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Burma: Four “Race and Religion Protection Laws” Adopted

(Sept. 14, 2015) Four laws known collectively as the Race and Religion Protection Laws, which were submitted to the Parliament of Burma (Myanmar) in December 2014, were adopted this spring by the Parliament and recently signed by Thein Sein, Burma’s President. (Myanmar: Parliament Must Reject Discriminatory ‘Race and Religion’ Laws, Amnesty International website (Mar. 3, 2015).)

The Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, or Ma Ba Tha, which is led by Buddhist monks, supported the adoption of the four laws.” (Id.; Hnin Yadana Zaw, Myanmar’s President Signs Off on Law Seen as Targeting Muslims, REUTERS (Aug. 31, 2015).) By contrast, in the view of Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, the laws “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.” (Hnin Yadana Zaw, supra; for an analysis of the four draft laws, see, for example, Myanmar: Parliament Must Reject Discriminatory ‘Race and Religion’ Laws, supra.)

Monogamy Law

Thein Sein signed into law on August 31 monogamy legislation that was adopted by the country’s Parliament on August 21. (Hnin Yadana Zaw, Myanmar’s President Signs Off on Law Seen as Targeting Muslims, REUTERS (Aug. 31, 2015).) The legislation makes it a criminal offense to have more than one spouse or to live with an unmarried partner who is not a spouse. An estimated five percent of Burma’s population is Muslim, and some members of this group reportedly practice polygamy, but the government has denied that the new law targeted Muslims. (Id.)

According to a draft, unofficial English text of the legislation, the Monogamy Law as proposed concerned “all those who are living in Myanmar, Myanmar citizens who live outside of Myanmar, and foreigners who marry Myanmar citizens while living in Myanmar.” (Monogamy Bill (2014), art. 2, ONLINE BURMA/MYANMAR LIBRARY.) The draft states that after the law enters into force, “any marriage between a man and a woman in accordance with any law or any religion or any custom shall be legitimate only if monogamous.” (Id. art. 5.)

One of the provisions in Chapter 3 of the draft law, on “Prohibition on Extramarital Affairs,” prescribes that “any man or woman who is already married with one spouse or more than one spouse in accordance with a law or a religion or a custom, shall not enter, while the original union is still legally recognized, into another marriage with another person or conduct an illegal extramarital affair.” (Id. art. 9.) The same prohibition applies to “any man or woman who is already married in accordance with a law or a religion or a custom.” (Id. art. 10.) Anyone who, while still part of a legally recognized original union, enters into another marriage in contravention of article 9 or 10, will “be deemed to commit the act of polygamy or conjugal infidelity under section 494 of the Penal Code.” (Id. art. 16.)

Religious Conversion Law and Interfaith Marriage Law

On August 26, according to Zaw Htay, a senior official with the President’s office, Thein Sein signed into law two other items of legislation, one on religious conversion and the other on interfaith marriage. (Hnin Yadana Zaw, supra; Emelina Perez, Myanmar President Signs Final Religious Protection Law, PAPER CHASE (Aug. 31, 2015).)

The Religious Conversion Law requires that a Myanmar citizen who wishes to change his/her religion must obtain approval from a newly established Registration Board for religious conversion, set up in townships. The person must also undergo an interview and engage in religious study for a period not to exceed 90 days from the date of application, but extendable to 180 days at the applicant’s request. If after that period the applicant still wishes to convert, the Registration Board will issue a certificate of religious conversion. (Draft Religious Conversion Law (2014), art. 7, ONLINE BURMA/MYANMAR LIBRARY.) The law prescribes punishments for forced conversion or for applying to convert with the intention of harming a religion. Chapter 6 of the Religious Conversion Law includes penalties for violating its various provisions. (Id. Ch. 6.)

The Myanmar Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law regulates the marriages of Buddhist women to non-Buddhist men. If the woman is under 20 years of age, she must have parental consent. The law allows local registrars to publicly post marriage applications for 14 days, to determine whether there are any objections to the proposed unions. A couple may get married only if there are no objections; if there are objections, the issue can be taken to court. (Myanmar President Signs Two Controversial Religion Bills, DPA -INTERNATIONAL (Aug. 29, 2015); The Myanmar Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law (Draft) (2014), ONLINE BURMA/MYANMAR LIBRARY.)

Population Control Law

A fourth law, on population control, which was signed by the President in May, imposes on women in certain regions the requirement to space the birth of their children 36 months apart. (Perez, supra.) The draft Population Control Law as adopted by the Union Parliament on April 27, 2015, provides that governments of divisions and states have the authority “to request a presidential order limiting reproductive rates if it is determined that population growth, accelerating birth rates, or rising infant or maternal mortality rates are negatively impacting regional development,” or that there exists an “imbalance between population and resources, low socio-economic indicators and regional food insufficiency because of internal migration.” (Nobel Zaw, Union Parliament Passes Population Control Bill, THE IRRAWADDY (Apr. 27, 2015).)

Under the abovementioned circumstances, the regional government is to work with “experts” (not defined in the law) to make the determination, and “[i]f the president approves the request, a ‘special region’ is designated, triggering the law’s provisions, including the birth spacing restriction and the formation of a ‘delivery services body’ to administer health care in coordination with the Ministry of Health.” (Id.) The designation of an area as a special region can be repealed if found to be no longer needed. (Id.)