Tag Archive | "Myanmar"


At the Breaking Point: Religious discrimination in Myanmar


Theravada Buddhist civic leaders in Myanmar.

On July 7, 2015, Myanmar’s parliament passed the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill (“Marriage Bill”).  The measure is one of four (one of which has passed and two of which are still pending) that are aimed at protecting race and religion in the country, known as the Protection of Race and Religion Laws.  The Marriage Bill will make it difficult for Buddhist women to marry outside their faith.  There is a fear that if the bill is signed into law, religiously motivated violence will erupt in the country.  And given Myanmar’s past, such fears are not baseless.

The Marriage Bill requires Buddhist women who intend to marry outside their faith to register with the government.  If there are objections to the marriage, the couple can be stopped from marrying.  Some see the measure as a step to repress women.  Especially since President Thein Sein signed into law the Population Control Health Care Bill (“Healthcare Bill”) in May.  Now, some mothers (i.e. poor mothers) are required to wait 36 months between each pregnancy.  According to US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, this legislation could be used to “undermine reproductive rights, women’s rights, and religious freedom.”

But it is the religious freedom aspect that is causing human rights organizations most cause for concern.  This is because the Marriage Bill (as well as the Health Care Bill) is specifically targeted at regulating Rohingya Muslims, the religious minority in the country.  The Marriage Bill is aimed at limiting marriages between Buddhist women and Rohingya Muslim men.  Both laws were drafted due to pressure exerted by extremist Buddhist monks in the country that hold a lot of political sway.  In fact, the passage of the Marriage Bill (and the other three Protection of Race and Religion Laws) is just a continuation of a long line of discriminatory acts by the Myanmar government against the Rohingya.

The systematic discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar began in the early 1990s.  Since then, Rohingya have been denied citizenship, despite the fact that their ancestors have lived within the current Myanmar borders for generations.  The animosity against the Rohingya has been motivated by extremist Buddhist beliefs.  Buddhism is the majority religion in the country.  In 2012, this animosity exploded into violence.  Since then, almost 140,000 Rohingya have been herded into a makeshift, costal camp that they are not allowed to leave.  The conditions in the camp are prompting many residents to flee the country, creating a refugee crisis in the region.  The rest of the Rohingya residents of the country are similarly severely restricted when it comes to travel.  All Rohingya in the country, no matter their location, face severe discrimination.

In light of the historical, and all too recent religious tensions in Myanmar, the passage of the Marriage Bill has human rights organizations concerned.  Some have heralded the law as dangerous and as hate speech against an oppressed minority.  If the bill is signed into law, violence is predicted to erupt.  Others hope that the passage of the Marriage Bill will galvanize the international community to take action before the discrimination against Muslims in Myanmar reaches, or surpasses, the levels seen in 2012.

President Sein, has until July 28, 2015 to sign the bill into law.  As of today, he has not done so.  Myanmar, and the international community, can only wait with baited breath, hoping that the bill is not signed into law.  And if it is, hopefully the international community will exert much needed pressure on the Myanmar government to suppress any religiously motivated violence stemming from its passage.

Allison Derschang is a 2L at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and is a Staff Editor on the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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Buddhist monks in Meiktila, Myanmar

Myanmar religion law restricts conversion and criminalizes adultery

International organizations are outraged over proposed legislation being negotiated in the Myanmar Parliament which would require individuals to obtain government approval before converting to, or adopting, a new religion. Myanmar (Burma) is a primarily Theravada Buddhist nation of 54 million people with a generally poor, but improving, human rights record. President Obama has visited Myanmar twice in recent years, placing an international spotlight on the country as it begins its path to reform. Although Myanmar President Thien Sein has introduced increased governmental transparency, the inaugural elections under the new democratic system upcoming in October are already marred in controversy. Myanmar parliamentarian and famed pro-democracy advocate Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi claimed in November that domestic reforms had stalled.

Burmese Parliament

The Burmese Parliament in Naypyidaw with Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi center. Photo: Reuters, irrawaddy.org

Human Rights Watch reports that the proposed legislation would also prohibit Buddhist women from joining an inter-faith marriage, criminalize extra-marital affairs, and penalize women who have multiple children within a 3-year period. Amnesty International (AI) insists that Parliament reject or revise the laws, which they claim would “risk fueling further violence against religious minorities,” and contribute to the already widespread discrimination against women. The proposed legislation also prescribes discriminatory obligations on non-Buddhist citizens, particularly effecting Muslim minority populations.

Concerns with the proposed legislation focus on four draft bills, which are opposed by AI and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) on the grounds that they violate international law and have dire human rights implications.

  • The Religious Conversion Bill requires anyone who wants to convert to a different faith to apply through a state-governed agency. It establishes “registration boards” who “approve” conversions. It is a clear violation of the ICCPR.
  • The Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill exclusively regulates marriage between Buddhist women and men from other religions. It discriminates against women and non-Buddhist men. It is a violation of CEDAW.
  • The Population Control Healthcare Bill establishes a 36 month “birth-spacing” interval between allowed child births. It does not have a clear enforcement mechanism and could lead to forced reproductive control.
  • The Monogamy Bill is aimed at consolidating existing marriage and family laws, but most notable criminalizes extra-marital relations.
Undocumented Muslim immigrants gather at the Immigration Detention Center during Ramadan

Undocumented Rohingya Muslim immigrants gather at the Immigration Detention Center during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan in Kanchanaburi province, Thailand on July 10, 2013. Photo & Caption Credit: Reuters, HRW.org

Ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar have been subjected to ongoing and systematic discrimination for years. Recent reports from Rakhine state show that discrimination against the ethnically Muslim Rohingya population is pervasive and is only likely to increase if public sentiment generated by the proposed laws encourages the discrimination. Non-Buddhist women in Myanmar are subject to widespread discrimination and the law would increase the potential for legally sanctioned abuse. AI’s Asia-Pacific Director, Richard Bennett, is particularly concerned that the language of the laws plays into the “harmful stereotypes about women and minorities, in particular Muslims, which are often propagated by extremist national groups.”

Racial and religious tensions in the country are rising; heightened by the election and the November 18th arrest of a Burmese ISIS member following an accidental blast in bordering Burdwan, India.

Buddhist monks in Meiktila, Myanmar

Buddhist monks in Meiktila, Myanmar, where violence between Muslims and Buddhists left 43 dead in March 2013. Photo Credit: CNN

Some Buddhists in Myanmar feel the laws are necessary to prevent further violence. Myanmar Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann urged Parliament to pass additional legislation establishing and protecting a national religion. Political activist Monk Ashin Parmouhka told a Democratic Voice of Burma reporter “If you want to see peace and an end to religious and racial conflict in Burma, [the religion legislation] must be adopted. If you want more conflicts and unrest in the country, then don’t adopt the laws.”

While Myanmar is not party to the International Covenant on Cultural and Political Rights, it is a party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). In a joint statement, AI and the ICJ claim the laws are in violation of the country’s existing international treaty obligations. They fear that these draft laws are discriminatory and will result in human rights violations, including the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to privacy, children’s rights and the right to freedom of expression. The legislation is currently tabled in Parliament, no date has been set for a vote.

Jeremy Goldstein is a 2L law student at University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a Staff Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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University of Denver Sturm College of Law