Friday, August 18, 2017

Marriage law nears parliament approval

Parliament has moved a step closer to approving a law that would regulate the marriage of Buddhist women to non-Buddhist men. The bill is the second in a controversial package of four laws drafted by Buddhist nationalists with the aim to “protect race and religion”.

Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann told parliament yesterday that MPs had until July 2 to register their names to debate the Myanmar Buddhist Women Special Marriage Bill in a session of the combined houses at a date yet to be announced. The Pyidaungsu Hluttaw will decide on differences in the versions already approved by the lower and upper houses.

International organisations, foreign governments and more than 100 Myanmar civil society associations have called on the government to either drop or significantly amend the package of legislation, which they fear will entrench already widespread gender and religious discrimination and risk fuelling further violence against religious minorities.

The Health Care for Population Control Law, widely seen as targeting the Muslim minority, was approved by parliament and signed into law by President U Thein Sein in May.

The draft marriage bill would govern unions between Buddhist women and men of other faiths. Under its provisions, interfaith couples would need to apply to local authorities, gain the approval of the woman’s parents if she is under age 20 and post a public notice announcing the engagement.

The marriage could only then take place if no objections were raised. Non-Buddhist men who violate the law would face up to three years’ imprisonment, a K50,000 fine and mandatory divorce, and would forfeit their share of any property and guardianship of children born through the illegal union.

The bill, written and submitted by the Supreme Court of the Union, was sent to the upper house on March 13 after debate in the lower house. The upper house made amendments and returned it to the lower house on May 27.

Eleven differences remain between the two versions of the bill, according to U Thein Tun Oo of the Joint Bill Committee, which set out its recommendations in parliament yesterday.

The main difference, he said, related to the decision of the lower house to follow the text of the original bill when resolving disputes related to marriage, divorce, inheritance and custody of children between Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men. The upper house, however, sought to combine customary Myanmar law in resolving disputes.

In another difference between the two versions, the committee backed the lower house, which amended the law so that a non-Buddhist man must allow his Buddhist wife to worship Buddhism and keep in their house “Buddhist images, photos of Buddhist image, photos of pagodas, photos of Buddhist monks and accessories related to Buddhism”.

Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists wrote in March that the inter-faith marriage bill “blatantly discriminates on both religious and gender grounds, and feeds into widespread stereotypes that Buddhist women are ‘vulnerable’ and that their non-Buddhist husbands will seek to forcibly convert them”.

Two other laws before parliament, also drafted by Buddhist monks from the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, regulate religious conversion and outlaw polygamy.

Translation by Thiri Min Htun