace groups, said in a statement on Monday.

“We view these events as delaying the momentum of transition to democracy, and as a hindrance to national peace processes and the Constitutional amendments desired by [Burma’s] people.”

They said an interfaith marriage law would place restrictions on women by preventing them from freely making decisions about a matter that affects their daily lives.

“We do not see this as a law that will protect women’s rights,” Thin Thing Aung, a member of the Women’s League of Burma, told The Irrawaddy. “Our women need a law that is not based on religion and which says they can marry whomever they want.”

Aung Myo Min, director of Equality Myanmar, said it would be better to educate women, to ensure they are well informed when presented with the option of religious conversion. “Men should not be writing laws that toy with women’s lives,” he said.

He added that if the bill was passed it could fuel religious conflict in a country that has seen several outbreaks of religious violence over the past year between Buddhists and Muslims. He accused the government of allowing and even perpetuating religious conflict as a method of turning attention away from democracy building.

“We have doubts about their motives,” he told The Irrawaddy.

The High Court started drafting the interfaith marriage bill at the recommendation of nationalist Buddhist monks. It is part of a package of four bills: the other three would ban polygamy, enact population control measures and restrict religious conversion.

The monks collected more than 1 million signatures to back the proposed laws. Proponents have said a population control law is necessary to prevent the Muslim population from growing.

Wirathu, a leader of this monk-led movement, said the bills would not detract from democracy efforts and should be enacted to prevent religious violence.

“The government should work on all things at once that are needed for the country,” he told The Irrawaddy. “I do not think the government is hindering the peace process or constitutional amendments by drafting religious laws. The government has formed different committees that are working on different issues.

“There will be no problem if women desire to convert to another religion. We are drafting this law to protect women against being forced to convert. We will help them.”

The drafting of all four bills is expected to be completed this month. The Ministry of Religious Affairs, which is drafting the religious conversion bill, will invite the public to offer feedback, according to Maung Maung Htay, the deputy minister of religious affairs.

Rather than drafting the interfaith marriage bill, the NGOs called on the government to draft a law that would require people to be older than a certain age before marrying. They also urged the legislature to pass a law to prevent violence against women.

“Only when women are able to make decisions on their own that enable them to lead strong, healthy and successful lives, will the country realize genuine development,” the groups said in the statement.