HRW: Proposed Marriage Law “Violates Women’s Rights”

International rights group condemns marriage law proposal in Burma’s parliament as violating the rights of women and religious minorities. In an interview with Karen News a human rights advocate warns that the proposed law is a “bluntly racist answer to a paranoid racist agenda.”

Human Rights Watch has said that marriage legislation currently being considered by Burma’s government would “strip Buddhist women of the right to freely choose whom they marry,” HRW said, “Burma’s donors should make it clear that passage of such a discriminatory law will put at risk continued increases in levels of aid and investment.”

The proposed law, entitled ‘The Emergency Provisions on Marriage Act for Burmese Buddhist Women,’ makes it illegal for a Buddhist woman to marry a partner outside of her religion, unless the man converts to Buddhism before marriage.
Violation of the proposed law could lead to a 10-year prison sentence and confiscation of personal property.

David Mathieson, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Burma maintains that the legislation was evidence of an increasingly vocal racist nationalist movement in Burma. Mr Mathieson said in an interview with Karen News said politicians were taking advantage of nationalistic sentiment in the run up to the 2015 national elections.

“It didn’t come out of thin air, but is the predictable next step of an emboldened nationalist movement that has seen little pushback from political and community leaders in Burma to their rising racist agenda. The marriage law, and others, is indicative of a conservative, anti-Muslim, faux-puritanical agenda by nationalists and this has crept into the national assembly where many opportunistic politicians will use it to play the race card ahead of the 2015 elections.”

Mr Mathieson warned that the proposed law could be used against the countries religious or ethnic minorities. “From its gestation its clear the law is aimed overwhelmingly against the Muslim minority of Burma, but it has the potential to be used against other religious or ethnic minorities such as the Chinese or Christians,” David Mathieson added.

When asked whether the marriage law proposal undermined reforms in Burma, Mr Mathieson said he questioned the extent to which reforms were taking root in the once-politically isolated country. “That really depends on what stock one places in the ‘reforms’ so far in the country, which are a mixed bag of real reforms, cynical moves to guarantee military influence, and rank opportunism,” he said.

Mr Mathieson warned that the marriage law could derail Burma’s reform process.
“Where this law does have the potential to retard reform is that it can inflame already tense anti-Muslim sentiment nation-wide, which has come out of Arakan State and its particular anti-Rohingya sentiment and is now virulently anti-South Asian and nationwide. It has the potential to tear the national political debate away from systemic problems such as economic inequality, health and education reform, employment, legal reform and other issues to racist fear mongering. That is the real danger, the derailing of what should be a long-term development and democratizing movement.”

HRW points out that Thein Sein first raised the issue of a marriage law in Burma to ‘preserve race and religion,’ in a February 25 letter to the National Assembly Speaker Thura Shwe Mann.

HRW urged President Thein Sein and National Assembly Speaker Thura Shwe Mann to reject the proposed law. “The proposed marriage law would violate fundamental rights to liberty and religious belief, and prohibitions against discrimination enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” HRW said.

HRW noted that the proposed law contravenes Burma’s own constitution, that in article 348 states that the government should not discriminate any citizen based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex and wealth.
“It is shocking that Burma is considering enshrining blatant discrimination at the heart of Burmese family law,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said, “This law would strip away from women their right to freely decide whom to marry, and would mark a major reversal for religious freedom and women’s rights in Burma.” 

Mr. Adams warned in his media statement that the government’s position on the proposed new laws could further divide the country. “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.”

Mr. Adams called on international donors to pressure the government to ensure the proposed legislation did not become law. “Donors and development partners who care about progress towards human rights and democracy in Burma should demand the government end its contemplation of this shocking law.” 

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