NEWS

Myanmar Passes Buddhist Nationalist-backed Bills into Law

By Craig Lewis
Buddhistdoor Global | 2015-09-01 |
Buddhist monks meet at a Yangon monastery to discuss a law restricting interfaith marriage. From cnn.comBuddhist monks meet at a Yangon monastery to discuss a law restricting interfaith marriage. From cnn.com

Myanmar president Thein Sein on Monday formally signed into law the last of four divisive bills recently enacted, making polygamy illegal in the Buddhist majority country. The government has now passed all four “Laws to Protect Race and Religion” proposed by radical nationalist group the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, also known as Ma Ba Tha, a collective of Buddhist abbots and influential monks.

Under the new law, people found guilty of having more than one spouse or living with someone other than their spouse can face a maximum jail sentence of seven years. The move has been widely condemned by rights groups, which say the new laws are an affront to women’s rights and could be used to target minorities such as Myanmar’s Muslim population. According to the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center, Buddhists make up about 80 per cent of Myanmar’s population, while Muslims account for just 4 per cent, some of whom practice polygamy.

Myanmar president Thein Sein. From dvb.noMyanmar president Thein Sein. From dvb.no

Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of New York-based Human Rights Watch, emphasized that the laws bode ill for Myanmar at a societal level. “They set out the potential for discrimination on religious grounds and pose the possibility for serious communal tension. Now that these laws are on the books, the concern is how they are implemented and enforced,” he said. (Reuters)

Earlier in August, Myanmar’s parliament approved the Religious Conversion Bill, which requires individuals wishing to change religion to seek official approval from a state body that is authorized to question applicants to determine whether the conversion is voluntary or coercive. Amnesty International has described the bill as a violation of the right to choose one’s own religion, and said it was unclear how the law would be applied to non-citizens—in particular the Muslim Rohingya minority, who are denied citizenship. 

Two laws passed earlier in the year restrict interfaith marriage and empower the local authorities to dictate “birth-spacing” requirements. The Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill explicitly regulates the marriage of Buddhist women with men from other religions, while the Population Control Healthcare Bill establishes a 36-month interval between childbirths for women in certain regions of the country.

U Pamaukka, a Buddhist monk and senior member of Ma Ba Tha, on Monday expressed gratitude to Thein Sein and U Wirathu, a prominent monk and a vocal supporter of the laws. He noted that rigorous enforcement would have to follow the passage of the laws to ensure the protection of Buddhist women. “There are many laws in our country, but it is just on paper or otherwise people who have money win the favor of the judiciary. I am worried that the new law might become like this,” he said. (The Irrawaddy)

Muslim Rohingya residents of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, Myanmar. From voamews.comMuslim Rohingya residents of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, Myanmar. From voamews.com

Ma Ba Tha has actively encouraged anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar, accusing Muslims of trying to take over the country. Hundreds of people have been killed in outbreaks of religious violence, while more than 140,000 people in Rakhine State were displaced by riots in 2012, most members of the stateless Rohingya minority.

Legal activist Robert San Aung, however, noted: “Burma is a signatory to the UN [Universal] Declaration of Human Rights, but the new laws do not meet international standards, and could even run afoul of the constitution because the law restricts the right to belief, which the Constitution enumerates as a right.” (The Irrawaddy)

“Burmese monks who love peace and Burmese academics should work together in order to amend this law, but should not allow [input from] monks who rail against other religions,” he said. He observed that ultimately Ma Ba Tha and parliamentarians were attempting to legislate matters over which laws have no power. “Laws cannot stop love. No one can stop it. Our problem is that they are trying to stop love by using the law.” (The Irrawaddy)

See more

Buddhist Nationalists Secure Win as Religion Bills Become Law (The Irrawaddy)
Myanmar President Signs Off on Law Seen as Anti-Muslim (Reuters)
Myanmar president signs final 'religious protection' law (Jurist)
Myanmar: Scrap ‘race and religion laws’ that could fuel discrimination and violence (Amnesty International)
Only Compassion Can Counter Intolerance in Buddhist Societies (Buddhistdoor Global)

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