Myanmar: Scrap ‘race and religion laws’ that could fuel discrimination and violence

Myanmar’s parliament must reject or extensively revise a series of proposed laws that would entrench already widespread discrimination and risk fuelling further violence against religious minorities, Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said today.

A package of four laws described as aimed to “protect race and religion” – currently being debated in parliament – include provisions that are deeply discriminatory on religious and gender grounds. They would force people to seek government approval to convert to a different religion or adopt a new religion and impose a series of discriminatory obligations on non-Buddhist men who marry Buddhist women.

Myanmar’s Parliament must reject these grossly discriminatory laws which should never have been tabled in the first place. They play into harmful stereotypes about women and minorities, in particular Muslims, which are often propagated by extremist nationalist groups.
Richard Bennett, Amnesty International's Asia Pacific Director

“If these drafts become law, they would not only give the state free rein to further discriminate against women and minorities, but could also ignite further ethnic violence.”

The draft laws have been tabled at a time of a disturbing rise in ethnic and religious tensions, as well as ongoing systematic discrimination against women, in Myanmar. In this context, where minority groups – and in particular the Rohingya – face severe discrimination in law, policy and practice, the draft laws could be interpreted to target women and specific communities identified on a discriminatory basis.

“The passage of these laws would not only jeopardize the ability of ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar to exercise their rights, it could be interpreted as signalling government acquiescence, or even assent, to discriminatory actions,” said Sam Zarifi, ICJ’s Asia Director. “The introduction of these discriminatory bills is distracting from the many serious political and economic issues facing Myanmar today.”

Of the four draft laws, two – the Religious Conversion Bill and the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill – are inherently flawed and should be rejected completely. The remaining two – the Monogamy Bill and the Population Control Healthcare Bill – need serious revision and the inclusion of adequate safeguards against all forms of discrimination before being considered, let alone adopted.

These bills do not accord with international human rights law and standards, including Myanmar’s legal obligations as a state party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Amnesty International and the ICJ have conducted a legal analysis of the four laws and have found that:

  • The Religious Conversion Bill stipulates that anyone who wants to convert to a different faith will have to apply through a state-governed body, in clear violation of the right to choose one’s own religion. It would establish local “Registration Boards”, made up of government officials and community members who would “approve” applications for conversion. It is unclear whether and how the bill applies to non-citizens, in particular the Rohingya minority, who are denied citizenship in Myanmar. Given the alarming rise of religious tensions in Myanmar, authorities could abuse this law and further harass minorities

  • The Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill explicitly and exclusively targets and regulates the marriage of Buddhist women with men from another religion. It blatantly discriminates on both religious and gender grounds, and feeds into widespread stereotypes that Buddhist women are “vulnerable” and that their non-Buddhist husbands will seek to forcibly convert them. The bill discriminates against Buddhist women as well as against non-Buddhist men who face significantly more burdens than Buddhist men should they marry a Buddhist woman.

  • The Population Control Healthcare Bill – ostensibly aimed at improving living standards among poor communities – lacks human rights safeguards. The bill establishes a 36-month “birth spacing” interval for women between child births, though it is unclear whether or how women who violate the law would be punished. The lack of essential safeguards to protect women who have children more frequently potentially creates an environment that could lead to forced reproductive control methods, such as coerced contraception, forced sterilization or abortion.

  • The Monogamy Bill introduces new provisions that could constitute arbitrary interference with one’s privacy and family – including by criminalizing extra-marital relations – instead of clarifying or consolidating existing marriage and family laws.

An extensive legal analysis of the laws by Amnesty International and the ICJ can be found here:

https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa16/1107/2015/en/