Myanmar moves to ban interfaith marriage

Human rights campaigners in Myanmar are concerned a proposed ban on interfaith marriages will the exacerbate existing tensions.

(Transcript from World News Radio)

In Myanmar, also known as Burma, a proposal to impose strict restrictions on interfaith marriage has been met with barely a murmur from the public.

The campaign to ban interfaith marriage has been spearheaded by ultra-nationalistic Buddhist monks.

Under the proposed "national race protection law", a non-Buddhist man wanting to marry a Buddhist woman would first have to obtain legal permission from her parents and local police officials.

Human rights campaigners are concerned the law will only exacerbate existing interfaith tensions in Myanmar, especially between Muslim and Buddhist communities.

From the former capital city Yangon, Manny Maung reports:

Myanmar's culture is deeply intertwined with its dominant faith, Buddhism.

Some estimates claim 90 per cent of the population is Buddhist, the rest being made up of Muslim, Christian, Hindu and other faiths such as animism.

Draft legislation to ban interfaith marriage was first introduced by the controversial monk, U Wirathu, in June last year.

U Wirathu is the religious leader responsible for starting the ultra-nationalist 969 movement, a group that says it wants to protect the Buddhist identity of Myanmar.

Support of the draft law has grown, with almost three-million signatures collected in favour of banning interfaith marriage.

It's even been recommended by Myanmar president, Thein Sein, to be considered in parliament.

But women's rights campaigner, Zin Mar Win, says supporters don't understand the full ramifications of such a bill.

She believes information provided to the public has been carefully selected to hide what she regards as sinister aspects.

"(Starts in Burmese, then in English): The thing is that the people who are promoting this law are the elders and reglious leaders. Even the president has given his support now. So people are becoming afraid of becoming involved now. Fear is building as the campaigns are gaining momentum."

Zin Mar Win says what's most disturbing about the law is that it deliberately reduces women's right to freedom of choice and targets minority groups who aren't Buddhist.

And she's concerned that not enough women are aware of what's being decided.

A non-Buddhist man wanting to marry a Buddhist woman would be required to first acquire legal approval from the woman's parents, then apply for permission at the local township authorities, and then also convert his faith.

Failure to go through this process would mean he could face ten years' imprisonment.

"(Starts in Burmese, then in English): The stuff about being able to arrest the man is nonsense. You convert your faith because of your beliefs and you marry because you choose someone and fall in love with them. They are restricting freedom of choice."

Zin Mar Win is one of few members of the public who've been given access to read the proposed bill.

And she says from what she's read of the draft, there is no way she can support it.

"(Starts in Burmese, then in English): If this passes, we are going to see more problems. As we see more conflict, I think this just gives excuses for the military to remain having power in the country for longer and for the autocracy to continue."

Upper House MP, Daw Khin Wine Kyi of the National Democratic Force party supports the bill

She says it does not restrict women's rights but merely protects them.

"(Starts in Burmese, then in English): Every country has their own laws that are relevant to their specific country. If there were 200 other countries and laws regarding women to compare to in the world, Myanmar doesn't have a history of purposely blocking or restricting women's rights. There are few laws that touch on women's issues, if any."

Daw Khin Wine Kyi doesn't agree that the law could limit women's choices.

She says the draft proposal will be redrafted and fine-tuned to support the existing 1954 Marriage Act.

And Daw Khine Wine Kyi dismisses the potential for a non-Buddhist man to be sentenced to ten years' imprisonment for marrying a Buddhist woman.

"(Starts in Burmese, then in English): Of course you can marry who you end up falling in love with. We're not saying you can't. You can marry into Islam, or a Hindu or a Christian but within our own rules and laws that have been enstated."

Ma San Shwe, who works in communications and PR, opposes the proposed ban on interfaith marriage.

She believes the proposal is part of government attempts to protect Myanmar's national identity as it opens up to the rest of the world.

"From a religious point of view, they have no idea how to promote their own religion or culture to prevent women from marrying into different religions⦠so they come up with this solution which is totally wrong."

Ma San Shwe believes if the details were more widely known, there would be more opposition to the draft law, especially from the women who it affects.

"So you're making your own daughters stupid! Can anybody protest or make noise?"

It's unclear whether the public will even see the details of the bill before it's redrafted by the ministries now responsible.

The bill is expected to be finalised by June, to be put to parliament for approval.

 

Source: World News Australia

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