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Myanmar seeks to regulate marriage

Controversial proposal to regulate and restrict inter-faith and inter-ethnic unions under consideration in parliament.
Last modified: 30 Apr 2014 08:16

When we met Winn Naing, he was a little perplexed why we wanted to interview him.

A retired veterinarian, he led a quiet life with his family in the suburbs of Yangon.

But if the Myanmar government has its way, marriages like his - between a Muslim and a Buddhist - may be heavily restricted.

Winn Naing, married his Buddhist wife, Myaing Than, more than 30 years ago. His Muslim father had wanted him to marry within his own faith but eventually relented.

There was, however, some disapproval from his father's friends. Not that it mattered to him.

He said, "at that time, whether she [his wife] was Buddhist or not was not important. The important thing to me was her moral character".

In a way, his marriage was very much like his parents union, also between a Muslim man and a Buddhist woman.

But religion was never an issue.

"We always tried to do things with understanding," he said.

"If she wanted to go to the monastery, I went with her. When I invited imams over to our house to read the Quran, she made preparations for that."

But Myanmar's parliament is considering whether to restrict Buddhist women from marrying outside their religion.

Possible jail term

The draft law was proposed by controversial monk Wirathu last year, who also spearheads the radical Buddhist movement called 969.

An early draft of the bill was circulated last year.

The proposals include making it compulsory for any Buddhist woman to get permission from her parents and local officials before she marries a Muslim man. It also requires men to convert to Buddhism before marriage to a Buddhist.

Anyone who violates the law could be jailed for up to 10 years.

Supporters of the bill said it was necessary to protect Buddhist women.

"The customary laws of other religions are quite strong, stronger than Buddhist laws," said Pamokkha, a Buddhist monk, who teaches at the Kalaywa Tawra Monastery in Yangon.

"We need this bill because there are no legal rules and regulation to protect the rights of Buddhist women."

It's an idea that women’s rights activists find insulting.

"We women have our own rationale to make decisions that affect our daily lives. So nobody, including state, or religious leader, have rights to control a woman’s right to choice," said May Sabe Phyu, Senior Coordinator of the Gender Equality of Network.

Her organisation has been working closely with the government to advance women’s rights. She's angered that the government would choose to champion such a law over their proposals, which focused on giving women better access to education, health and employment opportunities.

Rights concerns

Human rights organisations have also expressed concerns about the bill.

"In ethnically and culturally diverse Burma, government leaders are playing with fire by even considering proposals that would further divide the country by restricting marriage on religious lines," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said.

In the last two years, anti-Muslim sentiment occasionally turned violent, with several clashes that killed more than 200 people and displaced more than 170,000 people.

The Democratic Voice of Burma reported that four houses were burnt in an attack against an inter-faith couple in Pegu Division in April.

A group of people had turned up outside a Buddhist woman's house and demanded that she hand over her Muslim partner, who was visiting her at the time.
 
Still, the bill has gained support. Buddhist monks had collected two million signatures within a month of introducing the bill in late June 2013.

By January 2014, that number had risen to 3 million, they said.

That doesn't deter people like May Sabe Phyu.

"We will take all non-violent measures against this draft bill," she said.

"Even if the draft bill does become law, I want the government to know there were people who fought against it."