Marriage laws spark rights fears

Under the cloak of religion, the nationalist 969 movement is fuelling anti-Muslim resentment across the country

On the main roundabout in the centre of Yangon, three houses of religious worship sit next to each other: a pagoda, a church and a mosque. But this cosy picture of religious tolerance is deceiving.

Ashin Wirathu, the Buddhist monk leading the 969 movement now internationally infamous for spreading anti-Muslim hate speech, has called for laws to restrict interfaith marriages.

“We must protect Buddhist women from Muslim men, who lie to them, force them to convert and do not allow them to practice their religion freely,” he said recently.

Now the idea is being seriously considered by the Myanmar government.

The Myanmar High Court drafted the interfaith marriage bill after receiving a petition from Ashin Wirathu and a group of nationalist Buddhist monks. It is one of four connected bills. The others ban polygamy, introduce population control measures and restrict religious conversion.

Ashin Wirathu and his followers set out to collect signatures in support of their law and claim that about three million people signed a petition in favour of the proposed laws. Allegations were made, however, that signatures were forcefully collected. The Wall Street Journal reported that the public was not informed of the content of the laws, and told only to sign the petition to show that “they support Buddhism”.

The draft law proposed by the monks would require that any women who wants to marry a Muslim man needs permission from her parents and a local official, and the man would have to convert to Buddhism. If the man does not comply with these rules, and the marriage goes ahead, he could be convicted to 10 years in prison.

Proponents of the new laws also claim that a population control law is necessary to prevent the growth of the Muslim population in Myanmar.

POLITICAL CAUTION

The draft law has faced heavy criticism from national and international groups.

“The proposed law is a deliberate attempt to crush religious freedom for Myanmar’s minorities … but in denying Muslims and other religious minorities the right to marry as they please, the bill would also seriously infringe upon the rights of Buddhist women,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported.

In February, President Thein Sein asked parliament to discuss the interfaith marriage law and the three other controversial laws.

Speculation is rife as to why the president personally supported the discussion of the laws in parliament. Observers have said that his decision may have been based on a fear of losing votes in the upcoming election or being portrayed as a supporter of Islam. Some see it as clear presidential support for the laws.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has spoken out against the laws. She told Radio Free Asia that they are “a violation of women’s rights and human rights”. The laws are also unlikely to reduce tensions between the country’s Buddhist and Muslim populations.

Sectarian tensions have been rising in Myanmar during the past two years, resulting in a series of violent anti-Muslim confrontations. The most infamous, the 2012 riots in Rakhine state, resulted in at least 140,000 people — the majority of them Rohingya — being displaced, and left some 200 people dead.

Clashes in Meiktila last March left at least 40 dead, including 32 teenage students and four teachers, and more than 60 injured. As recently as October, the coastal town of Thandwe saw riots that resulted in nine deaths.

These conflicts coincided with the rise of the 969 movement, led by Ashin Wirathu. Many hold the movement responsible for inciting violence between the country’s Buddhist and Muslim groups.

After initial fears of retribution from the 969 movement for speaking out against the laws, more people are now voicing their concerns. People of all faiths are concerned about the impact the proposed laws could have on the already volatile situation in the country.

More than 100 civic groups released a joint statement earlier this month in which they outlined their arguments against the draft laws. It said that “current faith-based political activities … are not in accordance with the objectives of the peaceful coexistence of all faiths and the prevention of extreme violence and conflict”.

The statement went on to say that “because of potential unwanted consequences, great political caution should be taken”.

PROTECTING WOMEN

The main arguments laid out in the statement by the civic groups, most of which are working to protect women’s rights and promote equality, are that “the proposed [interfaith marriage] law is based on discriminatory beliefs that women are generally physically and mentally weaker than men, and therefore need to be supervised and protected. This denies women the inherent rights of freedom of survival and freedom of choice.”

The organisations added that the law does not comply with the UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to which Myanmar acceded in 1997.

In response, the 969 movement released a statement in which they accused the civic groups of being “traitors”, Myanmar media reported. The movement criticised the groups for raising human rights issues, not working in the interest of the public and being disloyal to the state, the Irrawaddy reported.

But women in Myanmar are divided by the proposed laws and even though many women spoke out against them, many others have lent their support.

“It is not discrimination. In Myanmar it is the custom that we give priority to men. This is not gender inequality, but our mindset,” said a senior staff member from the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation, an organisation to promote the welfare and advancement of women under the patronage of Khin Khin Win, the wife of President Thein Sein. “For example, with worshipping we don’t say it is discrimination when men can go places for worship that women cannot, we don’t say we are discriminated against. It is our belief. Of course in the workplace we compete with men, but not in the family.”

The non-discrimination laid down in Section 348 of the 2008 constitution, however, does not distinguish between public and private spheres. It states instead that “the Union shall not discriminate against any citizen of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex and wealth”.

Wai Wai Nu, a women’s rights activist, believes Myanmar women do not need this law to protect them.

“This is degrading to women’s mental abilities and it is insulting women’s dignity,” she said.

May Sabe Phyu, senior coordinator of the Gender Equality Network, believes the protection of women is not the motivation behind the interfaith marriage law. “This issue is totally political, they are politicising this issue using women,” she said.

HRW has also spoken out against the law, stating that Myanmar already has a law to protect women in inter-religious marriages, the 1954 Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage and Succession Act.

“Under this law, when a Buddhist woman marries a non-Buddhist man, all rights and disputes regarding the marriage are governed by Burmese customary law, which also governs Buddhist marriages.

"The proposed new law, if enacted, will suspend the application of the 1954 law and simply prescribe conversion to Buddhism,” HRW said.

THE CONSTITUTION

The president was heavily criticised when he asked parliament to consider the new laws earlier this year, but according to Andrew McLeod, lecturer in law at the Oxford University, this decision was not necessarily wrong.

“If four million people petition their government, referring the issue to an official body for serious consideration would be an ordinary course of action. Governments giving consideration to popular concerns is in the nature of democracy,” he said.

For example, in the UK, online petitions that receive 100,000 signatures will be considered for debate in parliament. In the US, the Obama administration promises that any online petition that has 5,000 signatures attached to it will be sent to the “appropriate policymakers”.

Various organisations have referred to different parts of the constitution to make their case against the marriage law, mainly focusing on the rights of women and freedom of religion. If the law ever makes it to the Constitutional Tribunal, however, it remains to be seen how strong a case can be made against it.

Regarding religion, the constitution grants citizens freedom of religion, but mentions this freedom is “subject to public order, morality or health”.

“The constitutional argument that the proposed restrictions would invalidly discriminate against women is stronger than one based on freedom of religion,” Mr McLeod said.

Women’s rights are protected under Section 348 of the constitution which, prohibits gender-based discrimination.

“The legal question will probably be the dominant purpose of the law,” Mr McLeod said. “Prohibiting all marriages between Buddhists and Muslims would most likely be unconstitutional, but the position of less stringent restrictions is more murky.”

It is difficult to predict how the tribunal will make its decision, should the interfaith marriage law be referred to it, said Mr McLeod. “There have only been six rulings of the Constitutional Tribunal and all of these were given prior to the 2012 resignations. The current members of the tribunal are yet to issue a decision.”

In 2012, all members of the tribunal resigned before being impeached by the members of parliament for failing to discharge its duties.

WAITING FOR THE DRAFT BILL

The Myanmar Times reported in April that the member of the commission set up to draft the laws said they would be made public in May, but no exact date was given.

Until then, the content of the laws remains speculation.

“Much of the commentary about the constitutionality of the bill is premature because we don’t know its terms,” Mr McLeod said.

The statement released by the Myanmar civic groups warned that the draft law is a distraction from more important issues, such as amendments to the 2008 constitution and peace negotiations with non-state armed groups.

Increasing action is being taking by the opposition to amend the 2008 constitution before next year’s elections to allow Mrs Suu Kyi to run for the presidency, and activists are concerned that nationalist politics will be used to divert attention away from this issue.

Peace negotiations with armed groups are also said to be of lower priority to the government at the moment, and fighting continues in Myanmar’s Kachin state. In other ethnic regions bouts of violence have also been reported, despite the many ceasefires that have been signed between the various armed groups.

“Looks like there are many agendas behind this [the interfaith marriage law]. Maybe to prepare for the 2015 elections, or to divide and rule, or to discriminate against particular groups,” said Wai Wai Nu, the women’s rights activist.

“Why do we need this law in this transition period? Why didn’t we need it in the past? Why now?”

About the author

Writer: Yola Verbruggen