Nearly 100 Myanmar Groups Slam Move to Restrict Interfaith Marriages

Ninety-seven Myanmar civil society organizations have condemned the drafting of legislation restricting interfaith marriages they say harms women’s rights and ethnic unity, but a monk who spearheaded calls for the measure defended it as necessary to protect Buddhist women.

The proposed Interfaith Marriage Act, expected to be completed this month, would require Buddhist women to seek permission from their parents and the authorities before marrying outside their faith.

The civil society groups, including prominent women’s rights and ethnic rights organizations, issued a statement Monday saying that the drafting of the bill to restrict interfaith marriages “invites international ridicule” for its violation of women’s inherent rights to freedom of choice.

Calls for the legislation, which a coalition of influential Buddhist monks have lobbied for since last year, were “based on discriminatory beliefs” and “not in accordance with the objectives of the peaceful coexistence of all faiths and the prevention of extreme violence and conflict,” they said.

“The drafting of the Interfaith Marriage Act for the reason of preserving race, religion, culture, and traditions does not respect and acknowledge the reasoning abilities of Myanmar Buddhist women to think rationally and make decisions, and instead restricts and obstructs their freedom of choice to make decisions on issues directly concerned with their lives.”

The groups urged Myanmar’s government to abandon drafting the legislation and focus on constitutional amendments and the national peace process instead, warning the proposed Interfaith Marriage Act could be used “for political gain” in campaigns ahead of 2015 general elections.

'Attempt to distract'

“We think the bill is an attempt to distract the public from more critical issues ahead of the general election,” ethnic Kachin rights and women’s rights advocate May Sabae Phyu of the Kachin Peace Network said.

“It goes against women’s rights to live as we want and choose what we want. It is totally opposite from living together peacefully,” she told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

Tun Tun Oo, an activist from a Christian student group, said the bill could “harm ethnic unity.”

“We don’t want this bill because ethnic people could see that they have lost their rights for following a different religion.”

“As most citizens in Myanmar are Buddhist, political parties could take advantage [of the bill to] campaign for votes by saying they would protect Buddhists.”

Buddhist lobby

The interfaith marriage restrictions are part of a package of four bills that a coalition of monks known as the Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Belief asked for in a petition to President Thein Sein in July last year.

The other three would ban polygamy, enact population control measures, and restrict religious conversion.

All four are expected to be completed this month and released to the public, according to local media reports.

Final versions of the bills are to be submitted by June 30 to President Thein Sein, who in March formed committees to draft them.

'No harm'

Tilawka Biwuntha, leader of the Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Belief, rejected rights groups’ complaints about the proposed interfaith marriage restrictions, saying they did not violate women’s rights.

“There is no harm for women in the country in this bill,” he told RFA Tuesday.

Myanmar’s existing laws do not do enough to protect Buddhist women who marry men of other faiths and give preference to other faiths over Buddhism, he said.  

“We have a responsibility to protect our religion and nationality as a citizen,” he said.

“Any citizen, political party, politician, and public leader has a responsibility to protect their religion and nationality,” he said.

Calls for laws aimed at protecting race and religion in Myanmar have gained momentum since violence broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in the Buddhist-majority nation in 2012 following decades under tightly controlled military rule.

The violence has left more than 200 people dead and about 140,000 displaced, mostly Muslims.

Reported by Myo Zaw Ko, Yadanar Oo, and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.